“A journey detained, interned by injustice. What lies before us?” are the words inscribed on one of the panels of the bronze sculpture by artists Eugene Daub and Louis Quaintance standing in the heart of San Jose’s Japantown. A sobering reminder of how things can go so terribly wrong when fear overtakes rational constitutional construct.
San Jose’s Jtown as the locals call it, is 126-years-old and one of only three historically authentic Japantowns remaining in the US, compared to over 40 prior to World War II. The other remaining two are in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Internationally, there are two others, one in Sao Paolo, Brazil – not surprising as Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside Japan – and the other in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Jtown comprises several streets of the northeastern part of San Jose. Originally called Heinlenville, Japanese migrants initially came to the region in the late 1800s seeking agricultural sector employment and settled in the area that was then also home to the region’s Chinatown.
A charming place to stroll, dine and spend time, it is easy to overlook the greater historical context of Jtown and the role it plays in the collective consciousness. To preserve that context, at various intersections around Jtown there are several pieces of impressive dedicated public art with internment camp names, street placards describing various citizens and events and sign posts with the May 23, 1942 Evacuation Notice resulting from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 – forcing “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” from the west coast to be interred in the US interior until the war’s end. One of the most interesting art pieces, on the corner of Jackson and 5th Streets, is the bent pillar Nikkei Lantern signifying the local Japanese successes, WWII, the internment camps and onward to eternal hope.
At Jtown’s Japanese American Museum, in addition to well-curated, informative displays of local history, civic contributions, an internment camp barrack reproduction and a 1941 Model T, there is an excellent section on the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, most of whom hailed from the Hawaiian islands.
One of those young servicemen would be shot in the chest by Germans while serving in France, then shot again in the stomach when serving in Italy. When the young American raised his arm to throw his last grenade, a German soldier fired severing most of the young man’s right arm. This American soldier served another two years following his arm’s amputation and was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor. Daniel K. Inouye also served 50 years in the US Senate chairing the powerful Intelligence Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and ultimately became Senate President Pro Tempore. Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, Honolulu International Airport now bears Inouye’s name.
Many of the Japanese American Museum’s docents were interred following Pearl Harbor’s aftermath and give museum tours. Some also give Jtown walking tours. My museum guide, the charming 83-years-young Roy Matsuzaki, was interred in Arkansas with his family when he was just seven, first at Jerome War Relocation Center, then at Rohwer. Matsuzaki generously shared his families’ unjust and sobering experiences during those long years, remarkably without even a scintilla of resentment.
Jtown is also home to San Jose’s Buddhist Church Betsuin, the local community’s focal point. The Hondo, or main chapel, was completed in 1937 and has been lovingly restored. Its interior is a fascinating combination of western-style church pews and beautiful eastern gold-plated altars with intricately carved art from Japan. One of its leaders, Reverend Gerald Sakamoto, originally from Hawaii, is a brilliant and guiding force with a calm serenity few mortals possess.
There are several interesting shops in Jtown selling all manner of Japanese goods – kimonos, obis, geta, porcelain and lacquer ware. One such store, 110-year-old Nichi Bei Bussan has in the rear a fine repository of old photographs, newspaper clippings and a copy of the US Congressional Record honoring original owner Shojiro Tatsuno’s son Dave Tatsuno for his courageous documentation of internment camp life.
While the Tatsuno family was interred at Arizona’s Topaz Relocation Center with nearly 8,000 others, Dave Tatsuno surreptitiously filmed life inside the camp with a borrowed – and contraband – 8-millimeter camera. The result was a 48-minute haunting film entitled “Topaz.” In 1996 Topaz was lodged in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry along with classics such as Casablanca.
Jtown also has shops like Nikkei Traditions that sells items appealing to Millennials, such as colored socks brightly embellished with sushi depictions or adorable baby bibs with phrases such as “Miso Pretty.” 219 Jackson St. For those seeking more permanent adornments, State of Grace owner Takahiro (Taki) Kitamura or one of his staff can provide traditional Japanese block print inspired tattoos.
When hunger strikes, a delectable choice is Minato Restaurant serving traditional Japanese cuisine. The chicken teriyaki, salmon steamer plates and uber spicy ahi sushi were delicious and reasonably priced. It is such a local favorite for both lunch and dinner, that in 2015 CNN’s Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a meal here and filmed an episode.
Another fun spot is Roy’s Station Coffee & Tea. Here you can fuel up on your favorite caffeinated fix inside and check out the gleaming classic cherry-red 1957 Coke machine. Or people watch outside on the umbrella-laden patio. This filling station pumped Mobil gas from 1946 to 1990 until its current conversion to all things caffeine and is now run by the granddaughter of the original gas station owner, Roy Murotsune.
No trip to Jtown would be complete without a stop at Shuei-Do Manju Shop. At Shuei-Do, owners Tom and Judy Kumamaru have been seated together in the rear of the shop for 30 years stirring, kneading, filling and folding to produce scrumptious adzuki bean delicacies sold in front. Though I admittedly ate far more Manju than should be legal, clearly I am not alone in my Shuei-Do adoration. When Emperor Akihito was in the bay area for a banquet in 2002, he sent an assistant directly to Shuei-Do to retrieve a box of his own.
