Land of the lost: Sacramento’s Japantown back in public eye
By Alan Naditz, Crain’s Sacramento
Feb. 12, 2017
During World War II, thousands of people were forced from their homes and relocated to what were effectively concentration camps in the interest of national security. Much of the world paid little attention until the war was over.
Upon their release, the victims attempted to go back to normal lives. But they discovered that the world had gone on without them, and what they knew and loved was almost entirely gone.
These were not survivors of Europe’s concentration camps. This took place in the United States, with a major part of it in Sacramento. The culprit was an executive order signed on Feb. 19, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The result was the evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast to 10 nationally scattered internment camps until the end of the war.
And now, more than 70 years later, an effort is being made to revive the public’s faded memory.
The California Museum commemorated the 75th anniversary of that executive order, No. 9066, with the opening on Sunday of “Kokoro: The Story of Sacramento’s Lost Japantown.” The exhibit is the newest of five aimed at informing and reminding the public of the former Japanese settlement’s role in local history, for better or worse.
According to California Museum Executive Director Amanda Meeker, the timing seemed right to revisit a dark subject that few people today know about, partly because there aren’t many survivors, and because physical evidence of Japantown’s existence is all but gone.
“The exhibit tells the whole story,” Meeker says. “You start with wonderful old photos from the pre-war era, and make your way to the ones that show how the area had really changed by post-war time. In many ways, it’s a very tragic tale.”
The idea for an exhibit about Kokoro began in 2015, when filmmaker Bob Matsumoto and author-historian Kevin Wildie suggested using photos to “talk” about what happened to the 8,000 Japanese Americans forced out of Japantown.
Meeker says she thought it was a great idea. “The problem was, to have an exhibit, you have to have something to show,” she notes. “At that point, we probably had two photos. The question was whether we could dig up enough other material to make an exhibit.”
The three enlisted the help of others within the Japanese community around Sacramento, and received phenomenal response, according to Meeker. “People were digging photos of themselves or their parents out of their garages, basements and attics,” she says. “Many of these images had never been seen by the general public.”
More than 700 photographs were loaned or donated from private collections or by family members to the California Museum. The high level of interest brought the exhibit into the museum’s permanent program on Japanese internment as a special limited-term display. The event will run through May 28.
Wildie, who teaches history at Cosumnes River College and is the California Museum’s historian, believes Sacramento lost a great community when Executive Order 9066 was carried out.
He spent four years developing and authoring a book, “Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood,” which covered the evolution of the district from 1910 to the mid-1950s. The book was published in 2013 and is available at the California Museum, as well as stores like Barnes and Noble, and online vendor Amazon.
Japantown, which mainly consisted of dozens of businesses between Third and Fifth streets and L and O streets, housed the state’s fourth-largest Japanese population until internment began, according to Wildie.
Much of the area’s early days are chronicled in the museum’s signature exhibit, “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII.” The Kokoro exhibit takes it a step further by primarily emphasizing life after the Japanese Americans returned to the area in 1946.
By that point, Meeker says, the community had begun to change. “Other people had taken up residence in their homes,” she notes. “What had been a very tight-knit community for years was now a neighborhood of mixed groups. What they knew was gone.”
There were cultural issues. For many, Kokoro had been a self-contained world. The prevalence of shops, restaurants, bath houses, theaters and even schools made it possible for the residents to never leave the neighborhood. Some of them didn’t speak English, according to Meeker.
There was also a legal immorality. A high anti-Japanese sentiment after Pearl Harbor led to Japanese Americans not being allowed to buy their own homes, although some managed to do so in their children’s names. That philosophy carried over into the 1950s.
Undaunted, many of Japantown’s residents replanted themselves in areas near the old Kokoro district and opened new businesses. But in 1956, the city of Sacramento designated a 15-block region between Third and Fifth streets as the location for the new Downtown Capitol Mall. The remnants of Japantown – except for the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall at Fourth and O streets a latecomer to the area — and other buildings were razed. A culture was displaced again.
“After that, a few of the shop owners tried to reestablish themselves yet again along 10th and W streets, and there’s still a few of those businesses left,” Wildie says. “But from a geographic standpoint, almost nothing really remains.”
Culturally, however, Japantown is very much alive. In his book, Wildie notes that Kokoro’s influence has spread throughout the region, evidenced by events such as an annual Japanese film festival, Japanese restaurants and community concerts.
U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui’s husband, the late U.S. Rep. Bob Matsui, lived in Japantown as a baby. The forced relocation of his family, as well as the thousands of other local Japanese Americans impacted by Executive Order 9066, should not be forgotten, Matsui says.
“Documenting the resilient stories such as these of Japanese American families is so important,” Matsui said. “I commend the California Museum for preserving the rich history of our community.”
“Kokoro: The Story of Sacramento’s Lost Japantown” will be presented at the California Museum at 1020 O St. through May 28. Other exhibits related to Executive Order 9066 and the history of Japanese American incarceration continue through June 30. Adult admission is $9; college students and seniors with valid ID are $7.50; youth ages 6 to 17 are $7; children age 5 or younger are free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays. For more information, visit www.californiamuseum.org.