An immersive introduction to San Jose Japantown

A BANG-UP JOB — San Jose Taiko’s “Japantown Immersive” filled the ethnic enclave with taiko, cultural activities and lessons May 20. photo by William Lee

A BANG-UP JOB — San Jose Taiko’s “Japantown Immersive” filled the ethnic enclave with taiko, cultural activities and lessons May 20.
photo by William Lee

SAN JOSE — Visitors to San Jose’s Japantown on May 20 had an “Immersive” experience as San Jose Taiko took over the intersection at Fifth and Jackson streets. Drummers jumped around the intersection facing every which way to perform for an audience that gathered in the middle of the closed-off streets.

Joining the familiar resounding beats of the giant Japanese drums, the concert also featured the sounds of Brazilian samba, jazz and rap as the event celebrated decades of history.

Spearheaded by Franco Imperial, artistic director of the taiko group, the evening was one-part music concert and another part street fair as visitors participated in events like kimono dressings and learning games such as Hanafuda and Fan-Tan. Stores and restaurants stayed open later that evening as Imperial said the event featured no food trucks, instead promoting local restaurants.

“‘Japantown Immersive’ is kind of an experiment. It’s not something that we do every year,” Imperial told the Nichi Bei News. First held in 2018 with a 1940s theme, and again in 2019 under a theme of “find your inner artist,” the event this year worked to welcome new community members to learn about San Jose’s Japantown.

“We decided that the thing we’re gonna focus on is story and history, because … we have folks that are moving into these new apartment complexes, we want to welcome them and also help them understand what this community is about,” Imperial said.

Lessons included readings from “Japantown Returnings,” a series of short excerpts depicting the neighborhood’s history through music and poetry. The Wesley United Method Church and Japanese American Museum of San Jose collaborated on the performance.

Meanwhile, Richard Kogura, a board member of the San Jose Japantown Community Congress and Japantown Business Association, recalled memories of gambling at Sixth and Jackson streets.

“When the Japanese first came here, it was single men, and so they needed something to entertain themselves,” Kogura, whose family runs the Kogura Company, told the Nichi Bei News.

He said he was teaching Hanafuda, a Japanese card game bachelors in Japantown played to gamble. However, his grandmother also played the game when he was growing up. He noted how the corner of Sixth and Jackson streets had a “karma” for gambling, ever since the area was Chinatown in the early 20th century. Police raided a Chinese Fan-Tan game in 1925 on that corner and the building later became a pool hall frequented by Filipinos who also played Fan-Tan in the back. After it became a barber’s, people continued to gamble in a back room, he said.

“The great thing is on Saturdays when they had the poker game, the men would cook up a good meal and then they’d come over and share with my uncle and my dad. So we ate good on Saturdays,” he said.

A BANG-UP JOB — San Jose Taiko’s “Japantown Immersive” filled the ethnic enclave with taiko, cultural activities and lessons May 20.
photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

mperial said getting community members to partner with him to set up the various activities along Jackson Street was relatively easy.

“That’s the beauty of ‘Japantown Immersive,’ because it’s folks that we work with in the community all the time, so it’s kind of like asking family to do you a favor and come out,” he said.

Many in the community said San Jose Taiko have been an essential part of the neighborhood’s community fabric. Reiko Iwanaga, who danced the “Tanko Boogie” — similar to the “Tanko Bushi” Bon odori — for “Japantown Returnings,” said the Chidori Band had collaborated with San Jose Taiko for 20 years or so for the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin’s annual Obon.

Arlene Damron, owner of Nichi Bei Bussan, which was hosting kimono dressings, said the taiko group had made a huge impact on the community because of their international renown.

“People all over the state, the country, the world — they know about San Jose Taiko,” Damron told the Nichi Bei News. “And they know, because of them, about San Jose’s Japantown too, and Japanese culture.”

This year’s “Japantown Immersive” coincides with San Jose Taiko’s 50th anniversary. Imperial, along with Wisa Uemura, the group’s current executive director, took over the group in 2011 from Roy and PJ Hirabayashi. The Hirabayashis told the Nichi Bei News they were excited to see the group still bringing people together 50 years on.

“Initially, for us, playing at Obon was that sort of opportunity to see people come and enjoy what we’re doing, but now doing events like the ‘Immersive’ … San Jose Taiko is actually doing something different, activating the streets, activating the merchants and bringing different kinds of entertainment performances arts and culture to Japantown,” he told the Nichi Bei News.

“I think they have embraced the philosophy, the principals, the values of San Jose Taiko,” PJ Hirabayashi said. “That allows for projects like this … that we would have never had the opportunity to think about.”

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