HomeJapanese AmericanLost KinjoVisalia Japantown – In Jewel of the Valley

Visalia Japantown – In Jewel of the Valley

By Raymond Douglas Chong                                                       

(This is part of our ongoing series, Lost Kinjo- a look at the more than 40 Japanese communities that disappeared after World War II. It is supported by funding from the California Public Library Civil Liberties Project and the Takahashi Family Foundation.)

The Japanese American community thrived in the Visalia, California’s Japantown as the “Jewel of the Valley.”

In the farming center of the San Joaquin Valley, Japantown served residents and seasonal laborers. The heart of Japantown was along Center Street. It had six hotels, seven restaurants, a theater, and various stores.

Brothers Roy and Jack Sumida, both pharmacists, ran Roy’s Drug Store in Visalia for 40 years until 1995. Today, the Visalia Buddhist Temple is the only remnant of this Japantown.

According to the 1940 federal census, 377 Japanese Americans lived in Visalia, and others lived in the countryside of Tulare County.

Chiyeno Shimaji recalled life in Visalia Japantown with Kazuko Yakumo on April 3, 1980 as part of the Japanese American Oral History Project now housed at the Fresno County Public Library.

Kazuko Yakumo: What did people, such as yourself and friends that you had about your age, do for entertainment? For example, you didn’t have any movies at that time, did you?

Chiyeno Shimaji: Well, there were quite a few motion pictures from Japan that we were able to see. There was a man named Mr. Setoguchi who used to show Japanese motion pictures every week at the Visalia Buddhist Temple. There were quite a few Japanese in Visalia at that time. There was quite a large Japanese community there.

Visalia Buddhist Church Club, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.
Visalia Buddhist Church Club, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.

Yakumo: Did you have any problems because you did not have any Japanese-style goods or food during that time?

Shimaji: Not at all. Even at that time there, almost everything that we wanted was imported from Japan. There was even a Japanese restaurant in Visalia and, particularly, when it came to the staples of Japanese cooking, namely miso and soy sauce (shoyu), there was more than enough that was imported from Japan, so we never had to worry about the lack of those staples. As an example, Reverend Itohara, who used to be the minister at the Visalia Buddhist Temple, when he first came to the United States, he would have problems getting Japanese staples, such as Miso and shoyu, and, therefore, he–before he came here he sent a large supply of both miso and shoyu (soy sauce) to where he would stay. But once he got there, he found he didn’t have to have sent them at all. Because he could get all he wanted just from merchants in the city of Visalia.

Yakumo: Did you young people get together and have activities or have any special projects that you engaged in?

Shimaji: No. We didn’t gather too much in particular. Since I was always busy at home helping my stepmother, I really didn’t have much of a chance to get out and go out with the young people as a group. However, in spite of that, I don’t recall that there really were too many group activities for people my age.

Tom Toshimi Shimasaki shared his memories with the Japanese American Oral History Project with Yoshino Hasegawa on June 25, 1980. The recording can be found at the Fresno County Public Library.

Yoshino Hasegawa: Are there lots of Japanese here now?

Tom Toshimi Shimasaki: Well, when you speak of here, you are probably referring to Tulare County.

Hasegawa: Well, no. The Lindsay area where you lived.

Shimasaki: There are probably less people now than there were prior to World War II.

Hasegawa: That’s not very many, then.

Shimasaki: No, that isn’t very many.

Hasegawa: Does Tulare County have a lot of Japanese?

Shimasaki: Yes. Because we have a high concentration of Japanese in the Dinuba-Orosi area.

Hasegawa: I thought there were lots of Japanese in Visalia.

Shimasaki: Well, there are a few. But not as many as in the Orosi Dinuba area. In fact, if you roam around town, occasionally you come across a Japanese person. Prior to the war, there was a Japanese town, but that doesn’t exist any longer.

Hasegawa: It seems to me that in the history of Tulare County there was a big Sumida grocery store?

Shimasaki: Yes. And the two sons operate a drugstore. That’s the only Japanese business in Visalia that I can think of.

Soyama Grocery Store, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.
Soyama Grocery Store, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.


The War Relocation Authority (WRA) expelled the Visalia and countryside residents 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.

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.


The Japanese American Citizens League engaged James Purcell, a lawyer who challenged the federal incarceration of the Nikkei.

Purcell selected Mitsuye Endo as their ideal appellant as a test case. The State of California government fired Endo as a clerk with the Department of Motor Vehicles. She was a native American and Methodist in Sacramento. Her brother served in the United States Army.  

