The evolving face of San Jose and the South Bay


image courtesy of iStockphoto
image courtesy of iStockphoto

Last year, the University of Maryland and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) published a report that looks at the education, employment and cultural makeup of Japanese American populations throughout the United States.

The paper found that the greater San Jose, Calif. area contained the fifth largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country, following the greater Honolulu area, greater Los Angeles area, the greater New York City area and the greater San Francisco area. The number of Nikkei in San Jose is also increasing, as opposed to San Francisco.

The San Jose area has the third highest rate of growth among the top ten concentrations of Japanese Americans after the greater Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area and the greater Seattle area.

While the greater San Francisco area — defined as San Francisco-Oakland-Vallejo — is reportedly home to more Japanese Americans than the

San Jose area, the region’s population declined by four percent from 2000 to 2009, according to the study. San Jose, meanwhile, saw a growth of 10.8 percent in the region. Larry Shinagawa, the former director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, who co-authored “A Demographic Overview of Japanese Americans,” said the growth was due to an influx of the Shin-Nikkei generation.

The Shin-Nikkei Generation
Japanese Americans cannot be defined by a single label, Shinagawa said in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“There are three major components to Japanese Americans,” he said. “The longstanding Japanese Americans — the second, third and fourth generations who married within JA communities — represent a shrinking third of the population. They used to be the majority of the population, but not anymore. The next third are Japanese Americans who arrived in the U.S. as war brides, or those who are of mixed heritage. The final third and growing contingent is the Shin-Nikkei, or those who have arrived after 1965.”

Shinagawa estimates that, while his paper cites more than 1.1 million Nikkei living in the U.S., with more than 700,000 people claiming to only be one ethnicity, he said the number of Japanese Americans could be as high as 1.8 million.

“As our children spread out into American society, some don’t identify as Japanese Americans,” he said.

Instead of Japanese American communities in the traditional sense, the region is seeing increased activity from Japanese Americans who are Shin-Nisei who have a stronger connection to their Japanese roots. Shinagawa said he, too, has a strong attachment to Nikkei culture through his mother, who was a war bride that married his Nisei father.

Tamon Norimoto, a Shin-Nisei and a past president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, said he feels a similar sentiment.

“I think any immigrant community likes to have a physical location to be with like individuals,” said Norimoto. “While the pre-WWII Japanese Americans have become much more acculturated, I would suspect that new immigrant Japanese and their offspring have a stronger desire for such a place. They often center around grocery stores, places of worship and community.”

As such, Norimoto was introduced to the San Jose area Nikkei community through the San Jose JACL. He said Shin-Nisei have begun to take on the community leadership roles that were once traditionally held by the older Nisei and Sansei.

“I personally suspect that this is rooted in the Shin-Nisei’s struggle of a bicultural identity manifesting in a need to belong,” said Norimoto.
“Japantowns provide a unique ‘home’ that feels strangely familiar even if it is the first time you ever visit it.” Norimoto, however, noted that the sentiment is more specific to Shin-Nisei, whereas Shin-Issei are faced with larger cultural and language barriers from the established Japanese American community.

South Bay Japanese Businesses
Since the early 2000s, the growth of Japanese businesses have increasingly been concentrated in Northern California’s South Bay. June-ko Nakagawa, executive director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California (JCCNC), said the organization, originally based in San Francisco, moved down the Peninsula in 2002 to San Mateo, Calif. after seeing an increasing number of Japanese businesses opening in the South Bay region.

According to a “Survey of Japanese Companies in the Bay Area,” a joint biennial report on Bay Area Japanese businesses published this year by the JCCNC and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), 630 businesses with either a vested interest by a Japanese corporation or owned by a Japanese national were recorded to be doing business in the Bay Area this year.

In a survey with 388 respondents, 41.5 percent of these businesses reported they were located in Santa Clara County, followed by 18.3 percent in San Mateo County and 17.8 percent in San Francisco County. The report has also shown that the growth of Bay Area Japanese businesses has outpaced that of Southern California Japanese businesses since the early 1990s.

“Bay Area Japanese companies created an estimated 35,000 jobs, demonstrating afresh how much they are contributing to the creation of jobs,” said Yoichi Kimura, deputy director of JETRO San Francisco. “The results indicate that for every representative from Japan, 16 local jobs are being created.” The local jobs are made up of staff who are U.S. citizens, green card holders and non-immigrant working visa holders.

While Kimura said there is a large concentration of businesses aggregating in the South Bay, he did not have more specific statistics for the region.

The report also said many of the businesses were either in the electronic and manufacturing industries or the service industry. Of the surveyed businesses, 52.4 percent of 355 respondents for that specific question said they opened their business in the Bay Area because of its market potential. The concentration of like businesses came in second at 49 percent (the survey allowed more than one response). And 20.6 percent of companies opened their business based on the proximity to Nikkei society.

