Workshop depicts pre-war life in Sacramento’s Japantown


JAPANTOWN’S PAST — Several photos and artifacts were displayed at the event (above). photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

JAPANTOWN’S PAST — Several photos and artifacts were displayed at the event (above). photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly
JAPANTOWN’S PAST — Several photos and artifacts were displayed at the event (above). photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Not known to most people, California’s capital city once housed the fourth largest Japantown in the state.

Now however, decades after the 1956 Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project tore down its buildings, Sacramento’s Japantown lives on only in old photos and in the hearts of those who walked the town streets.

In an effort to preserve its history and educate future generations, the Jan Ken Po Cultural Association organized the “Living in Sacramento’s Nihonmachi (Japantown 1930-1940)” workshop, which focused on what it was like to live in Sacramento’s ethnic enclave before World War II. More than 120 people gathered at the Asian Community Center in Sacramento, Calif. April 2 to attend the event, where they viewed old photos and artifacts of the lost town in an interactive presentation by women who grew up in and around Sacramento’s Japantown.

Sansei and Sacramento native Paul Sakakihara said the presentation helped renew his connection to his Japanese American history.

“It helps us understand our connection to the Isseis and how they were pioneers for establishing the Japanese American community in Sacramento,” he said.

Kevin Wildie, author of “Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood,” also attended the event and said that events such as this seem to make people want to share their own stories and make connections.

“Whether at book signings, exhibits or presentations like these, I always find people willing to contribute to Sacramento’s Japantown history through the sharing of stories, pictures and artifacts,” he said in an e-mail.

This was the second time the cultural association focused on this topic. The organization first coordinated a lecture called “Sacramento Japantown Pre & Post WWII” in October 2011, which “brushed the surface on the issue,” said Jan Ken Po Cultural Association member Christine Umeda. Umeda helped organize the “Living in Sacramento’s Nihonmachi” workshop with fellow association members Janet Sakata and Joann Fujikawa.

Following the 2011 lecture, the group began working with Marian Uchida, who lived on the outskirts of Sacramento’s Japantown, and others to organize a more detailed event.

Uchida coordinated and gathered photos for the presentation. She worked with various Japanese American families as well as with Wildie to collect photos for the presentation.

Sakata and Fujikawa created a map of Sacramento’s Japantown in 1940 with the help of April Adachi and Amy (Kamikawa) Wong, who are said to have explored Japantown often as children.

According to Uchida, the Sacramento Japantown boundaries were primarily considered to be Fourth Street between L and O Street in what is now referred to as Downtown Sacramento. There were also many businesses on Second through Sixth Streets from I to P Street. Japan Alley was located between Third and Fourth Street on the L and M Street block.

Uchida led the presentation discussion, providing background information during the slideshow. Betty Tanaka, Alice Kataoka, Annette Shirai, Esther Hokama, Sally Yamaichi, Adachi and Wong joined her in the discussion. Together, they shared personal stories from their experiences in Sacramento’s Japantown and encouraged the audience to participate as well. Uchida, Adachi, Hokama and Yamaichi have been friends for almost 80 years.

Uchida said she hoped people learned something from their presentation.

“I think it’s really important, especially since you don’t have any physical buildings left that can remind you of it,” she said.

The “1941 New World Sun Year Book” listed 471 Japanese businesses in Sacramento’s Japantown and separated it into 57 business categories. Some notable entries included: two soda manufacturing companies, three midwives, four Japanese baths, four tofu factories, five sewing schools, six Japanese language schools, 17 insurance agents and 95 hotel, boarding and lodging houses.

Tanaka’s father owned the Sunrise Soda Company located in Japan Alley, making it one of the two soda manufacturing companies in town. Tanaka said her uncle won a gold medal at the State Fair for the soda water they manufactured.

Sakata said the town was safe enough for children to walk around by themselves at any hour and still be safe.

“When you talk to (those that lived in Sacramento’s Japantown), they say they really liked living there,” said Sakata, who did not grow up in Japantown. “They had a happy childhood (and) they had a lot of fun.”

Adachi said she practically lived at the Nippon Theater, which was located on L Street between Third and Fourth Street. Because her mother worked night shifts at the cannery, Adachi was given money to go to the theater while her mother slept during the day. Adachi would go to Nippon Theater, visit the candy store (which was connected to the theater), then make her way back to the theater.

“The thing of it is, I went by myself and I wasn’t even scared,” said Adachi, who was in the fourth grade then.

Wildie said the “Living in Sacramento’s Nihonmachi” workshop was important not only because many people don’t know about it, but also because it no longer exists physically.

He said that Sacramento Japanese Americans experienced two forced relocations — the first with Executive Order 9066 and the second with the city’s redevelopment project in the 1950s. The redevelopment project displaced many people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, not just people of Japanese descent. Sacramento’s Japantown was destroyed as a result, despite efforts made by the younger Nisei to negotiate with the city to preserve Japantown.

Sansei and Sacramento native Susan Tamai said it is sad that the town is gone now. She attended the event to learn more about her background and the Sacramento Japanese American experience before and after the war. She particularly enjoyed seeing the old photos and hearing names she recognized.

“To be able to kind of re-live that and everything, see where we came from, where they grew up, what they went through – that’s what I wanted to know,” she said.

Tamai also said that she does not want this history to be lost in future generations.

“I’m still connected (through my parents who lived it) but I know as the generations go forward, it will be less and less of importance to them but I don’t want them to forget where they came from,” she said.

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