Book sheds light on San Jose Japantown’s rich history and culture

photo of San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin under construction in the 1930s.  photo courtesy of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose

photo of San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin under construction in the 1930s.
photo courtesy of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose

Fifteen years ago, San Jose Japantown community members began working on a project to create a virtual reality tour of the ethnic enclave. Over the years, the lead team members brought in others to support the project, and its scope expanded and evolved accordingly. Fast forward to this fall, with the upcoming release of “San Jose Japantown: A Journey.”

The hardbound book of more than 400 pages, was published by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, and offers a “full-color journey” through more than “100 years of history with personal insights into not only the hardships and struggles, but successes and relationships that are the foundation of (the) community.” The book reflects 15 years of research, more than 100 interviews and more than 500 images of San Jose Japantown’s history. 

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed co-authors Curt Fukuda and Ralph Pearce via e-mail to learn about the journey behind the book. The interview has been lightly edited for length. 

Nichi Bei Weekly: Tell us a bit about the book’s evolution over the last 15 years. How did you decide to collaborate on the project?

Ralph Pearce: I’d be happy to share what I can with you. Curt can better fill you in on the early years. He started the project about 1999 and soon asked Jim Nagareda and Janice Oda for assistance. Ward Shimizu also helped in this period, especially with interviews. In 2005, I published a book on the San Jose Asahi baseball team, and some months afterwards, Jim and Curt asked me to help with the writing of the Japantown book. Curt had written quite a lot, but there was still a lot to do and the project needed some momentum. I began doing research, but was soon asked to write and revise profiles and chapters as well. It was a lot of work, but it was fun and I learned a lot.

Curt Fukuda: Forgive me, I’m probably going to tell you more than you need or ever wanted to know, but here goes …

The San Jose Japantown book actually did not start off as a book. It was originally a CD-ROM project for use on computers. In 1999, I was taking a multimedia class at Foothill College and came up with the idea of creating a virtual reality tour of some geographic area. I thought Japantown would be an ideal subject for my project. The neighborhood wasn’t large and could lend itself to an engaging immersive computer experience. User would navigate through the streets. Certain buildings would be clickable and open up a movie that talked about the history of the location. Of course, navigating through a neighborhood virtually is now commonplace with applications like Google Maps. 🙂

I explained my idea to Jim Nagareda. Soon he and I were photographing panoramas of every street in Japantown. Whereas, Google can send cars with spinning cameras to capture street views. Back in 1999, Jim and I would stand in the middle of the streets with a camera on a tripod and take a series of photos to capture 360-degree views. It’s amazing that we weren’t run over by the cars.

Anyway, the final CD-ROM was going to be in a jewel case with an 8-page booklet summarizing the history of Japantown. This is when Jim and I brought on Janice Oda to be the designer of the booklet and packaging. We decided that our Japantown project would be for the benefit of the community and that profits from the sales of the CD-ROM would benefit the Japanese American Resource Center (JARC, now JAMsj).

In the meantime, Jimi Yamaichi heard about our project and started taking me to interview “old timers” who were connected with Japantown. I had done oral interviews in the late 1980s with the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, so I was comfortable going out with Jimi to talk to the various people. During this time, I met Connie Young Yu, who was an inspiration to me. Her book on San Jose Chinatown provided a model of excellence. It showed what a history project could be,

As I learned more and more about Japantown from interviews, it became evident that an 8-page booklet was inadequate to summarize the history. The booklet grew to 16 pages, then it grew to 32 pages, and then it grew to a 64-page book with a sleeve for the CD-ROM. During the first two years, Jim Nagareda and Janice Oda were to be the writers of the book, and I was in charge of filming interviews and putting together the CD-ROM. 

Because the project was volunteer and self-financed, it was a challenge to make much progress on the project. In 2000-2001, Jim Nagareda was starting new businesses, Janice Oda was starting a family, and I, too, was starting a family. To help keep the project moving, Eileen Tanabe was brought in to do research and writing in 2002. Eileen helped us until the following year, when she was changing careers and no longer had the time for the project.

By 2003, my wife, Monica Smith, recommended that the Japantown project should just be a book; that very few people would be interested in a CD-ROM with virutal reality tour. So, Jim, Janice, and I decided to drop the multimedia aspect of the project and focus our energies on doing a book. At this time, we shifted our duties. Jim became the project overseer, Japantown liaison (because he’s a merchant), and photo archivist. Janice concentrated on designing the book and helping with research. And, since the CD-ROM portion of the project was dropped, I became the writer. To help write the book, we enlisted Ward Shimizu, who had published articles on Japanese American culture and whose family was one of the community pioneers. For the next three years, Ward and I did a lot of research and interviews. Jim Nagareda continued collecting photos for the book.

We were very fortunate during the early years to receive text files from the Mineta family. Helen Mineta had started a book on the history of Japantown back in the late 1980s. It was to be available for the 1990 Japantown Centennial. Unfortunately, Helen never finished the book. Her writing had been done on an old computer using software that was obsolete. When Jim Nagareda and I received the files, we had the challenge of converting them and then, unscrambling the text. We were successful in reconstructing parts of Helen’s manuscript and her writing appears in a few sections of the book.

In late October 2005, Jim Nagareda told me about Ralph Pearce, who had written a book about the San Jose Asahi baseball team. He asked me to contact Ralph and find out about getting a book printed. Ralph turned out to be a marvelous historian and researcher; and by 2006, he was contributing to the project. By this time, Ward had to reduce his involvement in the project because he and his wife planned to relocate to a different state. As a result, I took over his chapters. 

