High-rises, parking lots and anonymous corporate buildings inhabit the stretch of Fourth Street between L and O streets formerly known as Japantown, a once-thriving neighborhood all but erased by wartime orders and wrecking-ball ambitions.
A special workshop Saturday at the California Museum pays tribute to the area, featuring a presentation from Kevin Wildie, author of the recently released book “Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood.” The workshop, which focuses on “citizenship, constitutionality and the concept of redress,” will also include tours of “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII,” the museum’s longest-running exhibit, led by formerly interned docents, as well as other activities.
Before the start of Japanese American internment in 1941, Sacramento housed the fourth-largest Japanese population in California and a thriving “J Town” rich with flavor and color, said Wildie, a history professor at Cosumnes River College.
Hundreds of businesses – produce and fish markets, restaurants, drug stores, photo studios, laundries, bathhouses – lined the streets, while sumo wrestling and Kabuki theater entertained denizens and visitors.
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All of this detail and more came to light as Wildie pored through primary-source documents and interviewed old-timers who lived in the neighborhood.
“I wanted to know the parameters of this Japantown,” said Wildie, who is married to a Japanese American. “I began to actually build, street by street, my own maps and watch the evolution of the neighborhood grow from 1910 to 1940.”
After four years of research, Wildie pieced together a story of injustice and resilience, of a community that bounced back from adversity not once, but twice.
Photos of Japanese Americans being taken to internment camps and accounts of government hostility help relate an ignominious part of California’s past in the 200-page book.
Japanese Americans returned to Sacramento after 1946 and rebuilt their livelihoods in the face of racial discrimination, a success story that comes through in joyful photos of storefronts and festivals in Wildie’s book.
But the tale turns again in 1954, when the city released its Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project and its intention to raze 15 city blocks, much of which housed newly replanted Japanese businesses.
Demolition began in 1956 and “Japantown slowly collapsed under the wrecking ball,” Wildie writes.
“What makes Sacramento’s Japanese community unique is that no other community has been through two forced evacuations. Not to this extent,” he said.
Wildie’s book helps preserve a place kept alive in stories, photographs and a handful of Japanese-owned businesses on 10th Street, including Osaka-Ya pastries and Sakura Gifts. Several business owners moved to the area after the execution of the development project.
Hardships aside, Wildie’s book ends on a hopeful note, highlighting the various ways in which Japanese culture continues to play an important part in Sacramento. The annual Japanese American film festival, Japanese cuisine and taiko-drum concerts work to preserve the culture of a community that’s now spread throughout the city, he said.
What Wildie does not want is for people who read his book to “walk away with is the notion that the community is gone,” when in fact it is very much alive.
“The emphasis was never really on the negative or the forced incarceration,” he said. “It was mostly about the vibrant community spirit that was present. That seems to be the collective, resounding image that I got.”
“Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood” was published by The History Press in September and is sold on Amazon, in Barnes and Nobles, at Oto’s Marketplace and Sakura’s, and at the California Museum.
Wildie, a California State University, Sacramento, alumnus, said he does not have another project lined up but hopes to continue educating people about the book.
“Just like myself 23 years ago, most Sacramentans don’t know Sacramento had a Japantown,” said Wilde, who was inspired to write his college thesis on the neighborhood after speaking with a family member who lived in Sacramento pre-internment. “They think of San Francisco or San Jose or Los Angeles, but they don’t think of Sacramento. So that was the purpose of writing the book. I wanted to try to keep this history alive.”