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Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



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A History of Japanese Americans in California:

Most Japanese immigrants entered the United States through San Francisco. Other ports-of-entry were Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. As a result, the first large settlement of Japanese in California was in San Francisco. U.S. Census figures trace the movement and settlement of Japanese over the years.

In 1890, 590 Japanese were in San Francisco, with 184 in Alameda County and 51 in Sacramento County. A scattering of residents appeared throughout California, with the smallest number in the Southern California area. Little is known about these early Japanese immigrants. Speculation is that they worked for the railroad, were laborers, or performed miscellaneous tasks, such as chopping wood or domestic service. By 1890, the move into agricultural work had begun in the Vacaville area, Solano County. By then a Japanese had been buried in the Visalia Public Cemetery in Tulare County, and labor contractors were beginning to gather new immigrants to work in a number of industries such as the railroads, oil fields, and agriculture.

By 1900, the same Northern California counties still had the largest numbers of Japanese, but the population had increased tremendously with movement into other parts of the state. San Francisco had 1,781 Japanese, Sacramento County 1,209, and Alameda County 1,149. In addition, Monterey County had 710, Fresno County 598, San Joaquin County 313, Santa Clara County 284, Contra Costa County 276, and Santa Cruz County 235. Agricultural work drew immigrants to what were then rural areas. In many communities, nihonmachi (Japanese sections of town) were developed, with establishment of small businesses catering to the needs of immigrants. By 1900, Southern California had a Japanese population of approximately 500, with the largest concentration in Los Angeles County. But already the immigrants had begun efforts to establish themselves. Ulysses Shinsei Kaneko, for example, became one of the first Japanese naturalized in California, in San Bernardino County in 1896. Businesses in towns and cities had been in operation for almost a decade. Buddhist churches and Japanese Christian churches had been established earlier. Japanese had purchased property, and a few nisei children had been born.

City trades included domestic service and businesses catering to other Japanese — boarding houses, restaurants, barbershops, bathhouses, gambling houses, and pool halls. Labor contractors drew immigrants away from the cities to work for the railroads, canneries, and farms. Japanese laborers were an important element in California agriculture by the turn of the century.

Other immigrants initiated their own enterprises and industries. Some of these included industries the Chinese had pioneered earlier. Fishing and abalone industries developed at White Point and Santa Monica Canyon in Los Angeles County, and at Point Lobos in Monterey County. Kinji Ushijima, also known as George Shima, continued the reclamation work begun by Chinese in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. Shima eventually reclaimed more than 100,000 acres of land with the help of many laborers. The land now grows potatoes, asparagus, onions, and other produce.

Between 1900 and 1910, Japanese began to buy property and establish farms, vineyards, and orchards. All-Japanese communities developed in agricultural areas in central California, including Florin in Sacramento County (which the Japanese called Taishoku), Bowles in Fresno County, and the Yamato Colony at Livingston in Merced County.

Yamato Colony
Yamato Colony, Merced County [circa 1911]

By 1910, a distinct change had occurred in the California Japanese population, which then numbered 41,356. A move to the southern part of the state began, and the number of women in the community steadily increased. By the late 1920s, females constituted one-third of the Japanese population. Los Angeles County became the most populous Japanese settlement, with 8,461, and has remained so to this day. A major stimulus for the move south was the rapid expansion of the Los Angeles area during the Southern California boom period. Many Japanese also migrated to Los Angeles in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake.

San Francisco remained the second most populous, however, with 4,518 Japanese. Next came Sacramento County with 3,874, Alameda County with 3,266, Santa Clara County with 2,299, and Fresno County with 2,233. Other counties having more than 1,000 Japanese included Contra Costa, Monterey, and San Joaquin. The large increases in the population were a reflection of unrestricted immigration of male laborers until 1908, entrance of Japanese women into the United States, and the resultant in crease in the birth of children. Numerous nihonmachi had been established in California, ranging from Selma's one block of businesses catering to Japanese in Fresno County, to whole sections of town in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose.

The Japanese population of Los Angeles County more than doubled by 1920, increasing to 19,911, more than three times as many as the next most populous county, Sacramento, with 5,800. California's total Japanese population numbered 71,952. Fresno County had 5,732, San Francisco 5,358, and Alameda 5,221. San Joaquin County increased its population of Japanese to 4,354. Other counties with Japanese populations of more than 1,000 included Monterey, Orange, Placer, San Diego, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Tulare. This population increase was due almost to tally to the immigration of women and the birth of children. By this time, the economic basis of the Japanese community had been firmly established in agriculture and its offshoots — wholesaling, retailing, distributing. The Japanese organized their produce and flower industries vertically, resulting in a system in which all operations were owned and operated by Japanese, from raising the plants to retail sales. This resulted in organizations such as the Southern California Flower Market in Los Angeles, the California Flower Market in San Francisco, Lucky Produce in Sacramento, and the City Market in Los Angeles. Cooperatives like Naturipe in Watsonville, Santa Cruz County, were organized to improve the growing, packing, and marketing of crops produced by Japanese farmers.