San Jose’s Jtown has been re-gentrified, revitalized and reborn, but what it has maintained in its traditions, spirit and resolve are perhaps even more important than its remodeled bricks and mortar. When one spends time here it is evident the past is never very far away. However what Jtown best reflects is that it serves to remind us all of what is most important about America: the ability of a people not just to survive in the face of their own nation’s injustice toward them, but to thrive onward and upward in spite of it.
Julie L. Kessler is an attorney, legal columnist and travel writer based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com
Very nicely written. I have never been to San Hose, but your beautiful portrayal should be very much desired by Lonely Planet to be included in their engagement of sensitive world travellers/writers to write description of places around the world.to be published in their must have "travellers’ guide".
It certainly was unfortunate for the US administration to have done what they did to the Japanese. But they were not starved or ill-treated or tortured in anyway.
Compared to the treatment of the early Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada, they were the only race being specifically discriminated against, while the hordes of Europeans were welcome with open arms, and subsequently, to be admitted, they had to pay a "Head Tax" of several 100 dollars which you can imagine a 100 years ago was an unimaginable huge amount when they came with only the tattered shirsts on their backs. And then, not long after for whatever reasons unclear to me (but definitely not because they were deemed to pose as a national threat -unlike the Japanese, to the US. they were barred from being accepted as immigrants for the next half a century!
Your compassion and sentimentality for the Japanese being "unfairly" treated is certainly applaudable/understandable. Perhaps after what I expressed here, you could be encouraged to write a detail piece about the plight of the Chinese from the time they made it to the American continent hoping to strike it rich in search of the grains of gold, to their subsquent privations and the long period of exclusion. And at the same time, perhaps, you look a bit deeper into the justification of why the US ogvernment did what they did, having heed to what the Japanese military did in Asia and SE Asia, over that period of their brethrens internment in the US, their wanton slaughter of 100s of thosands of Chinese, raping of girls and womenfolk, pillage, torture, and using humans as guinea pigs for chemical experiments, etc etc, ccommiting acts of barbarism no different from what he Nazis did to the Jews(maybe no gas chambers and mass burning in crematoria( this is in plural)!. And to this date, the Japanese leadership/hierachy still refuses to be remorseful and fully/officially declare in loud and clear words to the world of their heinous wrongs they wrought on so many nations. They still religiously go to worship in their Shinto shrine of those generals hanged by General MacCarthur following their surrender in WW2.
I am honored and blessed to be a resident of Jtown. The history and Japanese people and culture are what makes it such a wonderful place.
I’m venturing to reply to this because the main point that should be recognized is that the Japanese Americans who were interned were Americans, born on USA soil and not immigrants. This could happen to anyone at any time – When Civil Rights are ignored, our entire country is at risk.
Those of Japanese ancestry were put into cattle cars and horse stalls that hadn’t really been cleaned. There were rifles aimed at them from watchtowers and there was no privacy in the dirt dug latrines when they got to the slapped together barracks in the deserts that were called internment camps. They were not starved, or beaten, but they were shot and killed sometimes when they couldn’t understand directions from the watchtowers and they were deemed to be too close to the fences.
They worked hard. They started their own victory gardens in the deserts where they were behind barbed wires. They worked to build what they could and the young men even volunteered for the US Military when their loyalty was questioned.
These American young men fought in the battlefields of Europe ("Go for Broke") as expendable troops and heroically saved the ‘Lost Texans’ in France. Some who could speak and read Japanese were used in the Military Intelligence Service to get information about Japanese military movements and even to send out erroneous messages to fool the Japanese military.
No conspiracy or treason was ever found among the Japanese interned. They were given 72 hours, and could only take 3 bags with them. They lost everything they had worked for, homes, businesses, possessions. It was fear that drove the government into interning the Japanese and Japanese Americans. It was fear that created legislation to virtually strip USA citizens of their rights. It’s easy to justify fear, but it is likely not the right thing to do to immediately act upon it to ban or ostracize a people because of it.
San Jose Japantown was at the same time, Chinatown before WWII. The first and second Chinatowns were burned to the ground in San Jose. The third was built by a German immigrant named John Heinlen who liked the Chinese and built brick buildings, renting them at very low rent so that the Chinese could remain in San Jose. This is the Chinatown that was the first Asian community to set roots down. The Japanese settled close by because of the similarity of food items, they could communicate via written language and often experienced the same kind of discrimination. Oddly enough, there were also many Italians in same neighborhood,
Then WWII saw eminent domain take the land where Chinatown and Japantown flourished. It became a maintenance site. Archeological digs found artifacts that came from the 1800’s, pottery, clothing, many items that harkened back to those days.
Right now, the world is at odds with itself in many different ways. It is good to learn about history. The stories from the people who were there and the generations thereafter are important. Their struggles and suffering often can help us understand the best ways that we can lead our lives. Just as all the leadership here may not represent what each of us believes, the same holds true for other countries in the world. It’s not to give up or get angry. It’s to work. And perservere. That’s what the Americans who were interned and their parents and grandparents did. That’s why there is still a great place called Japantown for people to live in, work in and visit.
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