Honoring Lost Japantown through the Performing Arts

The Iwaihara familiy pose in their Model T near the Fernside District around 1916.
Mataichi Ozeki

Honoring Lost Japantown through the Performing Arts

Tina Blaine

Alameda once had a thriving Japantown, but few Alamedans know of its history and the story of its residents. At the turn of the 20th century, the Issei, first generation Japanese immigrants, came to Alameda as “sojourners”, seeking a better life, with a dream of making their fortunes.

In response to the growing number of Japanese immigrants and local restrictions on where they could eat, shop, or get a haircut, Japanese-run businesses began to surface on Park Street.

By 1912, Alameda Japantown consisted of barbers, bathhouses, hotels, restaurants, grocers, tofu shops, laundries, bicycle shops, a doctor, a tailor, and shoe repair shops. Local businesses increased in the mid-1920s with nurseries and floral shops to support the Japanese in gardening and landscape work.

However, the journey for the Issei was filled with many hardships. They faced anti-immigration laws in the 1920s, increased animosity toward Japanese in the 1930s, and the incarceration of all persons of Japanese ancestry from 1942 to the end of World War II.

Despite the erasure of Alameda Japantown, the Japanese Methodist Church South and the Buddhist Temple opened as hostels in 1946, offering hope for the returning Japanese, and a promise to revitalize the tonarigumi, neighborhood cohesiveness, that exists today.

Rhythmix Island City Waterways’ Japantown Art Walk is presented in conjunction with Tonarigumi, Alameda’s Historic Japantown Neighborhood

Tonarigumi is working in partnership with the City of Alameda, Buena Vista United Methodist Church and the Buddhist Temple of Alameda.

Together, they are striving to raise awareness and reclaim the memories of the past. They want to remember the Issei elders and all they endured, and to be uplifted by the strength and resilience of a community.

Four markers are being created to share a forgotten history of Alameda’s Japantown and impart a lesson from the past, to embrace diversity and advocate civil liberties for all people.

The Island City Waterways Japantown Art Walk honors Alameda’s Japanese American community with traditional Japanese folk arts, contemporary dance, traditional taiko and world fusion in Alameda’s historic Japantown.

In conjunction with the City of Alameda’s Tonarigumi historic marker project, each performance in the Japantown Art Walk reflects a different aspect of Alameda’s Japanese American community.

Beginning at the Alameda Free Library, ODC/Dance — San Francisco’s premier contempo¬rary dance company — presents “May’s Letters” an original work by ODC choreographer Kimi Okada, inspired by letters written by her mother while in Tule Lake internment camp.

Performances at the Buddhist Temple of Alameda reflect traditional cultural celebrations: Ensohza Minyoshu presents traditional Japanese folk dance and music evoking the festival spirit and character of Japan’s diverse rural community; PJ Hirabayashi, taiko artist and founder of TaikoPeace, invites the community to participate in “Ei Ja Nai Ka,” a dance, rhythm, song, and chant in celebration, gratitude and commemoration of our immigrant ancestors; Jane Suiei Naito exhibits a contemporary ikebana (flower arranging) installation.

At Buena Vista United Methodist Church, embracing the contemporary and progressive, Maze Daiko performs original music that combines taiko with world rhythms and melodies creating a unique sound that is influenced by the cultural diversity of the Bay Area.

Free to the public, the Japantown Art Walk takes place on Friday, Sept. 17 from 5 to 8 p.m. RSVP, info and schedule at: rhythmix.org.