Unlike the many Chinatowns that serve as ethnic cultural enclaves in many American cities from coast to coast, and the increasing numbers of districts variously called “Koreatowns” and “Little Saigons,” you won’t find many Nihonmachi, or Japantowns. There are lots of reasons for this, but the main one is probably the Japanese American community’s need to assimilate into mainstream America after the shame and humiliation of being imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. In the 1950s and ’60s, most JAs moved into suburban America and avoided clustering in ethnic Japanese areas.
Denver has Sakura Square, a one-block development built in the 1970s I like to call “Tiny Tokyo” because it’s ridiculously small compared to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. And New York City has a couple-blocks of Japanese businesses that have sprouted in recent years in the East Village that might be called a “mini-Japantown” in Manhattan. Seattle’s Japantown evolved after the war into the International District, though I think it’s still anchored by the awesome, generations-old Uwajimaya supermarket.
But not surprisingly, the three Japantowns that are officially recognized as national historic districts are all in California, where the vast majority of Japanese immigrants settled in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Along with the well-known and tourist-filled Little Tokyo in LA and San Francisco’s Japantown is the Japantown area of San Jose that’s more a neighborhood than a business district.
Erin and I have traveled to and stayed at both Little Tokyo and San Francisco’s Japantown, but only visited San Jose’s J-town a couple of times. We spent a few hours there last week and we love it. Here’s why:
First, it’s not a tourist trap, with shops selling cheap trinkets and souvenirs for travelers from the US and Japan. Not that that’s so bad, but the lack of such shops is striking when you wander in San Jose compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Second, unlike the other two J-towns, it’s an area where Japanese still live — and have for generations. The more citified J-towns have suffered from the outflow of the Japanese families to the suburbs, and the districts themselves have been remade by recent urban renewal projects and development. The sense of history is more palpable everywhere in San Jose, while you have to rely on preservation efforts and monuments to carry on the values of the past in LA and SF.
Third, San Jose as a city is simply more laid-back and smaller-scale. Few buildings in San Jose’s J-town rise up more than two or three stories. Many of the storefronts and restaurants probably haven’t changed much since they were originally built. Or if they have, they still feel quaintly small-town.
In fact, Erin captured the feel of San Jose’s J-town perfectly while walking down the sidewalk past older guys sitting on a bench, people waiting for their favorite restaurants to open for lunch, and shoppers ambling into the local tofu shop for the morning’s fresh, homemade tofu. “It’s like Mayberry, only for Japanese Americans,” she chuckled. “You expect to hear people say ‘Hey Shig!’ and ‘Hi Tak!’ instead of ‘Hey Andy!’ and ‘Hi Opie!'”
It’s true. This J-town feels like a time capsule of small-town America — with a Japanese cast.
The area isn’t that much bigger than Denver’s Tiny Tokyo, stretching only a few blocks in all directions. It sits north of downtown San Jose, and goes from First Street to the west to 8th street to the east, and Jackson Street to the south and Taylor Street to the north. The streets are wide and quiet, and there’s a slower pace to life than its counterparts in LA and San Francisco. Its outskirts are lined with the typical older bungalows that make up San Jose’s traditional residential architecture. You can tell some of the ones where JAs live by the manicured bonsai bushes out front.
People acknowledge and talk to each other on the street. When we were trying to decide on a lunch spot, we began talking to an older couple waiting for Gombei, an excellent restaurant Erin and I had dined at on a previous visit, to open. But a woman walking by overheard us and suggested we try a new shabu-shabu restaurant down the block that she’d eaten at and liked, called Shaburi. So we did, and had a fabulous meal with thin slices of beef and lots of vegetables cooked in personal hot pots, for under $9.
One of our favorite shops in J-town is Nikkei Traditions, which sells arts, crafts, clothing, gifts, books, CDs and DVDs made by and about Japanese Americans and Hawai’i. Half a block down the street, the grandkids of Roy Murotsune, who ran a Mobil gas station on a J-town corner for decades, recently fixed up the property and re-opened Roy’s Station as a hip coffee shop. It’s that kind of family-oriented, historically anchored place.
History is important in all of the Japantowns, but in LA and SF it’s because the community is always struggling to preserve bits and pieces of history against the march of time and money and development. They also are undergoing business and cultural evolutions as businesses are increasingly owned not by Japanese or JAs but by Koreans and others. In San Jose’s J-town, though, the respect for history is part of preservation efforts but you get the feeling that the spirit of the place is always going to be preserved and people aren’t sweating or struggling against the forces of modern economics. There are volunteer service organizations that care for elders and that promote the J-town businesses. The past, present and future seem well-cared-for here.
I’m sure that’s just a naive outsider’s view, but one reflection of that spirit is that the community is slowly but doggedly building a new Japanese American Museum that is beautifully designed to look modern and traditionally Japanese at the same time, and also fit into the residential block on which it sits. The building is right next door to the home where former Transportation Secretary (and namesake of the San Jose International Airport) Norm Mineta was born and grew up in. It’s not a jarring transition at all from the house to the new museum building.
A few buildings down and across the street is a somewhat cluttered enclave of a home converted to an art gallery, with a series of open sheds covered with partial roofing, that looks like a machine shop or mechanic’s garage of some sort. Jeanne Katsuro, who’s operated The Classic Rock jewelry store for two decades plus in J-town had just met us a half-hour before and was happily walking us around and introducing us to everyone she knew — which is apparently everyone, period.
As we approached the fenced-off backyard, Jeanne yelled for Ken, and we saw a face peek out from behind the fance. He came around to the side door of the gallery, which he has someone else run. The gallery doesn’t display his art in the current show. But he walked us into a back area behind the gallery where he has his sculptures on display. They’re brilliant, mostly using stone and carving them into gorgeous curvaceous cones or bowl shapes with flat tops, into which he bores out perfect smooth holes.
The pieces are intriguing for their use of found material (stone is about as elemental as you get) transformed by technology and industry into glossy, irresistible objects that look as if they hold messages from ancient gods.
He showed us a lot of his work, including a mockup for a residential commission for which he’s creating a sculpture, an accompanying wall that changes with the movement of the sun, and another piece at the end of a lap pool.
The piece that really moved me was one of his signature cones, created from bricks from the doctor’s house across the street that used to be where the museum is now being built. Matsumoto took many of the original bricks to recycle them in his art, and to keep the spirit of the JA community that founded San Jose’s lovely Japantown alive in new and marvelous incarnations.
For me, that’s a perfect statement on why San Jose’s Japantown is a great place: The spirit of its community lives on, effortlessly.
We’d like to visit more often… and who knows? Maybe some day we’ll be lucky enough to live there and become part of the fabric of this magical little area, this Mayberry for Japanese Americans.