I agreed to do it at that moment because they said it’s for the good of everybody, and so I said, well, if that’s it, I’ll go ahead and do it.

– Mitsuye Endo

Purcell argued that Japanese Americans were deprived of the right to report work as state employees; public law did not allow the War Relocation Authority to imprison Japanese Americans; and the imprisonment of Mitsui Endo was undeclared martial law because she had not been given due process.

On December 18, 1944, Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, 323 U.S. 283, United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled an ex parte decision that the federal government could not continue to detain a loyal American citizen. Their Endo ruling led to the reopening of the West Coast to Japanese Americans after their incarceration in concentration camps.

Justice William Douglas delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court.

We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty. In reaching that conclusion, we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues which have been argued. For we conclude that, whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detain other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure. …

Mitsuye Endo is entitled to an unconditional release by the War Relocation Authority.

In advance of the Supreme Court decision, on December 17, 1944, Major General Henry Pratt of the Western Defense Command issued Public Proclamation No. 21. He lifted the West Coast exclusion orders and restored the right of Japanese Americans to return to their former communities, effective January 2, 1945.

The WRA still encouraged the Japanese Americans to move inland from the West Coast. The Nikkei prisoners feared the resettlement due to social prejudice, racial discrimination, and random violence. In 1945, the returnees faced bombings, arson fires, and shotgun blasts in their homes and other buildings in the Central Valley. The federal and state authorities actively protected them from the violence.

In Visalia, gunshots hit Japanese homes on February 26, 1945. Upon their resettlement, Japanese American farmers faced intense racism. The local authorities enforced the California Alien land laws. They could not find housing. They were given only menial jobs. Some American businesses refused to sell their goods to them.

From Fresno State Library –  JACL-CCDC Japanese American Oral History Collection, on April 18, 2004, in Sanger, Lloyd Kurihara recalled his parent’ resettlement in Visalia with Ralph Kumano and Grace Kimoto.

Ralph Kumano: Now, at that time, you made this decision were your parents still in camp, or where were they out?

Lloyd Kurihara: No, they were in Visalia.

Kumano: Oh, they got released?

Grace Kimoto: They were back?

Kurihara: Yeah, they had already come back.

Kimoto: I thought that was forty-three or forty-four. It must be 1945?

Kurihara: Yeah.

Kumano: Forty-four or forty-five.

Kurihara: Something like that. They had already come back around the Visalia area. At first, they stayed at, I think, Martha stayed in Reedley somewhere. My people, my folks stayed in— well, they had the Buddhist Church in Visalia, and they stayed there for a while, and they finally moved out because the things that we left when we were ranching, it wasn’t there no more. Everybody went in and stole it.

Kumano: Wow.

Kurihara: You know how that is.

Kumano: You were mentioning that everything was basically trashed when your parents came back to Visalia. Did you still own the property?

Kurihara: Well, no.

Kumano: Oh, you were leasing at the time?

Kurihara: No, we—

Kimoto: Sharecroppers.

Kurihara: We were sharecroppers.

Kumano: Oh, okay.

Kurihara: So we had—the building was still there, but they didn’t have anymore.

Kumano: Oh, okay, so it is like starting over again. They had to start from scratch again?

Kurihara: Yeah.

Kumano: Oh okay.

Kurihara: So my dad went out and worked on the farm and pruned in orchards and stuff like that.

Kumano: So where did he live? Did he live out?

Kurihara: Yeah he lived out of Visalia about seven or eight miles.

A view of Victorian Era Visalia from the Tulare County Courthouse looking southeast, Sol Sweet Company seen at bottom right
A view of Victorian Era Visalia from the Tulare County Courthouse looking southeast, Sol Sweet Company seen at bottom right. By George Besaw via Wikipedia Creative Commons

From Fresno County Public Library – Japanese American Oral History Project, on April 30, 1980, in Visalia, Masuji and Kaneko Katano remembered their laundry business when they resettled with Kazuoko Yakumo.

Kazuoko Yakumo: What were your children doing in the East?

Kaneko Katano: Our daughter Miyoko was working in Chicago, and our son Sam was going to school in Ohio. We left camp in May of 1945, and in August of the next year, 1946, we returned here to Visalia.

Yakumo: Was your laundry in good shape when you returned?

Kaneko Katano: When we were sent to camp, we asked the man who sold it to us if he could recommend a buyer to us. But he said that we shouldn’t worry, that he would find someone who would care for it while we were in camp and until we returned.

Yakumo: It must have been very difficult for you to return, was it not?