Through most of the project, our intention was to tell the history of all of Japantown, not just the Japanese community, but also including the Chinese, Filipino and other ehnicities. For years, I tried to connect with the Filipino community with no luck. Thankfully, Ralph’s wife, Emilie, knew Robert Ragsac, who provided the essential connection to the Filipino community that was a part of Japantown. Ragsac himself grew up in Japantown during the 1930s to the 1950s.

By 2007, Ward had to leave the project and Ralph became the co-author. In the years that followed, Ralph, Jim, Janice, and I continued working on the book. It was amazing that the project continued because none of us were being paid and we were all busy. The book had grown to such monumental proportions that it seemed like it would never come to fruition. Throughout the years, people were asking us, “Is the book finished?” And, we had to tell them that it was still a work in progress.

In 2012, after going through several editors, Ralph was able to recruit his friend, June Hayashi, to edit the huge manuscript. June along with Ralph provided the attention to detail that really refined the book.

2013 saw Janice Oda really solidifying the design of the book and by the beginning of this year (2014), we really felt confident that the Japantown book is ready to be published. We were fortunate that the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj) agreed to be the publisher. It was a partnership that made sense, since Jim, Janice, and I always wanted profits from the book sales to benefit JAMsj.

NBW: What are some of the challenges you faced in researching an ethnic enclave whose historical roots dated back to 1890?

RP: The roots actually date back to San Jose’s Heinlenville Chinatown, which was built in 1888. There were many challenges of course, but to me the greatest challenge was having to reduce our content to a manageable size. Of course there were photos and interviews that we would have liked to have had, but we did have tremendous resources in the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, and a very supportive Japantown community.

CF: At first, the challenge was learning how to research. Neither Jim, Janice, nor I were historians or professional writers when this project began. We did things by instinct. Ward Shimizu was an asset to the team because he knew how to research and he taught me how the process could be fun. Ralph Pearce was already a published historian when he joined our team and brought his formidable research skills onboard. 

Another challenge was finding historic photos, especially pre-1900 images. It took many trips to various archives and contacting many individuals to pull together the photo we have. In an alternate universe, Ralph and I have found photos of the Seventh Street sake brewery and the first Japantown theater on Fifth Street.

NBW: What was one of the most surprising discoveries you made in writing the book?

RP: For me, one of my most surprising discoveries was the accidental meeting of Japantown midwife Mito Hori’s great-granddaughter. I’d been working on her profile for a couple of years and had given up hope of locating a relative. That opened the door to so much more information and photographs, it was very exciting! Another surprise was finding a beautiful photo showing a deserted Japantown during the war. It came from Steve Cook, whose father, Ed Cook, leased the Kogura building during the war. 

CF: For me, it was surprising to find what a rich history and culture San Jose Japantown has. At the very beginning of the project, I didn’t even know that there was a San Jose Chinatown (Heinlenville) which provided the roots of Japantown. Remember, I was the guy who thought that Japantown history could be told in an 8-page booklet illustrated with photos. 🙂

NBW: How did you decide to dedicate chapters on such specific topics as “Dining in Japantown” and on sports in the community?

RP: Curt organized the book into chapters and can fill you in on that.

CF: I felt that a book on San Jose Japantown shouldn’t be just a collection of dates, building descriptions, and events; shouldn’t be just a yearbook for locals to look at and reminisce. The book needed to tell a story of the community: how it developed and why it became what it is today. So, anyone, not just locals, could pick up the book and it would “speak” to them. As a result, in addition to the chapters that describe historic periods, we added chapters that talk about people and the circumstances that affected their lives. And, we added chapters that spotlight aspects of Japantown that had profound impact on the community. For instance, there’s a chapter on the Japantown churches, these are the institutions that brought people together and supported them during challenging times. Another chapter focuses on restaurants and how they changed through the decades. Food remains one of the big draws for people coming to Japantown. For much of the general public, food is possibly the only reason why they come to Japantown. And, Japantown sports is such an important part of the community that it warranted its own chapter.

NBW: Is there anything else you would like add that you’ve learned about the Japantown community through writing the book? 

RP: I learned so much through research, interviews, and from my co-author Curt Fukuda. This was a wonderful experience that really helped to satisfy my curiosity about the lives within our Japantown community, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what we’ve gathered with all who might have an interest.

CF: I wish I could add more personal stories, especially the ones that had to be deleted to reduce the length of the book. To me, the personal stories are the keys to seeing Japantown with new eyes.

The authors will hold a book-signing Saturday, Nov. 29 at 1 p.m. at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Gymnaisum, which is located at 640 North Fifth St. in San Jose’s Japantown. The event will include a presentation. Guests include: Judge Paul Bernal, official historian of the city of San Jose and Mike Inouye, NBC Bay Area weekday morning traffic anchor. 

The book will be available for purchase through the museum for $65.25 each, including a $10 shipping fee per book. The book is scheduled for delivery in November. 

For more information, visit www.jamsj.org or call (408) 294-3138.

Ralph Pearce is a third generation San Josean who grew up with a love for history. He works in the King Library’s California Room, and this is his second book on local history. Ralph and his wife Emelie have a son Michael who recently graduated from college and is teaching in Tokyo. 

Curt Fukuda grew up in San Jose near King Road and East Santa Clara Street. He remembers when the valley was full of farms, orchards, and berry patches; when the air was tart with the smell of tomatoes during canning season. Curt has worked as an industrial filmmaker, commercial photographer, exhibiting artist, technical writer, graphic designer, and teacher. He currently lives in Mountain View with his wife, Monica Smith, and his children, Richard and Eileen.

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