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California’s Fresno Japantown- The other side of the tracks

By Raymond Douglas Chong

(This is part of our ongoing series, Lost Kinjo– a series about the Lost Japantowns of California. It is supported by funding from the California Public Library Civil Liberties Project and the Takahashi Family Foundation.)

Introduction

Until May 1942, Fresno Japantown thrived on the other side of the tracks, in the hub of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley in California.

After the forced removal of Japanese Americans to the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas, Fresno Japantown vanished during their incarceration. The Nippon Buildings at Kern and F Streets, Komoto’s Department Store, and Asia Hotel at Kern and G Streets are remnants of its bygone era.

In 1940, 199 businesses and organizations existed within Fresno Japantown of Chinatown Fresno. In 2024, only the legacy candy store, Kogetsu-Do Confectionary, and the new Central Fish Company (1950) remain in Fresno Japantown.

Fresno Japantown via Japantown Atlas.
Fresno Japantown via Japantown Atlas.

Urban Nihonmachi Amidst System Racism

Fresno, an urban Nihonmachi, had 797 Japanese (Native – 517, Foreign Born – 280) living around Japantown within Chinatown Fresno, west of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company’s railroad tracks.

In 1872, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company completed railroad tracks as they built a segment of the Second Transcontinental Railroad from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Some Chinese railroad workers settled in the new town of Fresno. They brought properties on the westside of railroad tracks in 1873. The White landowners got the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to agree not to sell or lease property to the Chinese and other people of color on the eastside. They sought a significant and cheap labor force of working-class people to work on their farms, orchards, and vineyards.

In 1880, Japanese pioneers arrived at ranches to farm Muscat grape vineyards. After the federal 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, they replaced the Chinese farmworkers.

Fresno Japantown was the center of Japanese life on Kern and G Streets and along Chinatown Alley within Fresno Chinatown. By 1940, Fresno Japantown flourished with eight hotels, three boarding houses, nineteen restaurants, twenty-seven markets, five barbers, three bathhouses, three beauty shops, two theaters, three churches, six sewing schools, and 120 other businesses. Komoto’s Department Store was a prominent business among the one – or two-story brick structures.

On January 20, 1999, Fresno County Library Japanese American Oral History Collection, Nori Masuda recalled:

Business in Fresno in those days, they had many small grocery stores, you know, like a country food store.  They had a lot of them in Fresno; they had Yabuno’s, Abuno’s, Arata’s, Fujimura’s, and Ni’s had it, and others were restaurants.  Fresno had about fifteen Japanese American restaurants, you know, they served nothing but American food like hamburger, hamburger sandwich or hamburger steak, beef stew and pork chop, whatever a regular restaurant had. 

And there was about a good fifteen restaurants, and they all survived during the Depression.   The Depression time was so hard but due to a lot of Spanish people, I think the Japanese community survived through their business because there were Spanish people who came out here to work, the immigrants, they were all coming to Fresno to pick grapes or seasonal work they usually come by.  They used to, by God, walk around China Town and it was full, full of people, all Spanish people.  Yeah.

Later, on March 10, 2010, Nori Masuda narrated more about Japantown for Preserving California’s Japantowns Collection.


The main Chinatown was from Kern Street to Tulare Street. That alley was full of people, and mostly Oriental, there was Chinese, Japanese, and a few Filipinos came in around there, too. But it was mostly Japanese. They work out in the country, their free time, they used to come into the gambling place. There was, in the alley, there was one, two, three, four, five, six, about six gambling places, yeah. And the Chinese, it’s just like a club. You just go in there and… of course, we never went in there. But then they used to live right in the cellar. A lot of Chinese had a cellar, and they had a bed there, they used to sleep there. Then on the second floor, that building was, the store was on a two-story building, upstairs was, Chinese was living there. Then that Chinese, that alley was gambling place here, another one, gambling, Chinese dry goods store, Chinese food-like, you know, they got ducks and everything hanging, they cooked that, those things was there. And the gambling, gambling, then Japanese had a noodle shop and a candy store on the other side.

Ours was on this side. [Laughs] So there was a lot of Japanese restaurants, too. Our store was right there, this one. Right next door was a pool hall at one time. And then there was a Japanese restaurant, and then there was a carpenter right next door. Next door was another Japanese restaurant, and right across, there was a noodle shop and then another noodle shop there. Then there was a barber shop, then Ego’s Japanese restaurant, and Chinese gambling. So, there was about four or five gambling places right in there. So that was the main section of business. Other alleys are empty, yeah.

Discrimination

In 1790, Congress granted American citizenship to only White people, not people of color. They barred Japanese aliens from becoming citizens.

As anti-Japanese sentiment grew, federal laws, state acts, and local ordinances diminished their civil rights.

