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Japantown to a ghost town: How a Sacramento neighborhood was wiped off the map

A cultural community was forced out twice in a decade, and a new revitalization movement is underway.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California was home to over 30 thriving Japantowns, but after World War II when Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps, Japantowns began to disappear.

After the war, the gentrification of Japanese neighborhoods began. Now, in 2023, only three Japantowns remain in California.

Let's start from the beginning...

In 1940, Sacramento's Japantown was a vibrant community located along 3rd, 5th, l and O streets. It was Amy “Emiko” Kamikawa-Wong’s playground.

“I grew up right in Japantown on 4th Street. It was so safe we used to run around all over, play hide and seek until 9, 10 p.m.,” said Kamikawa-Wong.

But Japantown became a ghost town. She remembers the exact moment the first tragedy struck the community.

“My brother was just about to buy a house. He went to see the house on Saturday, he was going to sign the paper Monday, and the war started on Sunday. So, of course we didn’t buy a house,” said Kamikawa-Wong.

She’s referring to Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” according to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise air strike by the Japanese Navy against the United States naval base and air forces in Hawaii.

The attack had a huge impact, especially on Japanese Americans in the United States. Just two months later, Japantown in Sacramento was cleared and residents were forced to go to internment camps.

Kiyo Sato remembers it like it happened yesterday.

“25217 C was my number. I'll never forget it. It's not on here (points to inner arm) but it's tattooed in my brain,” said Sato.

She was the eldest child. Her parents were letters “A” and “B," which made her “C."

They were taken to the internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Located in southwest Arizona, it was the largest of the 10 internment camps composed of three separate sites.

“I just broke down and cried when that train started to move. Nobody is coming to get us. Nobody cares,” said Sato.

What she remembers most is the heat, over 100 F, and passing out on the first day they arrived at the camp.

“I thought I had died because on top of me was this gray cement. I looked around and here are all these people laid out in a 120-square-foot laundry room. It was a laundry tub that was on top of me. Everyone was laid out and I still wonder how many of us didn’t wake up,” said Sato.

The other memory that sticks firmly in her mind is the lack of privacy when using the restroom. There were no stalls and the facilities were not separated by gender. 

Sato recounts they wore paper bags over their heads for a sense of privacy, cutting holes for the eyes so they could still walk in and out.

“I still have PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, from the toilet thing," said Sato.

Detainment lasted from 1942 to 1945, but when they returned home, Sacramento’s Japantown was not the same.

“Well there was no Japantown. Most of the stores that were Japanese ... it was all different people in those days. First generation couldn’t own property so their sons or somebody would buy property,” said Kamikawa-Wong.

After the war, first-generation Japanese Americans known as “issei” in Japanese culture couldn’t buy property, so they had their children “nisei” who were born in the states buy it for them.

Marian Uchida says it’s one of the reasons she returned to Sacramento and Japantown when so many of her friends couldn’t.

“My father being a nisei made the difference because my father owned his house. Remember I was telling you about my friends who were issei so they couldn’t buy property until the '50s and '60s,” said Uchida.

After the war, Japantown in Sacramento was able to return and the Buddhist church that sectioned off its gym for people to have makeshift rooms to stay in played a big role by giving families a place to stay in times when they had nothing.

“What made Japantown thrive is the fact that families lived there. Our businesses were there. It was a day and night place,” said Uchida.

But then, for the second time, Japantown would be forced out of its own community after people were unable to own property and make repairs upon returning due to government-sponsored mortgage redlining policies that prohibited loans in racially integrated neighborhoods.

Related: Segregating Sacramento: How racial agreements shaped neighborhoods and quality of life

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Marian Uchida remembers the issues her family faced when they had to move because of the redevelopment.

“We were not allowed in this area. The only reason — well, not the only reason — but one of the reasons my father was able to purchase a home here in Land Park is because the couple was getting a divorce. Japanese were not allowed to live here,” said Uchida.

She remembers being one of three Japanese families in the area.

All the city saw was a high concentration of people of color who they considered too risky to invest in. The west end area was labeled a slum and blighted, which allowed the city to cut tax revenue to the area.

