Reclaiming the history of Sacramento’s lost Japantown

SACRAMENTO'S HISTORIC JAPANTOWN: LEGACY OF A LOST NEIGHBORHOOD

SACRAMENTO’S HISTORIC JAPANTOWN: LEGACY OF A LOST NEIGHBORHOOD

SACRAMENTO’S HISTORIC JAPANTOWN: LEGACY OF A LOST NEIGHBORHOOD
By Kevin Wildie. (Charlestown, S.C. : The History Press, 2013, 192 pp., $19.99, paperback)

In this slim volume, Kevin Wildie transports us back to a disappeared community. With help from oral histories and numerous photographs, he tells the tale of Sacramento’s Fourth Street Japantown. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, it was once the fourth-largest ethnic Japanese enclave in California. The Sacramento community resembled other Japantowns with its hotels, little shops and religious institutions. In addition to housing an ethnic population, its businesses served as an anchor for the surrounding Delta agricultural community.

As Wildie demonstrates, the particular tragedy of this neighborhood is that it was twice destroyed. The first time was as a result of Executive Order 9066, and the mass official removal of West Coast Japanese Americans. After the war, the Sacramento Nikkei community re-established itself, and even expanded. However, it was no longer the center of a thriving hinterland of agricultural producers, as many prewar Issei farmers were unable to recover their land. Young Nisei professionals found economic opportunity outside and moved to suburbs, while the downtown district grew blighted. Those who remained were increasingly elderly and/or impoverished.

By the 1950s, city officials formed the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency and put forward an ambitious plan of “urban renewal,” the Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project, that would demolish the entire area. The city government, made up predominantly of white middle-class businessmen allied with developers, cared little for the preservation of minority communities. Rather, Wildie reveals that the SRA plan targeted the Fourth Street area, and not the even more dilapidated areas nearer the Sacramento River, on the theory that if the city demolished the poorest areas first, their residents would migrate closer to downtown rather than being “cleaned up” (that is, cleared out).

Wildie discusses at length the efforts of different groups of community leaders (notably Henry Taketa, the unofficial “Mayor of Japantown”) to organize against the project and defend their neighborhood, or at least to secure guarantees of fair payment and sufficient relocation assistance. While Nikkei leaders and others succeeded in defeating a proposed bond issue at the polls in 1954, the reprieve was short-lived. City leaders went ahead with the project nonetheless and razed the 4th Street area, even though new building was not planned to begin for years afterwards.

Perhaps because of its limited size, Wildie’s book has some unfortunate omissions. He skips largely over the other communities in Sacramento, such as Chinese Americans, who survived similar threats of “urban renewal.” The book also contains some errors.

The author states doubtfully that fear of race riots, especially from Filipino Americans, was universal on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor, and implies that it was a cause of mass removal. Most strikingly, he nowhere mentions the state government’s influence on the region — one would never know from reading his book that Sacramento was the capital of California. In fact, local attorneys and lobbyists did business with the Japanese community. There were also numerous Nisei state workers residing in the area — some 300 civil service employees were fired after the Pacific War began. Still, Wildie presents a poignant, informative portrait of a forgotten historic community.

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