June 8, 2009 7:48 PM   Subscribe

There are three official Japantowns in the United States , down from an estimated high of 43 in California alone. California Japantowns along with Japantown Atlas aim to preserve the history of California’s Japantowns.

San Jose's Japantown began as did many other communities with the need to combine comradeship and resources to survive as immigrants in a new country.

1906: April 18: The Great Earthquake and Fire devastates San Francisco. Japanese enclaves in Chinatown and South of Market are devastated but South Park and Western Addition survives and thrives. The Japanese government contributes $246,000 to the City of San Francisco for earthquake relief, more than all other foreign nations combined.

At its peak, Little Tokyo had approximately 30,000 Japanese Americans living in the area.

Today there are only three Japantowns left in the continental United States—in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. Now perceived by many Nikkei simply as a source for Japanase food, trinkets, or a dose of nostalgia, Japantowns originally arose out of distinct social, economic and political necessities. What are the conditions which created these Japanese American enclaves, what institutions did they spawn, and what led to their decline?
posted by dogmom (24 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Please be constructive with the criticism. This is my first post on the Blue.
posted by dogmom at 7:49 PM on June 8, 2009

I'm curious as to who decides what constitutes an "Official" Japantown. Is there a sanctioning body somewhere that reviews applications and bestows, or denies, "Official Japantown" status?
posted by MikeMc at 8:07 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

An "Official Japantown" must have no less than:
- 2 convenience stores per block
- 3 vending machines per street with
-- no less than one panty vending machine per block
- 1 karaoke place per 100 residents
- 1 ramen stand per 10 residents
- a ratio of 3:1 for highschool girls vs drunken salarymen
posted by nightchrome at 8:14 PM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm guessing that the internment (forced relocation) of Japanese during World War II had something to do with the decline in the number of Japantowns.
posted by kindalike at 8:48 PM on June 8, 2009

Economic forces also played a role. For example, north of Seattle, Snohomish County's "Japanese Gulch" was vacated in the 1930s when the local mill closed down. There is a monument nearby. Nobody was left there by the time of World War 2. Kanashii, ne? [Sad, isn't it?]
posted by ilsa at 8:58 PM on June 8, 2009

In Seattle's Chinatown, or International District, there actually is a Japantown. It's Two city blocks along Jackson from 5th to Maynard. There is a tea shop on the bottom floor of the Panama Hotel that has a hole cut into the floor. Through the hole you can see possessions that were left when the people were shipped off to internment camps. Interesting look into the past.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:20 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who lives close to two of the three Japantowns, all I can say is "Yes. Northern Californians *DO* have it sooo damn good."

posted by markkraft at 10:15 PM on June 8, 2009

Is there a sanctioning body somewhere that reviews applications and bestows, or denies, "Official Japantown" status?

It's kinda a continuity thing. If you weren't a Japan Town or Little Tokyo in the 1950s (after the internees came back to try to put their lives back together) you're not going to qualify now.

I was just hiking through the Little Tokyo in SF yesterday . . . I always start my hikes there since the area towards Pacific Heights has good street parking opportunities and is apparently a reasonably safe-ish place to leave the car for the day.

I grew up in the east bay in the 1970s and I only got to go to Japan Town once during that time, but man what a great visit it was, seeing all the cool imported Japanese toys. Whenever I go back the magic is still gone but that's life.

Having lived in Tokyo for 8 years the supermarkets are no great shakes, alas. Any convenience store over there has 10X the selection of my favorite goodies as the big Japanese markets here offer, eg. pizza-flavored chips.

A hidden secret of Japan Towns (and Japanese fast-food restaurants in general for that matter) is that many of the store proprietors are Koreans -- because Japanese has a better marketability than Korean, Korean BBQ notwithstanding.
posted by @troy at 10:22 PM on June 8, 2009

I'm pretty sure the number of issei has declined severely since WWII. Just from observation, I think you need a steady influx of immigrants in order to maintain the community. My theory is that's why we still have healthy Chinatowns, Koreatowns and Little Saigons, but less Japantowns.

I feel blessed to live close to Little Tokyo in L.A. It's a great cultural remnant.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:22 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

P.o.B.: "In Seattle's Chinatown, or International District, there actually is a Japantown."

Thank you for beating me to this punch. I stridently propose Maneki for a meetup sometime - betcha we could score a tatami room!
posted by mwhybark at 10:27 PM on June 8, 2009

A hidden secret of Japan Towns (and Japanese fast-food restaurants in general for that matter) is that many of the store proprietors are Koreans -- because Japanese has a better marketability than Korean, Korean BBQ notwithstanding.

Not necessarily here in L.A. There is a huge Korean community next door to Little Tokyo. K-Town is not-coincidentally full of sushi restaurants. Overall, I'd venture that 75% of the sushi joints in L.A. outside of Little Tokyo are run by Koreans.

On a side note, the history Chinatown here in L.A. has a similar disjointedness - the proprietors of many of the restaurants and shops are now Vietnamese. The Chinese community is going strong, though - they just moved up the street to the San Gabriel Valley.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:30 PM on June 8, 2009

Maneki!!! They serve Onigiri!! I know it's simple to make, but mine are never as tasty when others make it for me.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:31 PM on June 8, 2009

There are also things like community redevelopment plans that end up doing more harm to locals than good. In LA, for example, when the New Otani Hotel was built in the 70s to attract an international/business clientele to the area, the plan unfortunately involved evicting or unfavorably relocating hundreds of local residents and storeowners to make way for the new structures (though they did build a cultural community center in the area as well). I think something similar happened in SF's J-Town, and plenty of people protested both projects (at my archive we're currently digitizing a lot of footage documenting these events).

