Japanese Once Disappeared, Today They Have Story to Tell

California Civil Liberties Public Education Project (CCLPEP)    This map by the Ben Pease of 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, to express the order in which they, or their ancestors, migrated to a county outside Japan they now call home.

The name Issei (from Ichi or one) defines the newcomers. The Issei rarely learned English. Most 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.

The Issei 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. 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.

Alameda’s Japanese community attended the Buddhist Temple on Buena Vista Avenue just west of Park Street and the Alameda Methodist South Church on Eagle Avenue just east of Park. Their children attended the Alameda Gakuen, next door to the temple.

The Buddhist Temple began life as home to William T. S. Ryer and his wife, Mary Jane. The gold rush brought William and his younger brother, Washington, to California. When news of gold reached New York City William was working there as the city weigher, the man responsible to the city government for properly weighing and sealing imported goods. Records show Washington was making his living as a mason, an interesting occupation for a man who held his M. D.

The brothers next show up in the records in 1860. They were living in Tulare Township in San Joaquin County. Census records state that they were employed there — about 45 miles south of Fresno — as “major domos,” ranch overseers. The year 1869 found the brothers living in San Francisco. That year’s city directory lists William as a real-estate investor. Washington was making his living as a medical doctor. On May 28, 1872 William married Mary Jane Merrihew.

In 1886, architect George Bordwell designed the handsome half-timbered villa on Buena Vista Avenue near Park Street for William and Mary Jane. William lived in Alameda until his death on April 1, 1892. Sometime after his death Edward K. Taylor purchased the home. Taylor served Alameda as both city attorney and mayor. Alameda Museum Curator writes that the home underwent century renovations, both designed by architect A. W. Cornelius and built by the firm of Ingerson & Gore.

In 1914, Taylor rented a large room in the villa to the Buddhists. Five years later the Buddhists purchased the home from Taylor. They used the building both as a place of worship and as a home for their minister and his family.

The congregation later purchsed a new home for the minister and remodeled the old Ryer home to better accommodate their needs.

Alameda’s Japantown was flourishing in the 1930s. 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 Nakasos 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.

“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. 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.

“One of the most haunting chapters in Alameda’s history is the rousting of Japanese-Americans in World War II,” wrote Julia Park Tracey in Alameda magazine. “Alameda had a thriving Japantown with its own bathhouses, baseball teams and a large Buddhist temple, but all of that disappeared with Executive Order 9066.”

Tracey reminds us that because of Alameda’s strategic location and Navy ties, the city was one of the first cleared of people of Japanese ancestry. Today, even longtime Alameda residents know very little about Alameda’s Japantown, or the ways in which Alameda offers a unique perspective on the Japanese-American experience.

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 in-field; 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 incarcerated at Tanforan, including those who had lived in Alameda, to the “Central Utah Relocation Center”— a place better known as “Topaz”. A few others went to Gila River and some went to Poston, both in Arizona.

Relief finally came with the end of the war. Many Japanese returned home to Alameda, delighted to see that their temple was used as a reception center for them. Even today, much of Alameda’s Japantown remains hidden from public memory.

After returning to Alameda the Japanese settled in, purchasing homes and starting anew. Many Alamedans remain unaware of Japantown’s 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.

Library of Congress    The federal government took most of the Japanese who lived in Alameda to the Tanforan Assembly Center at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno. The former Alameda residents were forced to live with some 7,816 persons of Japanese ancestry in 180 barracks, about half of them built on the racetrack in-field; 26 were nothing more than converted horse stalls.
Iwaihara family collection    The congregation of the Buddhist Temple of Alameda, pictured on page 1. Built as the home of William T. S. Ryer and his wife, Mary Jane in 1886, a room in the home was first rented as a place of worship by the Japanese community, then purchased in 1919.

Dennis Evanosky publishes the Alameda Sun with Eric J. Kos; reach Dennis at editor@alamedasun.com