A tour of San Jose’s Japantown


Santo Market in San Jose’s Japantown by Scott Nakajima Photography

San Jose Japantown community member Jim Nagareda, a former Japanese American Museum of San Jose executive director, took people on a tour of San Jose’s Japantown in a video edited by J-Town Community TV for the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church. They explored the different businesses and places that make up the ethnic enclave, which was founded in 1890.

Kogura Company
Richard Kogura, the owner of Kogura Company, told Nagareda that the family-owned business still operates in the same location as it did prior to World War II. Kogura’s grandfather sold RCA radios at the store. The shop sells kachi kachi, uchiwa, Japanese vases and Japanese designed cards., among other items Kogura estimates 95 percent of the store items are made in Japan.
231 Jackson St. (408) 294-3184, https://www.yelp.com/biz/kogura-company-san-jose.

Shuei-Do Manju
Next, Nagareda took the tour to Shuei-Do Manju, where Tom and Judy Kumamaru run and own the shop on Jackson Street. Tom Kumamaru said he and his wife took over the confectionery 35 years ago. He said the previous owner, Ozawa, “stayed on with us for about five months, teaching us how to make the manju because Judy and I didn’t know anything about making manju.” He added that manju is “a Japanese pastry consisting of either red azuki beans or baby lima beans as a filling. The outside is usually either mochiko with the sweet rice flour or regular wheat flour.” Tom Kumamaru said they currently make about 17 different kinds of manju.
Tom Kumamaru said some people eat the sweet with hot tea, as a dessert. Others “just come in after lunch and eat it as a snack.” He added that people order white manju, to use as an offering to the Buddha, for Buddhist funerals. Many people buy manju for tea ceremonies, he said. For Japanese language school graduations, he said people order the white and pink manju with a “graduation stamp” placed on the pastry.
217 Jackson St., (408) 294-4148, https://www.facebook.com/shueidomanju/.

Japanese American Museum of San Jose
Nagareda’s next stop on the tour was the Japanese American Museum of San Jose on Fifth Street. Rich Saito, a volunteer docent at the museum, told Nagareda the museum started as the Japanese American Resource Center.

Eventually, they received a historical grant, matched funds and built the museum facility, Saito said.

The museum begins chronicling the Japanese American community’s history with the Japanese immigrating to the United States. John Heinlen “allowed the Japanese, Chinese immigrants to stay there…and that formed the beginning of the Asian community here in North San Jose.” Saito added that the Japanese Americans came to the United States to “be farm laborers.” He showed some historic farm equipment.

Saito also discussed the beginning of World War II and the concentration camps. He added that “Japanese Americans were put into horse stables up and down the West Coast.”

“They were not allowed to leave those camps, basically a prison camp,” he said.

He noted there is a barracks room in the back created by the late Jimi Yamaichi, who was a carpenter at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Saito said the museum displays timelines and images of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, along with the Military Intelligence Service linguists.

He said everything in the museum is authentic, “nothing has been re-created.” “Each artifact tells a story about the history of Japanese Americans,” Saito said. The museum brings in guest speakers, book readings, and field trips, according to Saito.

535 N. Fifth St., (408) 294-3138, https://www.jamsj.org/.

Issei Memorial Building
Nagareda’s next stop on the Japantown tour was the Issei Memorial Building. Saito, who accompanied the tour, told Nagareda the Nishiura brothers built the building in 1910. He said Japanese Americans were not welcome at San Jose Hospital. The ethnic enclave lacked a medical facility for Japanese Americans, leading the brothers to build the facility. Currently, it is an office building for many Japantown organizations.

Japantown Landmarks
Next, Saito explained a few of Japantown’s key landmarks. First, Saito discussed the spire, “a visual representation of what it was like for Japanese Americans before and after Executive Order 9066.” He said the bottom of the spire represents “life going on, Japanese Americans were working hard and they’re becoming successful.” He added that the bend in the spire represents the disruption of lives when people of Japanese descent were ordered into concentration camps. The center of the bend has a piece of paper with the date when Executive Order 9066 was issued.