Small businesses were numerous at this time. Many of the "city trades" were directly tied to rural occupations, particularly agricultural labor. Businesses such as boarding houses, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, and gambling houses were dependent on the constant traffic of single male laborers who traveled a circuit in California from one crop to the next, from the Imperial Valley to the Sacramento Valley. The Miyajima Hotel, a boarding house in Lodi, San Joaquin County, was one such business catering to agricultural laborers. Other city businesses were also oriented toward farming interests. For example, a number of Japanese entrepreneurs operating general merchandise stores had regular routes to the surrounding countryside, taking orders and making deliveries for food and other sup plies. Kamikawa Brothers in Fresno and Tsuda's in Auburn provided this service.

During the decade of 1910-20, Japanese farmers became important producers and growers of crops: Truck farming along the coast, in the Central Valley, and in Southern California; grapes and tree fruit in the Central Valley and Southern California; strawberries in a number of different locations; and rice in Northern California. Japanese were very much involved in experimenting with different strains of rice at the Biggs Rice Experiment Station in Butte County where Kenju Ikuta demonstrated that rice could be produced commercially. In addition, a large number of other Japanese were engaged in farming, distributing, and retailing of rice during this period. In later decades, Keisaburo Koda, known among the Japanese as the "rice king," established a ranch near Dos Palos in Merced County, where he produced new strains of rice.

The 1930 census shows that Los Angeles County still had the most Japanese, almost doubling its population, to 35,390. California's Japanese population numbered 97,456. Los Angeles had more than four times as many Japanese as did the second county, Sacramento, which had 8,114. Close in number were San Francisco with 6,250, Alameda with 5,715, Fresno with 5,280, San Joaquin with 4,339, and Santa Clara with 4,320. Again, the increase can be attributed to immigration of Japanese women as well as the birth of children. Because immigration was totally curtailed in 1924, however, the birth of children probably was the more important reason, numerically speaking. Another source for population increases was migration from other parts of the country. Some Japanese residents of Seattle, Washington, for example, moved to Los Angeles County during the 1930s because of increased economic opportunities during a period of nationwide depression.

Concord Nippon Gakko
Concord Nippon Gakko, Contra Costa County [circa 1926]

This period, however, was a time of growth for most nihonmachi throughout California. Almost every agricultural area with a population of Japanese residents had a flourishing Japanese section of town. Cooperatives established in previous years were functioning at their peak. Nisei children were in schools and beginning to enter the labor market. This subtle change can be noted in such things as Japanese-language newspapers adding English sections to their publications, and Japanese church youth organizations being organized.

The 1940 census shows little change from the 1930 figures. During this decade, the Japanese population of California decreased from 97,456 to 93,717, although a few counties like Los Angeles continued to increase. During the years 1942-45, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in 10 fenced and guarded concentration camps. Two of these camps were located in California: Manzanar in Inyo County and Tule Lake in Modoc County. The camp at Tule Lake did not close until March 1946. Encouraged by the War Relocation Authority to resettle in the East and Midwest, approximately one-third of the internees chose this alternative. Some never returned to the West Coast.

Those who did return had to rebuild lives that had been dramatically altered by the concentration camp experience. In some communities, one-third or more of the Japanese population did not return. Moreover, some nihonmachi did not survive. Non-Japanese businesses and residents had moved into sections of town previously occupied by Japanese Americans. The war was also a turning point in generational control of businesses, churches, and community politics, as the adult children of immigrants began to dominate in all spheres of Japanese activities.

The Japanese population of California decreased to 84,956, according to the 1950 census. Los Angeles County had the largest population, with 36,761 . San Francisco, Alameda, Fresno, Sacramento, and Santa Clara counties each had 4,000-6,000 Japanese residents. This period was one of intensive efforts to re-establish Japanese American communities. After serving as hostels for returning internees, churches re-instituted their usual activities and services. The struggle for economic survival began anew. Those nihonmachi able to be rebuilt were again the centers of the Japanese American community, but were less oriented to the immigrant generation. For example, during the 1930s, landscape gardening emerged as an occupation. It gained in importance after World War II as the numbers of nisei working as gardeners increased.

The decade 1950-60 saw almost a doubling of the Japanese population in California, to 157,317. Los Angeles County again led the state with 77,314, more than seven times the number in Santa Clara County, which had 10,432 Japanese residents. This large increase is generally attributed to the birth of sansei, the third generation of Japanese. A secondary but far less important reason numerically was the gradual return to the West Coast of individuals who had resettled to other areas during the World War II internment. A minor increase may also be attributed to Japanese women immigrating from Asia as wives of U.S. servicemen.

The birth of children resulted in a resurgence of activities in churches, Japanese-language schools, and athletic leagues. The Japanese population had made the transition from a rural to an urban population with the economic base less oriented to agriculture, although this was still important. In urban areas, Japanese women frequently worked in secretarial-clerical positions, while men obtained jobs in technical professional areas. This pattern generally holds true today, although with sansei children in their adult years now, there is increasing technical and professional training, and occupations of greater diversity for both males and females.

Yamato Colony
Little Tokyo, Los Angeles County [circa 1919]

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