No Longer the Traditional Japantown
While there is an influx of Japanese businesses and Shin-Nikkei, the trend for Nikkei growth is not necessarily based on the existing Japanese American community. Shinagawa said the South Bay Nikkei population reflects the large base of Nikkei already living in the region, the Shin-Nikkei moving to the area for work at Japanese firms, and the young professionals moving to the South Bay to find work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area led the nation in job growth in July.

The available jobs and opportunities attract Nikkei to the region, not necessarily the established Japanese American institutions, said Leon Kimura, president of the San Jose chapter of the JACL.

“In general, I believe that the in migration … could be attributed to tech jobs in the area and economics such as housing prices being less than in S.F. and some other northern cities,” he said in an e-mail. “But at the risk of over simplifying … the JA goal of becoming a part of mainstream America has been successful. Therefore, for most, cultural aspects may be a secondary consideration and a pleasant ‘surprise’ when they discover the Japantown cultural package after they move into San Jose.”

Kimura said that Nikkei do not necessarily need to live in Japantown anymore and would get their “fix” of Japanese culture sparingly through festivals, church and an occasional visit to the museum. He also said many residents moving into San Jose Japantown aren’t necessarily Japanese.

“I know that many of the new non-Japanese residents in the J-Town community specifically moved into the neighborhood because of the proximity to J-Town. That and because it is the safest neighborhood in the city,” he said.

The influx of new businesses has attracted people to Japantown, but the clientele are different from before, according to Kimura. “If I had to guess, I would say the demographics of those walking in the hood are predominately white with the JA faces being people you recognize as long time fixtures of J-town … The new residents may enjoy Japantown for its neighborhood scale and atmosphere or a love for sushi versus a cultural affinity. Hard to say definitively.”

Kathy Sakamoto, executive director of the Japantown Business Association, also noted the shift of its businesses within the ethnic enclave.

“Shifts in the business district just has to do with the overall cultural shift that has started with the older Nisei generations retiring and even the older Sansei retiring,” Sakamoto said in an e-mail. She said her association has been emphasizing attracting and maintaining the arts and collaborations among businesses and community organizations for the community to “hang together.”

Sakamoto elaborated, “We have new snack shops … and urban street wear that combine lots of API culture with the diversity of all ethnic origins that contribute to our wonderful Silicon Valley way of life.”

Sakamoto noted that many of the business owners’ names weren’t Japanese, but were of Filipino, Chinese, Hispanic, Germanic, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Ethiopian origin. “You name it and you can probably find it here.” Sakamoto said the multiethnic names reflect mixed-race Japanese Americans and interracial marriage, as well as those who aren’t Nikkei, but have taken an interest in Japanese culture.

The University of Maryland and JACL report said the overall Japanese American population in the greater San Jose area increased by 3,588 persons, or 10.8 percent, between 2000 and 2009. The report further states that the mixed-heritage population increased by 1,555 persons (27.3 percent) while single-race Japanese Americans have declined.

“The Issei are gone. Nisei are really older, 80s and 90s. Sansei are getting into their senior years too and Yonsei are definitely in the picture,” Sakamoto said. Some older mom and pop shops, however, are closing or being sold. “Small family businesses are difficult to maintain and require quite a bit of love and dedication. There are some that continue, but many have sold their businesses or properties or both to be able to have a good retirement for themselves.”

Shinagawa also said those who retire might be selling their businesses and property to move away from San Jose.

“Most of them grew up in rural or light suburban neighborhoods,” said Shinagawa. “The South Bay has changed drastically in the last 30 to 40 years and the new urban environment might not be the most comfortable. Many of them seem to shift gears to leave for quieter neighborhoods in Oregon or Sacramento after retiring.”

The Nikkei population in the South Bay continues to grow, but as new demographics among Japanese Americans emerge, the growth does not appear to be clear-cut. Shin-Nikkei and mixed-race Japanese Americans are growing in number while the “traditional” single-race Japanese Americans are waning.


San Jose Nikkei at-a-glance
Japanese Americans in the San Jose, Calif. metro statistical area, as of 2009
• There were 36,931 Japanese Americans
• 29,681 single-race
• 7,250 mixed-race
• Japanese Americans represented 2.1 percent of the total population
• The median age for Nikkei was 45, higher than 35, the general population’s
• 42.2 percent were foreign born
• Of them, 23.2 percent were naturalized citizens
• The average household size was 2.5 persons
• 70.1 percent of households were homeowners
• The average house value was $753,265
• The median household income was $105,070
• The average per capita income is $61,434
• 3.3 percent of households lived in poverty

Source: “A Demographic Overview of Japanese Americans,” 2011, University of Maryland and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)

Northern California Japanese businesses

• 41.5 pct. in Santa Clara County
• 18.3 pct. San Mateo County
• 17.8 pct. in San Francisco County

Source: “Survey of Japanese Companies in the Bay Area,” published this year by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California (JCCNC) and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO)

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