Roundtable highlights JA preservation projects


PRESERVATION TALK — Alan Nisho (R) and Jill Shiraki at the roundtable. photo by Kazuki Watanabe/Nichi Bei Weekly

Nichi Bei Weekly Report

As part of the National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum, held June 24-26 in San Francisco, a Japantown Heritage Roundtable was held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California on June 24.

According to Alan Nishio, a member of the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council, the council came together in recognition that of the once dozens of Japantowns in the state, only those in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles remained.

“We need to take action now to assure that we have a sense of place,” said Nishio, the roundtable facilitator.

The roundtable went on to highlight five particular preservation projects — many outside of traditional Japantowns but nevertheless involving a Japanese American connection — either completed or in the works.

Participants also entertained a bold idea to link various Japanese American historical sites into a federally-designated National Heritage Area.

Lodi Historic Japantown

Jill Shiraki of the Preserving California’s Japantowns project discussed the former Japantown in Lodi, Calif. Located between Sacramento and Stockton, Lodi’s Japantown started in the early 1900s with Japanese migrant workers, and the population would triple during harvest seasons.

The city’s main street includes a “forgotten scape of restaurants, stores and buildings,” said Shiraki. Among the markers of yesteryear are the buildings that once marked the Takeuchi Hotel, the Chugoku Hotel and the Hiroshima Hotel, as well as the renovated Miyajima Hotel and General Store building.

A Japantown mural was dedicated on June 12 on the wall of the Lodi Buddhist Church annex, as more and more people are becoming interested in preservation efforts.

Castroville Japanese School

Tucked away in the Central California coastal region of Monterey County is the historic Castroville Japanese School, a former Japanese schoolhouse built in the 1930s by Japanese immigrant families.

Described as a “small single-room building” in the “Artichoke Center of the World,” the schoolhouse site is located just 15 minutes from the popular Pebble Beach.

Built in 1935 by families of poor immigrants as a cultural enrichment center, the property was put on the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1995. The building served as a hostel for Japanese American families after the war, according to Jerry Hernandez of the Monterey County Redevelopment Agency, the agency which purchased the entire block of land in order to renovate it.

The Redevelopment Agency transferred the adjacent land to the county Parks and Recreation Department in order to build a ballpark.

Armed with a 1999 feasibility study for the Japanese school restoration, a collaborative entity called the Japanese Schoolhouse Reuse Group was formed, consisting of the Japanese American and Latino communities, county historian and member of the historical resources committee, North County Recreation and Parks District manager, the Redevelopment Agency and project architect.

“Unless you look at partnerships, you’re not going to get a project done,” Hernandez said.

The building was brought back to life, and will be used in a similar vein as its original intent, as a cultural enrichment center managed by the North County Recreation and Parks District.

The 12 funding sources for the $1.17 million renovation was diverse.

Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs

Another project discussed at the Japantown Heritage Roundtable was the Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs, located within the Henry Coe State Park just east of Gilroy.

The hot springs, which once had a “top-notch five-star hotel,” was acquired and developed in the 1860s. The mineral well was a focal point of the once popular destination resort, which later served as a hostel for some 60 Japanese American families returning after their forced relocation during World War II.

It was owned from 1938 to 1967 by Harry K. Sakata, who was a successful lettuce grower and shipper from nearby Watsonville.

“It reminded him so much of home,” said Laura Dominguez-Yon, the president of the Friends of Gilroy Hot Springs. “When Mr. Sakata acquired it, it already had fame.”

Sakata is said to have added a Japanese touch to the property, which featured Japanese-style hot tubs, gardens and a Japanese shrine that was restored in 1995. The hotel structure burned down in 1980.

“It was a meeting center,” said Dominguez-Yon, who noted that it provided a respite for Japanese Americans after the stress of hard work.

“The hot springs was known worldwide,” added Dominguez-Yon, who noted that it was considered “among the top five” hot springs in the world at the time.

The hot springs closed down in 1967, and was privately owned by various entities until 2003, when it was acquired by the Henry Coe State Park. Gilroy Hot Springs is a State Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Dominguez-Yon, there is a plan to protect and preserve the remaining historic structures, with the hopes of once again making it a destination point. The organization is now looking for private donations and county grants.

Tule Lake Segregation Center

Nestled near the California border with Oregon is the most controversial of the wartime concentration camps, the former Tule Lake Segregation Center.

“A lot of people don’t know about Tule Lake,” said Barbara Takei, a Tule Lake Committee board member.

“The preservation of Tule Lake is about revisiting the very false stereotype” that the inmates were disloyal, she said. “They were not disloyal, but these were people who took a risk to protest.”

According to Takei, those sent to Tule Lake when it became a segregation center in 1943 were “marginalized in Japanese American history” by those who tried to promote a good image of Japanese Americans.

Shinwa-En Japanese Gardens at CSU Dominguez Hills

Tucked away at the California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif. is a “very small” garden that has gone through recent renovation. Established in the 1970s, 60 tons of rocks were brought in from Ventura County to form the garden, located in a patio area of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building on campus.

Over the years, members of the Gardena Valley Gardeners Association had an annual “spruce up” of the garden at the time of their picnic on campus grounds, but the platform and teahouse eventually fell out of code.

To address the need for renovation, the Friends of the Japanese Garden was formed in 2006 to restore the garden. The group looked into solutions for the long-term health of the garden, appealing to large Japanese-owned companies.

The Friends of the Japanese Gardens partnered with college classes teaching gardening to help care for the garden. A carpenter redid the platform fabrication, and restoration was conducted, leading to a rededication on May 1 of this year.

National Heritage Area

The roundtable ended with a discussion on the potential for a sort of National Heritage Area linking the historic Japantowns in California as well as sites related to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and historic places such as the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony.

According to Donna Graves, director of the Preserving California’s Japantowns project, a National Heritage Area provides opportunities for federal funding and can be designated by Congress through special legislation.

There are currently 49 National Heritage Areas in 32 states, described as “places where natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography.”

“The preliminary feasibility research is being done and there are good indications that it is do-able,” said Bill Watanabe, chair of the Preservation Forum. “The exact theme has not been defined, but it would likely incorporate a broad theme of Japantowns — past and present — and intertwine with the WWII camps and incarceration. The group will likely meet to discuss next steps and then eventually seek congressional approval for such an NHA.”

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