As jabberjaw mentioned, K-Town is nearby but there's recently been a rather large influx of Koreans/Korean-Americans into the Little Tokyo area (already a Korean supermarket's popped up in one of the plazas), which is bound to change the character of the neighborhood somewhat. I'm Korean-American myself, but don't love the idea of LT being swallowed up by K-Town.

I work in an old church just beyond the borders of LT, at 1st and San Pedro. Incidentally, the church appears in the John Carpenter film "Prince of Darkness" =P

The local Japanese/English paper, the Rafu Shimpo, is a good source of info about local goings-on in LT.
posted by estherbester at 11:06 PM on June 8, 2009

Sorry, forgot to add: thanks, dogmom! The California Japantowns and the Atlas websites look like really great resources.
posted by estherbester at 11:10 PM on June 8, 2009

What are the conditions which...led to their decline?

I would imagine the same conditions that led to the decline of Chinatowns, Little Saigons, and other urban ethnic centers: the recent increase in urban rents, the increased assimilation of second-generation immigrants, and a relative increase in the prosperity of immigrants' home countries.

That, plus the "small world" effect of the internet and cheap air travel, means that immigrants from developed countries don't need to be surrounded by people from their ethnic group all the time -- they're just a phone call or email away.
posted by armage at 11:15 PM on June 8, 2009

I was stunned a week ago when I learned that Japanese (and Asian-Americans in general) in California, could not buy houses in 'white' neighborhoods. I mean, I knew about the forced relocation during WWII, but I had no clue how recently segregation of Asian-Americans was still the rule.

So, the ability to live where you want is one reason the Japantowns declined. Another is that the Japanese-Americans did what almost every other immigrant wave did - when the second or third generation prospered, they moved to the suburbs.
posted by zippy at 12:15 AM on June 9, 2009

"could not buy houses in 'white' neighborhoods" as recently as 1959 in San Jose
posted by zippy at 12:16 AM on June 9, 2009

I'm pretty sure the number of issei has declined severely since WWII. Just from observation, I think you need a steady influx of immigrants in order to maintain the community. My theory is that's why we still have healthy Chinatowns, Koreatowns and Little Saigons, but less Japantowns.

Excellent point. Japan's since become a major world power and, what, the second largest economy in the world? Japanese people tend not to want to emigrate since the '40s and '50s, and when they do they just sort of tend to pick up homes in the suburbs (to wit: much of northern New Jersey).
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:53 AM on June 9, 2009

Oh, you don't want to go to one of the unofficial Japantowns. Just a bunch of guys from Kagoshima selling last year's limited-edition Pocky off a blanket. Bad scene.
posted by No-sword at 3:21 AM on June 9, 2009

There was a fire at San Jose Tofu in 2007, and if I recall correctly, there was talk of not reopening. It seems that the younger generation wasn't interested in taking over. Luckily that didn't happen, but I think that sort of thing happens more often than not.

My grandfather and his brothers opened a nursery in Hayward, which seemed to be the main career option for Japanese after the war. Between the five of them, they had something like 20 kids (I honestly don't know- trying to keep track of my mom's cousins is a lesson in futility). After they all retired only one of the kids was interested in keeping the nursery going. It didn't last long. Most of the sansei in my family are college-educated and successful. I know that's what the nisei wanted for their kids, but it makes me sad that my niece will never know the joy of eating barbequed teriyaki chicken at the Nuserymen's Association picnic and later winning a 50-lb bag of rice at the raffle.
posted by dogmom at 5:29 AM on June 9, 2009

P.o.B., the secret ingredient is salt. Seriously. Add a little salt to your onigiri, plus whatever seasoning you're using. It really helps. (Also, try using various broths to cook the rice. Chicken broth-cooked rice with mince bits of pork or chicken are heavenly, if not inherently Japanese)
posted by Ghidorah at 6:31 AM on June 9, 2009

I believe there's a lot less immigration from Japan to the U.S. these days, which accounts for their decline.
posted by thisperon at 7:00 AM on June 9, 2009

I was always stunned how "Japantown" in San Francisco always seemed more like one of those archaic place-names in Europe that referred to something long since gone (like Thessalonica's "Turkish Quarter" or the "Jewish Quarter" of various middle eastern cities or the numerous "Germantowns" you can find all over the US).

But look, once you normalize for the effects of internment, decline of Japantowns is no different than the decline of other ethnic neighborhoods. When I was a young kid and would go into Manhattan with my family, it seemed like Little Italy took up the better part of lower Manhattan. Now it's a secret enclave between Soho and an ever-growing Chinatown. "Greektown" still exists in Baltimore, but new people aren't moving there, and people who grew up there tend to move out to the suburbs when they get married and have families of their own. Astoria's Greek section of town is commercially sustained mostly by Greek-Americans who move to New York City or suburban Greek-Americans who visit the neighborhood for the stores and restaurants.

Unless you've got a constant influx of immigrants who have few options but to live in ethnic enclaves, they're going to decline over time. And even then, given the option, immigrants are more likely than not to choose not to live in these neighborhoods nowadays: Chinese and Korean immigrants in the DC area invariably live in the suburbs, which is where you find the good restaurants and grocery stores. Ethiopian-Americans are one of the significant immigrant ethnic groups in DC proper (along with Salvadorans), but they haven't seemed to have formed a distinctive enclave within the city. They seem to know they're "just passing through" until they can afford a house in the suburbs.
posted by deanc at 7:23 AM on June 9, 2009

I grew up next to a small city that has a neighborhood called "Germantown."
posted by zippy at 3:11 PM on June 9, 2009

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