Beginning in 1872, the White landowners segregated Chinese on the west side of the railroad tracks, which resulted in the development of Chinatown Fresno. After 1880, they segregated Japanese into Japantown within Chinatown Fresno.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt reached a Gentlemen’s Agreement with Imperial Japan to end the immigration of Japanese laborers. This agreement allowed the emigration of “picture brides” through matchmakers to America. In 1924, Congress enacted the 1924 Immigration Act, which limited immigration by a national origins quota and blocked the Japanese from entering America. Through the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, officials redlined neighborhoods in Fresno in 1936.

In 1880 and 1905, the State Legislature amended the Civil Code to add “Mongolians” to the list of persons Whites could not marry to extend miscegenation against Japanese. In 1913, the State legislature enacted the California Alien Land Law. It prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land or holding long-term leases. Japanese farmers were forced to relinquish their farms.

From 1920 to 1948, Fresno County enforced racially restrictive covenants in property deeds against people of color.

Japanese American youth dance , Fresno Assembly center
via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Incarceration

After the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Delano. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) enforced an exclusion zone along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington against Japanese Americans. The federal government never found evidence of sabotage or criminal activities by them.

The WRA converted the Fresno County fairgrounds into a military assembly center. They issued an exclusion order for Fresno County population (1940 – 5,148). They stayed on the Fresco County fairground from May 6, 1942, to October 30, 1942.

Well, every night, I can still hear the bugle from the grandstand; that was a curfew signal. The bugle would blow the Taps, and then we could hear people scurrying around to get back to the cabin. And of course, people who had to go to the outdoor community toilet, they were in trouble because the MP (Military Police) came and knocked on our door and opened it and put the flashlight into our faces and make sure all of us, nine of us, were in our room. So that happened every night.

Saburo Masada, September 11, 2004, Manzanar National Historic Site Collection.
Jerome Ark concentration camp
via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The WRA shipped to the Jerome concentration camp on the marshy delta of the Mississippi River’s floodplain. Its complex of blocks included barracks, mess halls, and latrines. The camp also had schools, a library, a hospital, a newspaper, a cooperative store, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, baseball fields, and basketball courts. A temporary community council governed the concentration camp.

Surrounded by forest, muddy ground. I thought, ‘What a terrible place,’ wondered how long we were gonna have to be there. It was very unsettling.

Miyoko Uzaki, September 11, 2014, Manzanar National Historic Site Collection.

The WRA operated the Jerome concentration camp from October 6, 1942, to June 30, 1944. After its closure, most prisoners were shipped to the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona.

After their release to Fresno from the concentration camps, Japanese Americans returned to Japantown. Most had lost their businesses and livelihoods. They endured open hostility with violence and intimidation by White racists. They terrorized them by firing shots into their homes at night. They vandalized and burned their properties. They endured racial prejudice and hatred by White Americans. They were denied jobs. They had difficulty finding housing. Their neighbors were unfriendly and distant.

Kogetsu-Do Confectionary

Sugimatsu Ikeda, grandfather, Sakino Ikeda, grandmother, and Roy Ikeda, uncle of Lynn Ikeda (1920) via Kogetsu-Do Confectionery.
Sugimatsu Ikeda, grandfather, Sakino Ikeda, grandmother, and Roy Ikeda, uncle of Lynn Ikeda (1920) via Kogetsu-Do Confectionery.

The Kogetsu-Do (Moon Lake) Confectionary remains the last business of Fresno Japantown. Sugimatsu  Ikeda was a native of Saka-Mura Hiroshima-Ken, Japan. Sugimatsu Ikeda. He arrived at the Port of Honolulu on November 20, 1905, aboard Doric.

Sugimatsu Ikeda, and Sakino, his wife, opened the business of Japanese pastries in 1915 on Kern Street. In 1920, he moved to its current location on F Street. Kogetsu-Do was widely known for its manju (Japanese steamed cake) and mochi (Japanese rice cake), which were made with secret family recipes.

A Chinese family leased the business of their incarceration. They returned from the Gila River concentration camp.

Kogetsu-Do via Kogetsu-Do Confectionery.
Kogetsu-Do via Kogetsu-Do Confectionery.

After Sugimatsu Ikeda retired, Roy Kazumi and Masao Ikeda became the second-generation owners of Kogetsu-Do. After Roy’s death in 1962, Masao Ikeda, with Tomiko, his wife, operated Kogetso-Do. In 1992, Masao Ikeda died. Lynn Ikeda, his daughter, became the third-generation owner.

Manju and mochi at Kogetsu-Do via Kogetsu-Do Confectionery.

Today, Lynn Ikeda offers a delicious range of manju and mochi.

