Alameda library commemorates Japantown that once was

Jo Takata presents artifacts catalogued through her work on the Alameda Japanese American History Project. photo by William Lee

Judy Furuichi presents artifacts catalogued through her work on the Alameda Japanese American History Project. photo by William Lee

ALAMEDA, Calif. — The crowd was overflowing out of the Alameda Free Library’s Stafford Community Room May 17 for “Overflowing With Hope: The Hidden History of Japanese Americans in Alameda.”

The exhibition documenting the now-gone but not forgotten Alameda’s Japantown reflected on the community’s three-year efforts to preserve its history for a future generation.

“The photos, the videos, the artifacts you see, the online resources that you can now reach are a labor of love, folks,” Wendy Hanamura, director of partnerships at the Internet Archives, said.

The various photos and videos collected through the project have been uploaded to the Internet Archive and the Densho Encyclopedia online.

“What you see is only perhaps a tenth, maybe even less than that of all of the artifacts that we have collected. Many of us have been working on this for three years, but in the case of Jo Takata, 30 years. We call it the Alameda Japanese American History Project, and these items indeed represent the last remnants of what was once a bustling community all around you on Park Street.”

The Japanese American community once thrived in the eastern half of the island of Alameda. The ethnic enclave — featuring bicycle shops, laundry businesses and a sewing school — was one of the first to be ousted after World War II started due to the military base on the island.

Hanamura said the Nikkei community came together to collect and document its community fearing the coming saeculum for the wartime experience, or the moment when the final person who experienced a moment in history dies.

“I’m betting that you’re like me, and that in your house, you have a drawer, maybe it’s a closet, where you have your parents’ photographs, your grandparents’ photographs, their artifacts, you have old cassette tapes, maybe VHS tapes, … and they’re treasures, but what are you going to do with those? Are your kids going to want these? What’s even on them? You don’t even have machines to run them anymore.”

Hanamura said the History Project sought to collect everything they could find and conduct every interview they could before it was too late. She later elaborated to the Nichi Bei News that magnetic media only lasts approximately 50 years and many survivors, now very old, were reluctant to come forward to give their oral histories. She said six of the people they interviewed for the project over the course of three years, had died by the time they published the archive.

“But we feel so happy that we collected the last interview with Mas Takano, the last interview with Kenji Tomita, so important,” she said

The project was largely made possible because of efforts spearheaded by the two Japanese American churches on the island, the Buddhist Temple of Alameda and the Buena Vista United Methodist Church. Rev. Michael Yoshii, the retired Buena Vista pastor, explained why the churches played a major role in the community. Aside from helping Japanese Americans first establish a community on the island before the war, he said the churches again helped families returning to the Bay Area after the war and held a unique interfaith relationship with each other.

“Japanese Americans, I believe, are unique in that the interfaith relationships between Buddhists and Christian communities were born out of a common struggle between war racism, the mass incarceration and the post-war re-establishment of their communities. The interfaith bonds were forged in the crucible of shared struggle and collective need for survival,” Yoshii said. “And this is why members of both churches have always provided mutual support to one another here in Alameda, Alameda Buddhist Temple and Buena Vista have always had a very unique relationship.”

Yoshii explained that when his church needed more tables and chairs for their annual summer bazaar, the Rev Zuikei Taniguchi would gather volunteers from his church to bring them over. Buena Vista members would also go to the Buddhist temple where the Japanese American Citizens League held its monthly meetings. Hanamura herself joked she was the result of Alameda’s first “mixed marriage,” the Tsuchiya family from the Buddhist Temple of Alameda and the Hanamura family from Buena Vista.

Jo Takata presents artifacts catalogued through her work on the Alameda Japanese American History Project. photo by William Lee

Sisters Judy Furuichi and Jo Takata shared family stories uncovered through the research done for the project as well. Furuichi spoke about photographer Mataichi Ozeki, who documented the pre-war Japanese American community on the island, and through it, photos of the grandfather Furuichi never knew. Younger sibling Takata meanwhile spoke about her family’s experience in camp.

Hanamura and the sisters all credited Brad Shirakawa for his work collecting and organizing the materials the community contributed to the project. Shirakawa told the Nichi Bei News Hanamura hired him initially to work an average of 20 hours a week for two years on the project.

“I probably averaged closer to 25 to 30 hours a week for … almost three years. So I don’t know what that adds up to, but that’s a heck of a lot,” he said.

Shirakawa said he had few personal ties to the Alameda community when he started the project, but through the help of local families, he was able to piece together stories using the countless photographs he collected and other documents.

“One of the more interesting things is, when I’m looking at one family’s album, and then it jogs my memory that ‘Oh, there’s a picture in the other family’s album.’ And between those two, I can now figure out what those pictures are about,” he said. “And I couldn’t have done it just looking at one album or the other. I had to connect the dots from different families, almost as if they were telling me the story somehow.”

“All this work is because of Brad, I just cannot say enough about him. And it was just fabulous,” Furuichi said. “We found connections of families that went back for years and years, which we didn’t know about. Yeah, so it’s been a wonderful journey.”

And while the project and its resulting exhibit collected a wealth of information for the larger Alameda community, Furuichi said her focus and reason for helping spearhead the project was to leave something for her “children, grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.”

“That was the basis of our project. I did it for my family,” she said.

The Alameda Free Library, located 1550 Oak St., Alameda, Calif., will continue to host “Overflowing With Hope: The Hidden History of Japanese Americans in Alameda.” through July 15. For more information, including exhibition hours, visit https://www.alamedafree.org/Events-directory/Japanese-in-Alameda.

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