Saito also discussed the Issei Memorial Stone. A plaque on it says it is “a gift from the city of Okayama, Japan, the Yamaichi family and former Okayama exchange students.” Saito said “it is a representation of the Issei, the first generation immigrants.”

Next to the stone, Saito explained the Japanese American values wall, which has “Japanese American value statements engraved in that wall.” He said the words include gaman (perseverance), shikata ga nai (can’t be helped), enryo (modesty). “Each one of these phrases was an important part of maintaining and preserving Japanese American culture,” he said.

Saito said there are various placards on each corner in Japantown that feature different points in Japanese American history.

JT Express
On the next tour stop, Steve Sakai, the owner of JT Express restaurant, told Nagareda they serve Japanese food, along with their most popular items, ice cream and mochi ice cream. The restaurant serves a sushi burrito, which Sakai said is similar to a futomaki.

Nagareda asked Sakai why he wanted his business to be located in Japantown. “It felt like coming home,” Sakai said. He said he lived in downtown San Jose, near San Jose State University for 15 years, and about five years ago, he moved to Japantown.

Nagareda also asked what Japantown meant to Sakai. Sakai said “the community. That’s kind of why we wanted to be back here.”

170 Jackson St., (408) 275-9491, www.jtexpresssj.com/.

Public Artwork
Nagareda noted that just outside of JT Express is an artwork that was produced by an artist named Wooden Wave. The artwork depicts a samurai helmet as a Japanese home on top of a tree. Sakai says the artists are a husband and wife team from Hawai‘i. Nagareda said when people walk around Japantown, they see “a lot of these artworks on utility boxes, on the side of buildings, sometimes you have to look up … you’ll see artwork all over the place.”

‘Ukulele Source

GOOD VIBES ­— ‘Ukulele Source has a wide range of ‘ukulele.
screenshot by Kenn Namba

Next, Nagareda took the Japantown tour to ‘Ukulele Source. Smiley Kai, the shop owner, told Nagareda he started the business 13 years ago. Prior to that, Kai helped Herb Ohta Jr., an ‘ukulele player and a friend from Hawai‘i, set up workshops and concerts. People often asked Kai where to buy ‘ukulele, and Ohta Jr. inspired him to open the shop. Nagareda asked Kai why the ‘ukulele is a popular instrument. Kai believes it has to do with famous ‘ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro.

Kai said ‘ukulele range in price range from $75 to $3,000. He said Japantown is the “best place” for the store because “everybody … look(s) out after each other, everyone is really friendly towards each other.”

599 North Fifth St., (408) 998-2640, https://www.ukulelesource.com/index.html.

Nikkei Traditions
Pam Yoshida, the co-owner of Nikkei Traditions, told Nagareda the store was founded in 2001. Its theme is “contemporary Japanese American, Asian American arts and crafts.” The store features products that are “handmade by Asian American and Japanese American third, fourth and fifth generation artists.” The shop carries ethnic clothing, children’s multicultural books, CDs and “a lot of really fun products,” Yoshida said. The store has many Obon accessories, including uchiwa, kachi kachi and yukata for children and adults, she added.

“To me, Japantown has always just felt like home, being able to relate with my identity,” Yoshida said.

219 Jackson St., San Jose’s Japantown,(408) 297-7554, https://shop.nikkeitraditions-sj.com/.

Zonkey Toys
Nhat Nguyen, the Zonkey Toys owner, told Nagareda he went to Japan one year and decided that San Jose Japantown needed “a really nice toy store, (a) unique store that can represent the culture.”