  • Manju with red bean or lima bean filling.
  • Mochi with red bean or lima bean filling.
  • Mochi with three berries (strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry) filling.
  • Ice cream mochi with ice cream or sorbet flavor.

I learned much from my grandfather and father’s arduous labors and tough struggles in Japantown. They constantly worked hard for the family, were very good to our customers, and were well respected by families, friends, and the San Joaquin Valley community.

Lynn Ikeda, Owner, Kogetsu-Do Confectionary

Central Fish Market

Central Fish Company via Central Fish Company.
Central Fish Company via Central Fish Company.

Akira “Okie” Yokomi, Nissei, and his wife, Nofuko, opened Central Fish Company in 1950 as a small fish market (4,500 square feet). It was a seafood wholesaler for restaurants in Fresno. By 1979, the store had grown into a seafood market (wholesaler and retailer), a Japanese grocery store, and a fast-food restaurant(12,000 square feet).

On April 1, 1980, Yoshino Hasegawa interviewed Akira Yokomi for the Japanese American Oral History Project with the Fresno County Library.

MRS. HASEGAWA: What year was it that you started your fish market, and at what location?

MR. YOKOMI: 1950, at 1507 Kern Street.

MRS. HASEGAWA: How long were you at that location?

MR. YOKOMI: Thirty years, just about 29 years.

MRS. HASEGAWA: When you first started that fish market, what was business like? Did you have any competition?

Akira and Nofuko Yokomi via Central Fish Company
Akira and Nofuko Yokomi via Central Fish Company

MR. YOKOMI: Well, I was bucking the biggest competition there was, Fresno Fish was the fish market. So, I knew it was hard to get the Japanese business, so I concentrated on the colored people. So, when people tell me that I treat the colored people really good I tell them that they’re the ones that gave me the helping hand when I really needed it. I kind of lean over backwards for them. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here, in my new location.

MRS. HASEGAWA: Well, it seems to me that the original store was pretty popular. The last four or five years, every New Year, whenever I go there for supplies for the traditional New Year feast, people were crowded and waiting in line!

MR. YOKOMI: Yes, and then we outgrew the place. We kept on expanding, but the fish counter itself wasn’t being expanded, so it was really crowded. So, we decided about three years ago, that we’d better move. Took us about three years to finally get everything together.

After his murder in 1996, Nofuko Yokomi ran Central Fish Company for a few years. Then, she sold it to Ernest Doizaki, Akira Doizaki’s nephew. Morgan Doizaki, Akira Yokomi’s grandnephew, became General Manager in 2003.

Central Fish Company wholesales seafood to over 100 restaurants in Fresno. It sells Japanese groceries and gifts. The fast-food restaurant offers Fish “N” Chips, Bowls and Teriyaki, Noodles, and Classics.

Morgan Doizaki via Central Fish Company
Morgan Doizaki via Central Fish Company

Yokomi was probably one of the most generous people that you’ll meet. He’d be close to 100 years old if he was still alive.I have senior citizens that come into the store who’ll say, ‘I remember when I used to come in the store he’d give me candy!’ so there’s a lot of stories of him being very kind to kids. He never was able to do too much community service because he was always working, but he donated to a lot of causes.

Morgan Doizaki, General Manager, Central Fish Company, Downtown Fresno

Fresno Chinatown Revitalization

In Fresno Chinatown, property and business owners formed the Chinatown Fresno Foundation to “foster civic pride and enhance the quality of life by generating additional sources of funds to support the improvement of the social, physical, and cultural environment of Historic Chinatown Fresno …”

The California High Speed Authority is building their new Fresno Station adjacent to Chinatown Fresno. The Transformative Climate Communities Program funds several housing and infrastructure projects. The Monarch, an affordable housing building, is now occupied with 57 units. Complete Streets projects are underway to improve streets and alleys with bike racks, pedestrian lighting, urban greening, and active transportation.

The City of Fresno conducted a feasibility study regarding developing a Property Based Improvement District (PBID) in the Chinatown Fresno neighborhood.

Close

On the other side of the tracks, the Lost Japantown in Chinatown Fresno sadly reminds us of the racist history of segregation and discrimination against the Japanese American community.

Lynn Ikeda of Kogetsu-Do Confectionary and Morgan Doizaki of Central Fish Company proudly honor the Issei and Nikkei pioneers’ struggles and sacrifices in Fresno Japantown.

With my grandfather’s and father’s legacies, I am proud to continue Kogetsu-Do Confectionery as the last business of Lost Japantown in Chinatown Fresno. I realize our community appreciates my family’s achievements. They have cherished our tasty manju and mochi since 1915.

Lynn Ikeda, Owner, Kogetsu-Do Confectionary

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1 COMMENT

  1. I hope someday I can ride the bullet-train from L.A. to Fresno and check out the remnants of Old Chinatown and Japantown!

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