 Kaneko Katano: Yes. Particularly those people who did not own a house or any land in Visalia found it very difficult to return. While we were away, the Chinese bought up all the land where we used to live. However, the person who sold us the laundry–we were very fortunate–took very good care of it for us. And, therefore, we really did not have any major problems when we returned.

Yakumo: Does that mean that you were the only Japanese who returned to that area?

Kaneko Katano  : Yes, that’s correct. We were the only Japanese. However, the laundry that we had, just rented, and therefore, when we opened our laundry, it had to be in a different location. Our house was also in an area different from where it was before the war. The Japanese who returned to Visalia were those who owned land here, but all of them owned land outside the city. Therefore, although our children were not in Nevada (they were in the East), we saw an advertisement for a person to help in a laundry in Nevada, and, therefore, we went there to earn some money before we returned to Visalia. So when we returned to Visalia, we fixed up the garage of our home into a laundry and with our daughter’s husband (his name is Noboru), we jointly restarted our laundry. However, our son-in-law and also our daughter were not particularly desirous of continuing to work in the laundry, so after a while they found a position in San Diego and moved there. So several years after we jointly restarted our laundry, my husband and I found ourselves again the sole proprietors of the laundry. So when Noboru left us, we had to hire someone to take over the job that he did, and we continued in that way. And then because of the expense of hiring people to work for us, we gradually cut down on the volume of our work, and finally delivery became such a large problem that we sold all of our large laundry equipment, and we continued to decrease the size of our business until, finally, after a while, my husband began to take odd jobs from time to time, helping our son and other people with odd jobs. And we gradually kept decreasing the volume of our work in the laundry until finally we closed up shop altogether 10 years ago. And then our next-door neighbor, a Japanese person, decided she would move. And with her gone, we decided it would be far too lonesome for us, so that was why we moved to our present house.

Yakumo: You frequently work at a car wash, don’t you? Who is the owner of this car wash?

Masuji Katano: That car wash belongs to our son Sam, and I just go there from time to time for exercise so that I won’t get stale.

Yakumo: Finally, is there something that you recall which you would like to preserve for posterity? Is there anything that you remember that gave you particular pleasure?

 Masuji Katano: Well, we work within the city of Visalia and, therefore, we were rather different from the other Japanese who had farms and who were always working. And because we had our laundry we could schedule our work and always have our weekends free. At that time, there were not very many Japanese who had automobiles, so during the weekends we used our delivery truck to haul kids all over to see the sights, to visit, and to go out on picnics and things like that. And since everybody knew that we had a delivery truck which wasn’t being used on weekends, everyone came to our house sort of expecting us to drive them to various places, and we were very fortunate in being able to make so many children happy. And became not very many Japanese had automobiles, whenever it would rain or become difficult to get around, people would come to our house, and we would use our delivery truck. Actually, it was a van, to bring children to school and to other places that people might want to go.

Students of the Japanese Language School, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.
Students of the Japanese Language School, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.

Yakumo: After the war, did you experience any sort of discrimination? Kaneko Katano  : Not particularly. At least not other than those things that we mentioned about our children. Actually, when we returned from camp, we were rather afraid of what the Caucasians in this area would think, and, therefore, we did not start our business immediately. However, when our former customers learned that we had returned, they came to us and urged us to restart our laundry. So we decided to do so. The only people who returned as a result of their former ties to the area before the war, were Reverend Kawasaki of the Buddhist Temple, Mr. Sumida, and our family. There were Caucasians who became more open in their distaste of Japanese because of the war between Japan and the United States, but there were also a great number who were not affected by it. And for this reason, we decided to restart our business.

Tom Toshimi Shimasaki remembered the discrimination in Lindsay, near Visalia.

Hasegawa: When did you return to Lindsay, and what was the community reaction?

Shimasaki: Well, it was December of 1945, and it was in the winter. When I got into Lindsay I noticed that on the car windows they had signs, “No Japs wanted.” And I said to myself, “Well, we may be having a difficult time, but we will have to persevere somehow.” There was nothing left but the house, and we made out the best we could. I obtained employment picking oranges and picking olives, pruning trees to sustain myself until I could get started farming on my own. So it was a couple of years before I could get on my feet.

Hasegawa: Did your former friends come to your help?

