June’s Cover Story: California’s Japantowns are packed with culture
By Samantha Quee
People always say it is a lot easier to find a Chinatown than a Japantown in most countries. When I first came to Colorado, it was nearly impossible to find either one!
There are more than 50 million people of Chinese descent living outside China while according to the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver, as of October 1, 2015, the number of Japanese residing out of Japan is 419,610, with 4096 of them residing in Colorado.
The three major US cities with the highest Japanese populations are Los Angeles (68,689), New York City (44,636), and San Francisco (18,777).
Japanese Immigration to the United States
Like immigrants everywhere, the Japanese left their homeland in search of a better life for their families. Much of this immigration happened from 1868 to 1912.
Most Japanese immigrants ran into great hardships as a result of WWII. In many cases, they had their property confiscated and were interred in camps for the duration of the war.
Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 men and women left Japan for the U.S. and U.S.-controlled territories, and significant emigration continued for at least a decade beyond that.
Before the first generation of immigrants could enjoy the fruits of their labor, they had to overcome hostile neighbors, harsh working conditions, and repeated legislative attacks on their very presence in the country. Japanese communities eventually survived and thrived.
The two most popular destinations for Japanese immigrants were Hawaii and America’s Pacific coast. In both places, the immigrants would discover a new and radically different way of life, but the two destinations received the newcomers in unique and distinctive ways.
There are three official Japantowns in the United States, all in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose. What are the unique features of these three Japantowns and the cultural attractions that can be found in those areas?
Japantowns – Nihonmachis
- Los Angeles Japantown – Little Tokyo
Known favorably as “Little Tokyo,” Los Angeles’ Japantown is the ultimate destination for some of the city’s best Japanese restaurants and authentic shops. This unique LA neighborhood harmoniously balances the old and the new—its roots trace back to 1886, yet new restaurants and shops seem to sprout weekly. It was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995.
At its peak, Little Tokyo had approximately 30,000 Japanese-Americans living in the area, and is still a cultural focal point for that population. Mainly a work, cultural, religious, restaurant and shopping district, Little Tokyo provides resources for Japanese-Americans who are more likely to live in nearby cities such as Torrance, Gardena, and Monterey Park, as well as the Sawtelle district on the west side of Los Angeles.
Many cultural attractions are located in Little Tokyo, including the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, as well as the Japanese American National Museum.
Ever August, Little Tokyo hosts the Nisei Week festival, including a large parade, pageant, athletic events, exhibits of Japanese art and culture, a Taiko drum festival, the Japanese Festival Street Faire, a car show, and other events.
- San Francisco Japantown－ Little Osaka
Located in a neighborhood in the Western Addition district of San Francisco, Little Osaka is the largest and oldest Japantown in the United States. Built and settled in the late 19th and early 20th century, Little Osaka earned its name when San Francisco entered into a Sister City relationship with the city of Osaka in 1957.
One of the most iconic structures is the Peace Pagoda located at the shopping mall called the Japan Center. It is a five-tiered concrete stupa designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented to San Francisco by the people of Osaka, Japan.
San Francisco’s Japantown celebrates two major festivals every year: The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, which is held for two weekends every April, and the Nihonmachi Street Fair held in August.
- San Jose Japantown – Little Okayama
The original Japanese immigrants to the Santa Clara valley developed San Jose’s Japantown. At first, the area mostly served the bachelor migrant workers and Japanese farmers who came into town for supplies. As more Japanese women settled in the United States, family life emerged in the community. San Jose’s Japantown flourished as more Japanese made the Valley their permanent home. It was during this time that some of the most famous neighborhood buildings, such as the Kuwabara Hospital (Issei Memorial Building), the Taihei Hotel and Okida Hall, were constructed.
The moving and supremely educational Japanese American Museum features 6,400 square feet of permanent and rotating exhibits and host a variety of community activities. Japanese culture is also celebrated with live events, such as the Obon Festival in mid- July, featuring two days of game booths, food, cultural exhibits and demonstrations, and more than 1,000 dancers in full costume each evening, swaying under a canopy of colorful lanterns to live music from the Chidori Band and San Jose Taiko.
San Jose is also the Sister City of Okayama, Japan, hence the nickname, “Little Okayama.” This year happens to be the 60th Anniversary of the cities’ partnership!
Did you know?
- Spam musubi is a Hawaiian food that uses a popular local ingredient (Spam) prepared as an onigiri (Japanese rice ball).
- When Sushi was first introduced to the United States, the California roll was invented to cater to local palates. It used avocado – a local ingredient – and cooked crab meat. Since then, other variations have appeared, namely the Dragon roll (an outside thick roll of eel and cucumber that are wrapped with avocado) and Rainbow roll (a colorful sushi that meshes the flavors of yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, salmon, butterfly prawn and avocado).
- A nice musk melon, similar to a cantaloupe, may sell for over $300. These expensive melons are known as the Yubari melon. They are often physically perfect, not like their American counterparts with dark smudges and scars.
- Japan has more than 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants, the largest number in any country outside the United States.
- Japan has the third longest life expectancy in the world with men living to 81 years old and women living to almost 88 years old. The Japanese live on average four years longer than Americans.