It was bulldozed for the Capitol Redevelopment Project. A wrecking ball shattered many cultures including Japantown for the Capitol Mall and the area we know today as DOCO and a freeway.

“It was sad because you didn’t have gathering places to go to,” said Uchida.

Kamikawa-Wong says it was a loss of independence for her mother because she couldn't go to an English-speaking store by herself.

“[It was] sad because the older folks naturally didn’t speak English so naturally Japantown was perfect. We had grocery stores, we had banks,” said Kamikawa-Wong.

A diverse community scrambled for a new place to call home but there were limitations. Race covenants were written into property deeds preventing people of color from purchasing land in certain areas.

Marian remembers Japanese Americans weren’t the only ones being chased out.

“We had a lot of members of the Black community because of McClellan Air Force Base. Most Black businesses I recall... there was a night club, a record store, restaurants, so we integrated,” said Uchida.

After the Capitol redevelopment, Japantown relocated to 10th and W Street.

If you go there today, you can see some remnants of this history including the Wakanura original sign, even though the restaurant is no longer there. A few businesses on the block like Osaka-Ya are trying to keep the Japanese culture and traditions going.

Linda Nakatani and her family have carried the Osaka-ya name since 1963. It was originally on the corner of 10th Street where you can still see their faded sign.

“Senator Fish retired that year so my dad said, 'Is it okay if we buy your Senator Fish?' And that’s how we ended up coming here in 1997,” said Nakatani.

She's kept a Japantown storefront alive and well for over 60 years, and she is passing on the tradition to her sons.

“I’m pretty sure 95% sure they will take over but it is a lot of work,” said Nakatani.

Besides the businesses on 10th and W, one of the only remaining buildings from Japantown is the Nisei Barbershop and Veterans of Foreign War Hall, which makes it the meeting place for the Rebuild Japantown Sacramento group.

Kobi and Jamie Katayanagi started the movement to revitalize Sacramento’s Japantown.

“All of Japantown is gone except for the Veterans Hall we are standing in today,” said Jamie.

It all started with Jamie researching their family history and then realizing they have nothing to show their daughter.

Kobi’s great-grandfather immigrated from Japan and owned a print shop in the heart of Japantown.

“My generation we weren’t really even taught anything about it. It’s not something they talked about,” said Kobi.

The group consists of prominent Japanese Americans in the community, like former ABC10 anchor Sharon Ito.

At the hall they discuss their dream to reclaim the heart of Japantown, 301 Capitol, which is currently just a plot of grass.

While the group wants to reincarnate Japantown on that land with restaurants and shops, they are also being realistic that it could be purchased and developed. If so, they are pushing to have a claim still.

“We are looking at either a memorial to Japantown all the way to partnering with the city [to] bring in a cultural center or museum so we can bring in the history and the artifacts,” said Jaime.

For Kiyo Sato who has dedicated her life to telling the story of Japanese Americans across the United States, she is happy the next generation is continuing her work and fighting for Japantown.

“I am so delighted, so glad you people are doing that because there was so much of the culture that I think had to be preserved and history that needed to be known,” said Sato.

There are some potential open storefronts where relocated Japantown sits now on 10th and W. Nearby businesses told ABC10 Japanese businesses have expressed interest, but an expansion is not official.

80 years later, we asked the Katayanagi family why they're pushing to revitalize now.

“I think it’s important now for many reasons. The history is almost gone, the survivors and the storytellers are almost gone, and I’m afraid the history will be lost. I think it’s also the politically the right climate. I think people are starting to understand some of the things that happened in America,” said Jamie.

If you are interested in the cause, the Rebuild Sacramento Japantown group has a Facebook page that says all are welcome to join and help them rebuild the vibrant community. 

They are also establishing a monthly meeting of the group. They are currently looking for muralists who are interested in creating Japantown and West End tributes for them to display at the 301 Capitol site.

Watch: Ruth Chan Jang | Chinese American veteran's story serving in Women's Army Corps during WWII

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