Shimasaki: Yes. Those who opposed the return of Japanese in Lindsay were the minority. I encountered no hostility anywhere. Although in places like Orosi I understand there were some shootings of homes, I can’t recall that there was anything like that in Lindsay. So I farmed for a number of years and then I went into the insurance business in 1960. What prompted me to go into the insurance business was that I had some bad experiences in farming. In fact, I went broke, so I had to do something else, and in the process of going broke there were my creditors who were coming around pestering me for payment. They were attaching my farm equipment and making it somewhat miserable for me. But what sustained me was that I had some cash value life insurance, and this was something that they could not attach. So I said to myself, well, if life insurance has worked this well for me, it certainly should be good for other people. It prompted me to seek employment in marketing of life insurance. Now, I deal strictly with life insurance and disability insurance. I have those licenses.

Chiyeno Shimaji recalled the return to their family farm.

Yakumo: What happened to this ranch during the war when you were in the relocation camp?

Shimaji: The farm really belonged to us, but because of the Alien Land Laws, the deed of the ranch was in the name of my cousin. However, my husband was also cultivating some land under contract to a Caucasian farmer nearby in addition to cultivating our own land. And it was this Caucasian farmer who said he would see to it that a suitable person would take care of our ranch while we were in relocation camp.

Yakumo: So then the Caucasian farmer who saw to it that your farm was cared for was very kind and helpful, was he not?

Shimaji: Yes, he was quite kind to us. And he even made a trip to see us in camp. However, the person he leased our farm to while we were away was not a particularly careful person and when we returned we found that there were more than a few things that were not where they were or they were not around anymore.

Yakumo: So when did you return to your ranch?

Shimaji: It was in May after the war ended. However, we did not come directly back to our ranch. The person who was caring for our ranch was still living on the ranch, so we stayed at the Visalia Buddhist Temple, which was being used as a hostel under the direction of Reverend Kawasaki. And so he stayed there for about a month until the person who was living at our ranch found a place where he could move. And then we moved back ourselves.

Yakumo: We heard that there were quite a few Japanese in Visalia before the war, but that relatively few Japanese returned after the war, and the few that did were those who owned land in this area, is that correct?

Shimaji: Yes, that’s true. We felt that if anything that we had–whether what we had was in money or land, if it was going to be taken away from us, that it would be taken away from us; so that there was no point in trying to convert land to money and putting it somewhere if it could also be taken away. So, we decided that if it was going to be taken away, we may as well have land taken away from us. Also, we didn’t have any particular desire to return to Japan, because our children were already grown and they were used to the United States, and they had no desire to return to Japan. So we returned to our ranch.

A Monument to the Tulare Assembly Center – The Cultural History Project

In Tulare, near Visalia, the War Relocation Authority maintained a temporary detention camp on the Tulare County Fairgrounds for 5,061 Japanese Americans.

California Historical Landmark #934 reads:

NO. 934 TEMPORARY DETENTION CAMPS FOR JAPANESE AMERICANS-TULARE ASSEMBLY CENTER – The temporary detention camps (also known as ‘assembly centers’) represent the first phase of the mass incarceration of 97,785 Californians of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Pursuant to Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, thirteen makeshift detention facilities were constructed at various California racetracks, fairgrounds, and labor camps. These facilities were intended to confine Japanese Americans until more permanent concentration camps, such as those at Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, could be built in isolated areas of the country. Beginning on March 30, 1942, all native-born Americans and long-time legal residents of Japanese ancestry living in California were ordered to surrender themselves for detention.

Michaelpaul Mendoza, a Social Studies teacher with Mission Oak High School, has guided his students in this Cultural History Project to build a monument to honor imprisoned Nikkei. In April 2023, the Tulare County Fair Board unanimously approved its construction.

Soyama Restaurant and Pool Hall, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.
Soyama Restaurant and Pool Hall, via Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California.


Baron Nitta, Visalia Buddhist Temple, laments the lost Japantown in Visalia.

About the Japanese town of Visalia: Oh, really, no one alive knows any history of Visalia, Japan. All I know is that I talked to descendants of people who lived there for a long time And are younger than I am.

This is all there was in a tiny Japanese town. I don’t even know if there was a Japanese restaurant, but there was a Japanese grocery store and a Buddhist church, And they were located in one area; the church was the center probably of Japantown if you call Japantown.

It was situated right next to Chinatown. There was a Chinatown, and I said that quite was more prominent and well-known.

During World War II, the Nikkei community, Issei and Nisei, in California endured the anti-Japanese sentiment despite their American loyalty. The ugly hysteria after the Pearl Harbor Attack traumatized them. The bitter expulsion and incarceration at the concentration camps tormented them. The uneasy resettlements to their California hometowns troubled them.

The Japanese Americans eloquently evoked their American civil rights. They proudly pursued the American dream in their lives. With humility, the Nikkei community resiliently sought a better American tomorrow for the next generations, Sansei, Yonsei, and their offspring.

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