Japanese Have Deep Roots in Alameda History

Ben Pease This map by the Japantown Atlas Project shows the Japanese presence in Alameda in 1940. Japanese businesses included florists, grocers, photographers, shoe repair shops and a midwife.


Ask a Japanese child to count to three. The youngster will beam at knowing the answer and reply, “Ichi, ni, san.” Japanese who live outside their native land use these three numbers to define themselves. These three numbers express the order in which they, or their ancestors, migrated to a country outside Japan that they now call home. 

The name Issei (from ichi, or one) defines the newcomers. The Issei rarely learned English. Most of them arrived in this country in the very late part of the 19th century or early in the 20th. They thought of themselves as more Japanese than American. Some of them settled in Alameda and created a Japantown roughly bounded by Park Street, Santa Clara Avenue, Walnut Street and the Oakland Estuary. 

They either settled down in Alameda and had children or arrived in Alameda with their children, the Nisei (from ni, or two). They opened a temple on Buena Vista Avenue. They started schools for their children. They watched them grow, marry and have their own children. Many of these grandchildren, the Sansei (from san, or three) grew up attending American schools. The Sansei became more American than Japanese, at least they felt that way. Sobo and Sofu (grandpa and grandma) looked on somewhat disapprovingly. 

By the 1930s Alameda’s Japantown was flourishing. According to the California Japantowns project, 882 Japanese were living in Alameda then. The Goto family lived on Oak Street; the Hanamuras, on Pacific Avenue; and the Nakanos on Clement Avenue. They and a multitude of other Japanese families, whether Issei, Nisei or Sansei, belonged to organizations like Alameda Taiiku Kai and Asakura Shinyu Kai. They attended the Buddhist Temple and the Alameda Methodist South Church. Their children attended the Alameda Gakuen. 

“Numerous businesses provided for the close-knit community,” the California Japantowns project states. These included the Nippon Bazaar Company on Park Street; the Nakata Garage on Pacific Avenue; and the Sakamoto Nursery on Blanding Avenue. “By the 1940s the Japanese had established their niche, serving the broader community with florists, nurseries, cleaners and laundry services,” the Japantowns project tells us. 

By then war was waging in Europe. On Dec. 7, 1941, it struck home. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and fear gripped Alameda’s Japantown and all the Japantowns in the United States. The government had a special 
distrust for any Japanese living near military bases, which included the Naval Air Station in Alameda. 

Many people expected an immediate attack against the West Coast. “Fear gripped the country and a wave of hysterical antipathy against the Japanese engulfed the Pacific Coast,” writes Mark Weber for the Institute for Historical Review. 

The FBI began arresting Japanese community leaders. Weber writes that these included Buddhist or Shinto priests, newspaper editors, language or Judo instructors, or labor organizers. No one was charged with any crime.

In February 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, Commanding General of the Western Defense Command, requested authorization from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to evacuate “Japanese and other subversive persons” from the West Coast. 

A month later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9102. This order established the War Relocation Authority, which operated the internment camps. 

Roosevelt named Milton Eisenhower, brother of the future president, Dwight David Eisenhower, to head the authority. 

Weber tells us that in March 1942, the Army organized the evacuation of some 77,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese origin (Nisei) and 43,000 mostly older Japanese citizens (Issei) from California and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona.

The Japanese who lived in Alameda were taken to the Tanforan Assembly Center at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno. The center had 180 barracks, about half of them built on the racetrack infield; 26 of them were nothing more than converted horse stalls. Tanforan held 7,816 persons of Japanese ancestry from April 28 to Oct. 13, 1942.

The government sent most of the Japanese who were incarcerated at Tanforan, including those who had lived in Alameda, to the “Central Utah Relocation Center” — a place better known as “Topaz”. The train trip from Tanforan to Topaz lasted two nights and one day. The first group arrived at Topaz on Sept. 11, 1942. A few others went to Gila River and some went to Poston, both located in Arizona.

Surrounded by desert, Topaz was an entirely new environment for internees, especially for those from the Bay Area. The high desert environment could be harsh at times; temperatures could vary greatly throughout the day. The area also experienced powerful winds and dust storms. One such storm damaged 75 buildings in 1944. 

Winters were cold, with averages below freezing for several months and an average of 18 inches of snow received. Spring rains turned the clay soil to mud, which bred mosquitoes.

Relief finally came with the end of World War II. Many Japanese returned home to Alameda, delighted to see that their temple was used as a reception center for them. 

Much of Alameda’s Japantown remains hidden from public memory. Many are unaware of its existence at all, unless, in the words of the California Japantowns project, they “happen upon the obon or bazaar at the Buddhist Temple on Buena Vista Avenue.” 


Buddhist Temple of Alameda Buddhist Temple of Alameda‘s community installed this bell in 1929. Embossed on the bell are the Temple’s Issei pioneer members and a poem by Bishop Koyu Uchida.