Once a thriving sector, Sacramento’s Japantown hangs on by threads and flowers

At Sakura Gifts on 10th Street, Nobuko Saiki Pang sells Samurai sword letter openers, sake sets and lucky maneki neko – a traditional good-luck welcome cat with a raised paw.

Pang rents Japanese paperbacks for 50 cents. She’s also selling the new book, “Sacramento’s Historic Japantown, Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood,” by Cosumnes River College adjunct professor Kevin Wildie.

“It’s a great book,” says Pang, an immigrant from Tokyo who runs one of a handful of Japanese businesses downtown that provide tastes and glimpses of what was once California’s fourth-largest Japantown.

Sakura Gifts, Royal Florist and Osaka-Ya Pastries and Shaved Ice a few doors down, June’s Cafe around the corner at 9th and V and Kiyo’s Florist, now on 16th Street, “are the last remaining physical reminders that we have of our Japanese American community’s contribution not just to Sacramento but the Delta and even the state of California,” Wildie said.

Pang, 67, arrived in 1976, about 20 years after Sacramento’s Japantown – eight blocks pulsating with more than 200 Japanese American businesses – was bulldozed to make way for the Capitol Mall on K Street and a sea of skyscrapers.

Between 1900 and 1940, the area bordered by L, O, Third and Fifth streets was packed with Japanese markets, hotels, churches, restaurants, banks, laundries, law and medical offices, newspaper publishers and a movie theater before World War II forced 3,000 Sacramentans of Japanese descent – most of them American-born U.S. citizens – into internment camps in Tule Lake and other remote deserts throughout America.

About 80percent of them returned, but anti-Japanese sentiments lingered in Sacramento long after the war. In 1957, the City Council ignored the pleas of 100 Japanese Americans and let the wheels of redevelopment wipe out Japantown, Wildie said.

“It was completely gone by 1960, erasing the Japanese American experience from the city’s memory,” he said. “The only thing that’s remaining is the Nisei War Memorial at Third and O, which used to be the Flower Garden Restaurant.”

Some of the Japanese businesses – many of them crammed onto Fourth Street, known as Japan Alley – tried to rebuild Japantown along 10th Street from about T Street to W Street. Kanji Nishijima moved his L&M Appliance Store from Japan Alley to the 10th Street corridor along with Nippon Drugs, which became Ouye’s Pharmacy. The new section also featured the Senator Fish market, several restaurants, a shoe store and other enterprises.

But when Japanese residents who’d lost their businesses and homes tried to buy property around McKinley Park or in other established neighborhoods, they were told it was “a restricted area,” Nishijima, who tried to buy in Fair Oaks, told Wildie.

“Japanese Americans had historically been outside of politics, and civic authorities expected them not to fight city hall,” Wildie said. “The Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were seeking assistance in relocating businesses or compensation for lost assets and help in creating a small Japantown,” he said, but all they got was great frustration. “They really weren’t being heard, and their suggestions were ignored.”

So many moved to new subdivisions opening up in Greenhaven and Pocket in south Sacramento, and the majority of downtown businesses closed, Wildie said.

As the Japanese American population moved into the suburbs, businesses opened there to serve them, including Oto’s Marketplace, which anchors a small cluster of Japanese stores and restaurants along Freeport Boulevard.

Sacramento’s Japantown dates to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when skilled Japanese farmers joined Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the Delta and Central Valley. “There were about 150 Japanese American truck farmers by 1940 in the Delta who would bring their produce to many different stores in Japantown,” Wildie said. The bustling center featured sumo wrestling, karaoke, community dances, the Nippon Theatre, a boxing hall and their own taxi service, called the “Tokyo Express,” he said.

The oldest link to Japantown is Osaka-Ya, which dates back more than a century, said current owner Linda Nakatani. On Saturdays, Osaka-Ya dishes out the full range of Japanese cuisine: Bento boxes with teriyaki chicken, bowls of udon noodles, chicken with fish cakes, deep-fried tofu, chicken or pork katsu over rice, sukiyaki and Spam sushi “for the younger generation,” Nakatani said.

“A lot of old-timers keep coming back Saturdays, and some of them have it delivered to their homes because they can’t drive any more,” she said. “We also grill salmon, yellowtail and mackerel, which the Japanese really like but don’t want to cook at home.”

Osaka-Ya has made its reputation on its shaved ice window with home-made syrups, including watermelon, sour apple, lime and red bean. Osaka-Ya still produces 30 varieties of mochi and manju, sweets made with rice or cake flour.

“We serve mochi filled with red beans, lima beans, azuki beans, peanut butter, blueberry, strawberry and chocolate ganache,” said Nakatani, 52, who has worked there for 46 years. Her uncle Sam Tsuchida remembers eating manju in the 1930s, when Osaka-Ya was located on Third Street between M and N.

“They didn’t have sushi in the old days; all they had were confections, crackers and snow cones,” said Tsuchida, who was sent to Tule Lake with his family. “When we returned after the war, the stores weren’t there anymore. They were occupied by others.” Osaka-Ya reopened on Fourth Street, then moved to 10th Street, where Nakatani’s family took over the business.

“We are celebrating our 50th anniversary as owners,” she said proudly.

Hisa Akinaga, 83, came from Richmond to buy mochi –“both smooth and crunchy peanut butter mochi, and the chocolate-only one,” she said. “I’ve been eating mochi since I was a little kid and came here three weeks ago to see my niece. Now I’m back for more!”

Many original customers now bring their grandkids. “I’m getting a lot of Caucasians, Chinese and Filipinos, but the majority of our customers are Japanese coming in for manju,” said Nakatani, who also ships her sweets to customers in Denver, Seattle and Portland.

At Kiyo’s Florist, Lisa Tokunaga Taira presides over ikebana, the Japanese art of intricate floral arrangements for special occasions. Her family’s been making arrangements for 37 years.

“My mom, an immigrant from Kyushu, Japan, bought (the business) from Grace Kiyo Mirimoto,” Taira said. “Japanese people really do have a lot of emotions and feelings – maybe this generation is better at conveying them.”

With each floral arrangement, “I always feel it’s a profound way of expressing love and gratitude from your heart, and we’re the ambassadors who convey that,” Taira said, while assisting Shuang Pan in preparing a get-well arrangement for a sick friend featuring a kaleidoscope of bird of paradise, anthurium, orchids, lilies, bear grass, twigs and a long pistil. Last week, she made an anniversary arrangement for a man who had ordered one for his wedding nine years ago.

“A lot of our customers are Japanese American, but through the Internet, we’ve gone global,” Taira said.

One thing all three women share is the affection of their customers. “They come in here because they want to talk to Lisa because she has the biggest heart. They give her tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden,” said Pan. At Sakura Gifts, Pang said, “money is important, but the most important thing is my customers. We laugh together, we cry together, we have fun together.”

The Sacramento area’s Japanese American population declined from 17,067 in 1990 to 14,232 in 2008, according to census data. But Japanese churches and organizations still hold an annual Japanese Film Festival, cultural bazaars, basketball tournaments and events showcasing Japanese cuisine, team ceremonies, floral arrangements and taiko drum concerts, Wildie said.

“The Capitol Mall project destroyed Japantown, but it did not shatter the community’s spirit.”