Nguyen sells “designer toys, toys you wouldn’t find at Toys R US or any other modern store…” They specialize in horror, anime, pop culture, “just toys that you would find in museums…”

161 Jackson St., Suite 3, (408) 372-7528, https://zonkeytoys.com/.

Public Artwork
Another artwork is located outside of Zonkey Toys. Nguyen said his friend, Francisco, a local San Jose artist, made the piece. It features Godzilla, King Kong and other characters, which Nguyen says, “represents us as we were growing up.” “They’re playing Super Nintendo and they’re just having a good time, and that’s what Zonkey is about, reliving the good, old memories when you were a child…”

Minato Japanese Restaurant
The next stop on the tour was Minato Japanese Restaurant. Gene Yoneda, the restaurant owner, told Nagareda the restaurant opened in 1961 and he’s been the owner since 2000. Yoneda said the restaurant mainly serves Japanese American dishes, including teriyaki, tempura, sushi and ribs. “We just try to put the best product out. Prices are right. People seem to find us,” he said.

617 North Sixth St., (408) 998-9711, https://www.minatojapaneserestaurant.com/.

Roy’s Station
The last stop on the Japantown tour was Roy’s Station. Carole Rast, the owner, provided some history on the coffee shop. She said the Murotsune family were “sharecroppers before the war. They farmed out in the Evergreen area. They went down to Alviso Berryessa…” Rast said her grandmother found out the land on the corner was for sale while she was in camp in Gila River. She added her grandmother’s eldest daughter, Mary, who spoke English. The family “came and bought the corner.” The corner was a gas station before the war, owned by Doug Omori and Bill Yasukawa, she said. After the war, Rast said, it became Mike and Roy’s, and her father ran the shop with his brothers. “It was the American Dream,” Rast said.

The coffee shop opened in 2009. The family runs the “full fledged espresso shop,” which also serves musubi.
197 Jackson St., (408) 286-2236, https://roysstation.com/.


Nichi Bei Bussan

According to Arlene Tatsuno Damron, the Nichi Bei Bussan owner, the original shop was established in San Francisco in 1902. She said her grandfather came from Nagano, Japan and worked as a houseboy in San Francisco. While the store closed when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Damron said her father helped run the co-operative department store at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp.

After the wartime incarceration, her family moved from San Francisco to San Jose, Calif. after the one-year anniversary of the new business opening and a memorial for her oldest brother, Sheldon, passing away. Accodring to previous reports, the San Jose Japantown store has been open since 1948.

The shop sells byobu (Japanese screens), kimono and custom fabrics made to produce items like Hawaiian shirts.

140 Jackson St., San Jose’s Japantown, (408) 294-8048, https://www.nbstore.com/.


Santo Market

Santo Market in San Jose’s Japantown by Scott Nakajima Photography

In the Aug. 18 episode of the “Nichi Bei Café,” Mark Santo, the third-generation owner of Santo Market in San Jose’s Japantown, said the market was established in 1946 by his father’s uncle, George Santo. The store was originally located on Jackson Street. After about a decade, it moved to its current location, on the corner of North Sixth and East Taylor in Japantown.

Mark Santo began working at the market in high school and continued throughout his college years, before working for an electronics company. After about five years, he returned to the store to help his dad. Little by little, Mark started “taking over more of the responsibilities, doing more of the ordering, organizing the employees and doing the scheduling for that kind of thing,” he said in the video.

During the pandemic, the market had to change their operations. Santo said they used to serve coffee from windows, but they converted them to become service windows. He added in an August interview, they are not looking to re-open their doors any time soon.

“Everything seems to be working out, where we’re able to sell what we have through the windows and we’re able to maintain our business and keep everything flowing there,” Santo told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Some of Santo Market’s best selling products include poké, but they also sell Portuguese sausage and eggs, Spam and eggs, along with a flank steak with teriyaki sauce drizzled on. He added that poké is what was “carrying us during the pandemic.”

“We would really like to try to continue the store, leave a legacy for my mom and dad for what they have established and built up over here,” Santo said.

245 East Taylor St., San Jose’s Japantown, (408) 295-5406, https://santomarket.com/.

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