Reclaim Sacramento Japantown members speak before State Assembly

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TESTIFYING TO SACRAMENTO J-TOWN’S HISTORY ­— Priscilla Ouchida, Jim Tabuchi, Josh Kaizuka, Jamie Katayanagi and Michelle Huey. courtesy of Joshua Kaizuka

Seventy years ago, in 1954, the city of Sacramento announced its decision to demolish the city’s West End. Then the home of a thriving Japantown that had only recently been rebuilt after the community’s unjust incarceration during World War II, the West End was one of the most ethnically diverse districts in Sacramento.

Yet, city officials saw the community as a “slum,” and declared that destroying the city’s Japantown was necessary for its revitalization. Beginning in 1956, the buildings west of the state capitol were destroyed in favor of constructing a mall. Today, all that remains of Sacramento’s lost Japantown are memories of the neighborhood.

On Feb. 15, four members of Reclaim Sacramento Japantown appeared before the California State Assembly to testify about the former neighborhood’s history. The group spoke at length about the unjust demolition of Sacramento’s Japantown during the 1950s and called for the dedication of a public space to remember the lost neighborhood.

Members of Reclaim Sacramento Japantown — Priscilla Ouchida, Michelle Huey, Jim Tabuchi and Joshua Kaizuka — shared their statements with the Assembly’s Select Committee on Reconnecting Communities at the State Capitol. Jamie Katayanagi, a founding member of Reclaim Sacramento Japantown, was also present.

Presided by Committee Chair David Alvarez (D-80), the committee was formed to document the history of marginalized communities in California that were affected by freeways as a part of urban development during the 20th century.

Over the course of an hour, the four witnesses each recounted stories of Sacramento’s Japantown in 1950. Ouchida, the former executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, began the hearing with an overview of Japanese American history in Sacramento and the role of Sacramento leaders, including former Sacramento Bee publisher Valentine S. McClatchy, in demonizing the Japanese American community. Ouchida connected the prewar anti-Japanese movement with the decision to demolish the West End, stating that the racist attitudes toward Japanese Americans in 1954 were the same as in 1942.

Huey, a member of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, spoke at length about the role of the Sacramento Bee in portraying Japantown as a blighted neighborhood despite the neighborhood’s growth at the time. Huey described the West End in 1950 as the city’s business district that was “the most populated, diverse and integrated neighborhood” in Sacramento.

Kaizuka, an attorney and co-president of the Florin JACL, spoke about the rich history of Sacramento’s Japantown and the former diversity of the city’s West End. Kaizuka gave a speech about the multiethnic coalition of groups, including the NAACP and Latino community leaders, who joined Japanese Americans in protesting against the proposed demolitions.

Lastly, Tabuchi, a community organizer and facilitator of the Reclaim Sacramento Japantown coalition, spoke about the history of the West End after Japantown’s destruction. Tabuchi noted that the California Redevelopment Agency used taxpayer money to fund Japantown’s destruction despite Sacramento voters having disapproved of a bond measure to fund the project.

Tabuchi declared that the destruction of Japantown created a second “relocation” of the community from Sacramento. At the end of his presentation, Tabuchi shared his own family’s history of having lived through the destruction of his family’s building in the 1950s. “I remember this as clear as day. As a four-year-old boy, sitting in the front seat of my mother’s lap in our station wagon, watching the wrecking ball slam into our building and turn it into rubble. With tears running down my face, I told her I would rebuild our building.“

Following their testimony, committee chair Alvarez asked the group for potential plans for moving forward. Several of the panelists shared suggestions for developing public space in the West End that both acknowledge Japantown’s history and unite the city of Sacramento. Tabuchi argued that revitalizing the West End would not only serve to redress the wrong of Japantown’s erasure, but also help integrate the area into the city. Tabuchi said that several areas could be used as a space for acknowledging the multicultural and multiracial history of Sacramento. Ouchida noted that space could be converted to offer music venues — a nod to the history of jazz in Japantown, where several clubs existed — along with public housing for marginalized communities.

When asked about the hearing’s goal afterwards, Kaizuka remarked that the hearing is the beginning of revitalizing the city’s West End. “I think we could have a West End block to start with. Not just so that the Japanese American community can have space, but for all communities as this used to be a multiethnic neighborhood. We’ve got to start with something, and there is plenty of public space in the area.”
Kaizuka identified several areas in the West End that have remained vacant for decades as potential sites.

The committee’s hearing offers an important first step in raising awareness to the lost history of Sacramento’s Japantown and setting a goal for creating a welcoming space that redresses the past.

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