Monument dedicated to lost Japanese American community of Winters


JAPANTOWN MONUMENT UNVEILED — The Winters Japantown Monument was officially dedicated on May 4 at Rotary Park. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei News

WINTERS, Calif. — On May 4, the community of Winters unveiled a monument dedicated to city’s Japanese American community. The product of years of work between Japanese American community members and the Winters City Council, the monument commemorated the contributions of the town’s Japanese American community while also acknowledging the injustices incurred against them by their fellow residents.

Although a modest town nestled in the Sacramento Valley, Winters has a unique place in Japanese American history. Historian Yuji Ichioka estimated that some of the first Japanese immigrants to work in agriculture in California happened when a group of field hands took jobs in Winters in 1888. Soon after, several immigrant families settled in Winters, and by 1940 some 300 Japanese Americans called Winters home.

WINTERS JAPANTOWN — Japanese mourners at the funeral of Mrs. N. Nishida lined up with their floral tributes in front of buildings that once constituted the Asian business district. Originally owned by the Chinese, the structures shown, c. 1930, include two Chinese residences on the left, the fish store of Yoshiye and Kabata, the Buddhist Temple, and the Horai Co., located nearest the railroad bridge. These buildings were partially burned on V-J Day in 1945. Soon after they were demolished in 1948, the city of Winters purchased the three-acre site. photo by F.H. Kuroko (Yolo County Archives).

In the years prior to World War II, white city residents developed a bitter hatred towards Japanese Americans. The town segregated Japanese Americans to a district known as Block 4, which became the site of the Winters Japantown.

Like many other West Coast towns in 1942, the city of Winters promoted anti-Japanese sentiment following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese American residents were detained at the Gila River and Granada (Amache) concentration camps in Arizona and Colorado, locals took over the farm property of their former neighbors. Throughout the war, the town maintained a bitterly racist view toward Japanese Americans; locals drew up a petition calling for a ban on Japanese Americans returning to the town.

Shortly after Victory over Japan Day in September 1945, a mysterious fire broke out that destroyed the remaining buildings of Winter’s Japantown. No arrests were made. After the war, so few Japanese Americans felt welcomed in Winters that less than 15 percent of the pre-war population returned to the town.

For city officials and members of the Japanese American community, the monument represents a moment of reconciliation for the town’s past actions and the call for tolerance. The ceremony began in a packed Winters Community Center, with nearly 100 people from across Yolo County in attendance. The initial unveiling was scheduled outside, though a rainstorm forced the organizers to move the ceremony indoors. First to speak were master of ceremonies Woody Fridae from the Winters Historical Society and Winters Mayor Bill Biasi.

Floyd Shimomura, one of the project’s leaders, gave a speech on the long history of Japanese Americans in Winters and the meaning of the monument to the descendants of the Winters Japanese American community.

For Shimomura, the monument represents a personal victory. The son of farmers from Winters, Shimomura’s family was among the few to return to the town after the war. After graduating from Winters High School in 1966, Shimomura went to the University of California, Davis, where he later joined the first class at UC Davis’s law school. In 1982, Shimomura was elected president of the National Japanese American Citizens League, the youngest president to ever lead the organization at the age of 34. During his tenure as president, he oversaw the organization’s lobbying efforts for the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. He also was the first JACL president to visit to Japan on behalf of the organization.

Shimomura worked closely with members of local government to get approval for the memorial. Among those government officials who presented statements at the ceremony included Yolo County Supervisor Lucas Frerichs and Eliana Pimentel from State Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry’s office. Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yo Osumi, who was invited on behalf of Shimomura, offered remarks on the monument’s relevance to U.S.-Japan relations.

Rep. Mike Thompson. D-Calif., entered a speech into the Congressional Record praising the town of Winters for acknowledging the injustice of the incarceration as a part of its history and for erecting a monument to the Japanese American community. A copy of Thompson’s speech was displayed in the auditorium alongside resolutions by the Winters City Council, Yolo County Board of Supervisors and the California State Assembly regarding the monument.

Several descendants from the Winters Japanese American community also spoke to the crowd. Kristen and Kiku Yasukawa read a story written by their grandmother Sumiko Higaki. Higaki, who attended the ceremony, wrote the story “Everything Gone,” which detailed the moments before her family left for the assembly centers in May 1942:

“With everything gone — the piano, our pets, Daddy’s record player — everything gone, we left our now empty home in late May, 1942. The apricots were almost ready for harvest, the fruit turning a beautiful pinkish color on the trees. Daddy and Mama had worked all year caring for their apricot, almond, peach and plum orchards, but they would not be here to see the harvest. The evening before we left, after dinner, Daddy had gone out alone for a walk through the apricot orchard near the house. I saw him stop and for a long time, he just stood there, looking up at the trees. He didn’t say anything but I thought I knew what he was thinking, what he was feeling, because I felt it, too — not as acutely perhaps but I understood.”

Two community members, Dennis Hiramatsu and Howard Kato, offered thoughts of gratitude for the creation of the monument. Hiramatsu spoke about the contributions of Japanese American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service to the war effort. “Many of our fathers and uncles served in the 442nd and many of them were decorated for their valor in loyalty and sacrifice,” Hiramatsu stated. “On their behalf, thank you very much for this memorial.”

Rev. Matt Hamasaki of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento led a closing benediction for the ceremony. As the rain stopped, the crowd gathered outside to see the unveiling of the monument.

The stone monument, now located in Rotary Park in Downtown Winters, is now located where, 80 years ago, a vibrant Japantown existed before its destruction by local residents. For the town of Winters, the monument offered a moment for community healing of past wrongs and a celebration of a better future.

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