Watsonville ‘institution’ Yamashita Market announces plans to close

WATSONVILLE INSTITUTION ­— Goro Yamashita (center) has run the Pajaro Valley Fish Market with his sisters Shizu (left) and Sumi Yamashita. Their market (above) has been a fixture for decades.
photo by Philip Shima

In 2019, business at the Pajaro Valley Fish Market in Watsonville, Calif. was slow, and Goro Yamashita was thinking of closing. Yamashita, who runs the market commonly known as the Yamashita Market, tentatively decided to close the decades-old family business sometime in the spring of 2020.

Business, however, picked up as the pandemic plunged the state into a shutdown.

“They were afraid to go to San Jose. They thought it was safer down this way,” Yamashita, the Nisei-han, told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone.

“Watsonville actually wasn’t that safe, it was actually pretty bad,” he added.

As old customers returned, Yamashita decided to postpone his retirement and keep the market open through the year.

“Yamashita’s Market provides a great service and contributed to the health of the Nikkei community,” Mas Hashimoto, a longtime resident of Watsonville, wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “There, we could buy Japanese delicacies without going to San Jose. You can buy rice and sake everywhere, but takuan koko (pickled daikon radish), nori (seaweed), miso (fermented soybean paste), kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), maguro (tuna), senbei (rice crackers), ramen, natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) — our vitamins — only at Yamashita’s.”

The market plays a central role for Watsonville’s Japanese American community, according to Hashimoto and other customers. Located between both the Westview Presbyterian Church and the Watsonville Buddhist Temple, the store was where locals would drop off their koden for funerals and stock up on staples. It was also where Nikkei farmers would come after work.

“Back when I started, when there were a lot of Nihonjin around. This used to be the meeting spot,” said Yamashita, who started working in the family business in 1976. “Farmers would come in and pass around the B.S. And the store would close like, 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock sometimes, until the wife would tell their husband, ‘Let’s go home.’ It was really interesting — all the farmers come in, all the happy talk — there was a lot of laughing.”

The Pajaro Valley Fish Market was originally located on Watsonville’s Main Street. Yamashita’s grandparents, Haru and Tokizo Yamashita, purchased the business from another Japanese owner in the 1930s and later sold the business to their two sons when they decided to return to Japan.

Yamashita said his parents, Kenji and Mie Yamashita, along with his aunt and uncle, Minoru and Masano Yamashita, ran the market at the original location until the war, when they and some 120,000 other people of Japanese descent were sent to American concentration camps.

After the war, Yamashita said his family was able to return to Watsonville and reopen, albeit a block away from their original Main Street location.

The new market is located at 114 Union St. and is leased to the Yamashita family.

Yamashita now runs the market with his sisters Shizu and Sumi Yamashita. The old school market does not accept credit cards and personal checks, according to Hashimoto. The market’s merchandise and customers, however, have gradually shifted over the years, Yamashita said.

The market originally had a mix of Japanese and Asian food staples and more American fare, but it currently sells predominantly Asian food, aside from their beers. The market’s clientele has evolved from its predominantly Japanese American customer base of the 1960s.

The proportion of Nikkei customers shrank as the older generations moved on or passed on and younger generations left for better jobs in Silicon Valley.

Hashimoto described a thriving 20th century Japantown and Chinatown. Japanese and Chinese lived around lower Main Street, while the rich white people lived up the hill away from the flood-prone Pajaro River. Hashimoto said three other markets served the Nikkei community in the area in the past, but Yamashita’s store is now the last one standing.

Yamashita said most of his store’s regulars are now Nisei and a handful of younger Sansei and Yonsei. The small market stocks the “basics,” he said, such as rice and koko, but not as much variety or volume as larger stores such as Nijiya, Mitsuwa and Marukai in San Jose an hour away.

Aaron Ikezawa, a Yonsei resident of Santa Cruz, Calif. said the market’s closure, however, would be a blow to many Asian families in the community, limiting their easy access to Asian food and Asian goods. Ikezawa said he first went to the market as a college student at the University of California, Santa Cruz 20 miles away in the 1990s. Having moved back to the city 15 years ago to raise a family, Ikezawa continues to shop at the market.

“It’s pretty much the only Asian ethnic market in the Santa Cruz County that we go to,” he said. “It’s a huge part of us having access to Asian foods and Asian goods.”

Ikezawa noted the market serves many families he knows and holds historical significance to the region’s Japanese American history.

Victor Kimura, a member of the Watsonville-Santa Cruz Japanese American Citizens League, called the market an “institution.” The 76-year-old lifelong customer said he has been a customer since his mother took him there when he was 2 or 3 years old.

“It’s just been part of my blood,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Hashimoto said the market’s closure would leave a “huge void” for him and the community, but expressed his appreciation for the “happy memories” it has provided.

“All my life of 85-plus years, there has been Yamashita’s Market,” he said. “We are grateful to Yamashita Market for their century of service to our Nikkei community of Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley.”

Despite its adamant supporters, however, Yamashita said the uptick in business during the pandemic was only temporary. Old customers returned to the market last year fearful of the coronavirus cases in San Jose.

“We haven’t seen them in a few years and poof, there they were,” he said.

Since the new year, he said business once again has started slowing down and the 68-year-old proprietor of the market has decided to close his market. Once retired, he mused he will destroy his alarm clock and get back into shape. When word got out he was planning to close, however, he noted that business has once again picked up.

“People think we’re going to close in a week or a month. No, it’s not like that, it’s going to be end of July-ish, so we still have time,” he said.

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