Did you know that Sacramento was once home to one of the largest Japantowns in America? Although today there are only three remaining Japantowns in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose, not too long ago, Sacramento had its own sizeable Japantown. This weekend, I visited the CA Museum’s Kokoro Exhibit, which has an encore showing until March 11th. Kokoro is a small yet significant exhibit that tells the little known story of Sacramento’s Japantown. The CA Museum also has a standing installation that outlines the history of the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II. It’s fitting that the two installations are next to each other, as the fate of Sacramento’s Japantown was closely linked with the removal and incarceration of the community. Being able to view the two exhibits in conversation with each other is a moving experience.
One of the most striking aspects of the museum are the maps and photos that show the change in the physical landscape of the city. The exhibit opens with a large map that marks the hundreds of Japanese-owned businesses that filled the heart of Sacramento’s downtown. As with most ethnic enclaves, Japantown started largely as a response to racism and bigotry that translated into discriminatory housing and employment practices. Japanese American people needed services like pharmacies, groceries, and places of worship where they were safe and welcome and that served their unique needs. So the neighborhood developed around these ideals of community and protection. Having grown up in Sacramento, it was striking to see photographs with familiar landmarks, flanked by buildings that no longer exist. Ouye Pharmacy, Sasaki Dressmaking, Nakamura Candy, I can’t help but wonder what Sacramento would have been like if this important physical community wasn’t demolished in the name of “progress.”
The name of the CA Museum exhibit is aptly named kokoro, which means “heart” in Japanese. This area was the heart of the Japanese American Community. It was the location of boy scout meetings, ikebana classes, family homes, and churches. In a time where Japanese Americans faced intense racism, this haven provided a safe space for community to grow.
Two major events led to the destruction of Japantown: the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans and the City of Sacramento’s Capital Mall Project. With the incarceration, businesses had to quickly get rid of merchandise, often at unfairly low prices. Many were never able to reopen. People had to leave their homes, also having to sell or give away their belongings under duress. The incarceration took a huge chunk out of the lives of an entire community. Upon their return, churches and community organizations provided temporary housing to returnees, many of whom had difficulty finding housing in an America that still saw them as the enemy. Not long after, the City of Sacramento announced an urban renewal initiative, the Capital Mall Project. After having recently returned to their communities after incarceration, the Japanese Community again faced removal and Japantown was demolished.
If you get a chance to visit Sacramento, take a look at the green thoroughfare leading up to the Capitol as well as the government buildings and high rises that line that area. That used to be Sacramento’s Japantown.
Although the physical Japantown is gone, the community remains a vibrant and active one, largely centered around tight-knit family units, community organizations, and places of worship.
If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend visiting the Kokoro Exhibit and checking out Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood, written by Kevin Wildie.