HomeJapanese AmericanLost KinjoHow Japanese culture survived hostilities on Central California coast

How Japanese culture survived hostilities on Central California coast

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.)     

Until 1942, Santa Maria Japantown thrived in the agricultural Santa Maria Valley on California‘s Gold Coast by truck crop farming. According to the 1940 federal census, 505 Japanese Americans lived in Santa Maria.

In his 2000 dissertation, Dr. Kent Edward Haldan wrote, Our Japanese Citizens: A Study of Race, Class, and Ethnicity in Three Japanese American Communities in Santa Barbara County, 1900-1960. He comprehensively studied the economy and society of the Nikkei community from its arrival to its resettlement during the six decades. Guadalupe Produce Company, Minami & Sons, and Santa Maria Produce dominated the farming industry in Santa Barbara County.

Background

People standing in front of a house in Santa Maria, CA
People standing in front of a house in Santa Maria, CA courtesy of the Toru Miyoshi Family Collection, Densho.

Santa Maria Japantown emerged as a farming center for the Nikkei community. In 1940, 42 businesses flourished along Main Street, including three hotels, four doctors, two restaurants, six stores, numerous small businesses, dressmakers, and barbers. Riichi Miyoshi owned the Miyoshi Company, a grocery store, and the adjacent Miyoshi Hotel. Japanese storekeepers primarily catered to the White community. They sold produce, canned food, hardware products, and appliances. The Union Church and a Japanese language school supported the families.

The Issei pioneers labored in the sugar beet fields and sugar plants for Union Sugar Company—the Issei farmers, as owners and sharecroppers, cultivated truck crops for the greater Los Angeles Market.

Before the 1942 incarceration, the Nikkei community developed and evolved in the Central Coast town of Santa Maria with solid ties to nearby Guadalupe:

  • 1899 – Union Sugar Company began sugar production in Betteravia.
  • 1901 – Guadalupe Japanese Association (Kyowakai) was organized.
  • 1909 – Reverend Junjo Izumida arrived in Guadalupe for the Guadalupe Buddhist Church.
  • 1919 – Guadalupe Japanese School opened to serve the Santa Maria Valley.
  • 1926 – Land purchase to build the new Japanese language school in Santa Maria  
  • 1929 – Reverend Yasuo Oshita arrived to serve the Union Church in Santa Maria.
  • 1933 – The Japanese Association donated 50 cherry trees to the George Washington Memorial Grove in Santa Maria for goodwill and everlasting friendship with Americans.
  • 1937 –  Union Church was dedicated.

Incarceration

Under President Executive Order 9066, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) rapidly expelled Japanese Americans from Santa Maria to primitive concentration camps.

On April 27, 1942, WRA directed the residents to gather and carry their goods. On April 30, 1942, at Christ United Methodist Church, they assembled to be bused to Tulare detention camp. Then, the WRA shipped them to the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. It lay on the Sonoran Desert on American Indian Reservations near the Sacaton Mountains.

The Miyoshi family (including Kumataro, Kiku, Masa, and Toru) poses in front of a car
The Miyoshi family (including Kumataro, Kiku, Masa, and Toru) poses in front of a car courtesy of the Toru Miyoshi Family Collection, via Densho

Resettlement

On December 17, 1944, the Western Defense Command issued Public Proclamation No. 21. The proclamation lifted the West Coast exclusion orders and restored the right of Japanese Americans to return to their former communities.

After January 2, 1945, the War Relocation Authority organized the resettlement in Santa Maria. Eric Thomsen, district relocation officer, encountered fierce organized resistance by the White community and farming industry. The resettlers were concerned by animosity and hatred.

Toru Miyoshi, son of Riichi and Masa Miyoshi, general store merchant, recalled his resettlement, in an interview with Dr. Harlan on June 19, 1991. He was just 17 when his family returned to Santa Maria in the late summer of 1945. Miyoshi remembered his walk on Main Street in downtown.

 “My recollections of Santa Maria were happy days’, you know, a freshman in junior college. So, I got up in the morning and walked downtown … I was walking on West Main, passing our property and there was a laundry there. All these women came out of it and said. Look at that Jap!” His romantic reminisces about his earlier “happy days” there were shattered as he suddenly realized that “I’m in a very hostile environment … As I walked further into town I walked very cautiously and then I wouldn’t go into my store because I could see them all staring at me so I kind of made an about-face and went around the back street, to go back to the hostel … It’s hard really hard to imagine today the tremendous animosity that was prevailing at the time.”

White school kids threw rocks at the young Nisei and Sansei returnees, calling them “Japs.” They harassed on the streets and in the schools.

Miyoshi recalled, “I was with the other boys going to [high} school on the same campus…we would go through kids…they’d call us ’dirty Japs’…you hear all those comments…One time we were having lunch by the gym…Well a bunch of [White] kids got together and we were eating…we were just minding our own business [hoping] that we’d just disappear. All of a sudden, here comes this rock over our heads, broke the gym glass door.”

The White downtown merchants feared racist wrath if they hired Japanese Americans. The White growers boycotted their hiring. However, some small farming companies hired them as farm laborers.

The White landowners of the Santa Maria Valley agreed not to lease to Japanese farmers. The Union Sugar Company included a lease clause specifying that the “lease is prohibited from… subleasing to members of the Japanese race.” White trustees refused to relinquish properties to the Japanese.

Landscape of rows of flowers and a building, courtesy of the Toru Miyoshi Family Collection, Densho
Landscape of rows of flowers and a building, courtesy of the Toru Miyoshi Family Collection via Densho

Aftermath & Resilience

The Issei pioneers were naturalized as American citizens in 1954. Congress authorized citizenship for them under the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act.

Toru Miyoshi, a Gila River concentration camp prisoner, dedicated 20 years of public service with the Santa Maria City Council and Santa Barbara Board of County Supervisors.

Rob Himoto, Coast Belle Rail Corporation President, operates the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, a 14.8-mile system. SMVRR ships agricultural products and industrial materials. He is expanding the trans yard. He hopes to operate a commuter train service from Santa Maria to Guadalupe, Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles.

RM Miyoshi Company store in Santa Maria, CA
R.M. Miyoshi Company store via Santa Maria Valley Historical Society.

The Guadalupe Buddhist Church annually celebrates its Obon Festival in Santa Maria.

Japanese Culture Survives

The Santa Maria Japanese Community Center has actively preserved and promoted Japanese culture and heritage in the Santa Maria Valley since 1926. In partnership with the City of Maria, they are building a new Japanese Community Center to honor the Issei pioneers in the Santa Maria Valley. Judy Saki’s grandfather arrived in 1903 to labor in the burgeoning sugar beet industry. In the early 1920s, Wesley Koyama’s grandfather arrived to farm produce under the Koyama Selected Vegetables brand.

The new Japanese Community Center, 10,000 square feet, will combine Japanese and ranch-style architecture. The lobby will feature an art piece, and the center will feature memorabilia that reflects the pioneer Issei’s life.

Close

The Issei and Nisei merchants and farmers richly impacted the agricultural Santa Maria on California’s Gold Coast. The future Santa Maria Japanese Community Center will proudly celebrate the Issei heritage. It is a worthwhile endeavor that memorializes the Lost Japantown in Santa Maria.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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