San Jose Japantown’s history began in what used to be called Heinlenville Chinatown. The Japanese immigrants built next to Chinatown in the late 1800’s. Most of the immigrants, young single men, worked in fruit orchards. Interestingly, The logo of San Jose Japantown in present time is a plum blossom, because many of the farmers grew plums. Many of the Japanese became merchants, and lived behind their businesses with their familes. On December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed the face of the nation when Executive Order 9066 forced all Japanese Americans on the west coast to relocate to internment camps. Almost all of Japantown’s fifty-three businesses closed during internment. To become fully engaged in the history of the trials and tribulations of the Japanese Americans of San Jose Japantown, visit the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj), located on North 5th street.
By walking further down 5th street, you will find yourself in front of the Issei Memorial Building. This building has an immense history rooted in the community and history of San Jose Japantown. Starting out as the Kuwabara hospital in 1910, this building later became a boarding house, and then a refuge for returning internees. Once it became overcrowded with people, the building was redone and was used for various core community organizations, including Yu-Ai-Kai, Asian Law Alliance, JAMsj, and the San Jose Chapter of JACL (Japanese American Citizens League). Today, the Issei Memorial Building houses the organizations: San Jose Taiko, Contemporary Asian Theatre Scene, and Japantown Community Congress.
Internment created a legacy in Japanese American culture that is reflected in San Jose’s Japantown. Also, make sure to stop by all the stores and restaurants to fully understand what this close-knit community has to offer!
To highlight a specific store, Nichi Bei Bussan is a store that sells traditional Japanese clothes, martial art supplies, and other Japanese antiques. The store is owned by Arlene Damron, and the store was originally founded in 1902 by her father in San Francisco. Nichi Bei Bussan was opened with the intent to sell name brand clothes that would fit Japanese people, times changed, and so did the store’s products. If you take a look inside the shop, you will find a display that contains many artifacts from the store’s history, including a book log of all the customers, and even clothes that used to be sold!
Now that you know more about the history and character of Japantown, make sure to stop by all the monuments and stores to witness the unique culture and community of San Jose Japantown!