By John Sammon
The most definitive history of San Jose’s Japantown ever published prints this month and its authors said the book would present as never before the rich culture of Japanese immigrants and generations of Japanese Americans who followed.
The book, titled, “San Jose Japantown: A Journey,” 15 years in the making, will go on sale to the public in November, though people can preorder copies of the book through Aug 15.
“There were times when I thought the project would never end,” said co-author Curt Fukuda. “The culture in Japantown was so rich and we had so much material. We were originally shooting for a 300-page book and then it went up to 500 pages. We didn’t want it so big and heavy you couldn’t hold it in your hand. We had to figure out what we had to cut, and ended up cutting about half of what we had.”
The book covers the time period from the 1890’s when Japanese immigration to San Jose accelerated, through the tumult of the World War II internment period up to 2010. Fukuda, a film maker, photographer and technical writer, said the project came about partly by accident beginning in 1999.
“I was taking a multi-media class at Foothill College,” he said. “I was being shown how to do a virtual tour using computers and I thought Japantown would be an interesting project for a virtual tour.”
Assisted by Jim Nagareda, a local photographer, Fukuda took 360-degree panoramic photos of Japantown, an area of San Jose running from First Street to 8th Street, Empire Street in the south to Taylor Street in the north.
“We’d stand in the middle of a busy street to take the photos,” Fukuda said. “We thought it would be cool to have a project where you could click on a button and it would talk to you about the history of a site.”
At first the project envisioned merely a CD Rom (compact disc) and an accompanying eight-page book. As more interesting stories were accumulated, it turned into a 16-page book, then grew to a 32-page effort.
“My wife, who is one of the smartest people I know, finally said, ‘just do a full-blown book,’” Fukuda recalled. “That was in 2001.”
Instrumental in the book’s development was Jimi Yamaichi, curator of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, who invited Fukuda to meet and interview long-time residents to get their recollections. It was a learning experience for Fukuda because although he is of Japanese American heritage, he grew up in another part of San Jose and had little personal knowledge of Japantown.
“I was born in San Jose but grew up in the east side where we had a population that included Portuguese and Hispanics,” he said. “I did go to Sunday School at the Buddhist Church in Japantown and my parents would sometimes take me to one of their festivals. We’d buy some Japanese gifts, but that was about all.”
Fukuda’s parents were Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans. His father did a variety of jobs as an auto mechanic, cabinet maker and gardener.
During World War II when 115,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast suspected of disloyalty were forcibly stripped of their rights and livelihoods by the government and herded into internment camps, Fukuda’s mother was sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and his father a camp in Poston, Arizona.
“My parents met after the war,” Fukuda said. “My father had lived in Salinas and after the war in the 1950’s he went to work for Sears in their sales department.”
Fukuda attended San Jose State College and developed an interest in film making.
“I was taking graphic arts classes and was interested in movies,” he said. “I made my own Super 8 movie films and ended up taking a job as a cinematographer for an aerospace firm, Ford Aero Space. That’s an arm of the Ford Motor Company.”
He was also interested in still photography and entered the commercial photography field taking pictures for corporate clients. In addition, Fukuda learned computer and Photoshop (editing software) skills. He wrote Adobe Photoshop instruction manuals.
Fukuda branched out further, doing graphic design for a company in San Francisco, web design, and taught video and photography classes for KMVT 15, a public access television channel in Mountain View.
“I’ve been busy,” he said. “It’s been a juggling act finding time because I also have a 12-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. That’s one of the reasons it took 15 years to do the book.”
The book project involved the talents not only of Fukuda and Nagareda, but co-writer Ralph Pearce, area resident Janice Oda, who served as book designer, Ward Shimizu and June Hayashi.
Pearce is a library clerk for the California Room at the King Library in downtown San Jose, an archival historical repository where much of the information for the book was gained.
“I’m third generation and I’ve always been interested in the history of Japantown,” Pearce said. “I was excited when Jim Nagareda asked me to assist and hooked me up with Curt (Fukuda). I had written a book previously about the history of Japanese American baseball, so I had some background.”
Pearce served many functions, editing and proofreading as well as writing.
Research involved going through publications, old musty documents, early-day newspaper accounts, and studying archives at libraries and museums. The group received invaluable help from Jim Reed, head historian at History San Jose, the region’s largest historical repository.
Numerous interviews were conducted with long-time residents, some of who have since passed away.
“The number of our interviews is over 100 people,” Fukuda said. “I personally interviewed 75. We would go into a person’s home and if they were comfortable with it, video record the interview. Sometimes we would interview two or three people at one sitting.”
Never-before-published rare historic photos were acquired from people after the interviews.
“People were very gracious lending us their photos,” Fukuda said. “We would take a scanner to their home and make a copy of the pictures.”
The book is not just about Japanese Americans, but also explains the history of other ethnic groups who lived in the area, including the Chinese, residents from the Philippines and African Americans. Chinese settlement predated Japanese immigration.
“I didn’t know there was a big Chinatown before Japantown,” Fukuda said. “Before 1868 and the Meiji Restoration, Japan was a feudal country and people were not allowed to leave. To learn about the size of the Chinese community here was a revelation.”
Fukuda added that as late as the late 1960’s, some locals still referred to the area as “Chinatown.”
Another little-known phase was the period when residents from the Philippines predominated in numbers because Japanese Americans had been shipped off to internment camps during World War II.
“During the war many people from the Philippines lived along North 6th Street,” Fukuda said. “We have photos of Japantown when Japanese Americans were not there.”
Yet another interesting period was the 1970’s. Japantown’s population was aging. Fukuda said the community was rejuvenated partly by younger third generation (Sansei) residents and new arrivals taking renewed interest in the community, its culture and history.
“It was thought at first the younger generation didn’t care,” Fukuda said. “These younger people grew up during the Vietnam War and the period of protest of the 1960’s. But they rediscovered their culture. Some of them were political activists, and they helped older people or sometimes gave legal advice. They brought new energy to Japantown.”
Greater involvement by a new generation led to revitalization and the formation of cultural organizations like Yu-Ai Kai, a senior service organization, San Jose Taiko (a unique form of Japanese American drumming) and others. Some of the younger residents and new arrivals founded businesses of their own or took over those started by their parents.
Fukuda said the most difficult part of putting the book together was coordinating all the different elements into a cohesive story. The most enjoyable part was meeting the people interviewed.
“They were such interesting people, most of course I’d never met before,” he said. “They were the kind of people you wish you’d known all your life.”
Fukuda has authored two books before, both concerned with a Mexican holiday commemorating ancestors who have passed away. The books are Day of the Dead Folk Tales, co-written with Salvador Gonzalez, self-published in 1997, and Day of the Dead, published in 2004 by Berghahn Books of New York.
The Japanese American Museum of San Jose is the publisher of San Jose Japantown: A Journey. The initial print run is expected to be 1,500 to 2,500 copies. Museum officials are planning a celebration in November for the release.
Bob McKibbin, board member of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, said the book can be pre-ordered through Aug. 15 for a 33 percent discount at $43.50. After that it will sell for $60 a copy.
Union Bank as a sponsor donated funding to help with publicity and pre-sales of the book.
“The proceeds from the sales of the book will be donated to local charities and nonprofits,” McKibbin said.
Pearce said his hope is that Japantown endures as a unique community.
“We felt it was important enough to tell the story of Japantown, that it was worth preserving,” he said.
Fukuda said he hopes publication of the book will inspire people to learn more about Japantown. He added that the desire to tell the story kept him and coworkers going through disappointments and doubts the project would ever reach completion.
“There were times when I thought we have to be crazy to be doing this,” he said. “But I knew that even though I didn’t live in Japantown as a boy, it was like it became a part of me. You can’t escape the little thing, your heritage, inside you.”
People may order San Jose Japantown: A Journey by going to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose website at www.jamsj.org.