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  • SAN JOSE JAPANTOWN CELEBRATES 125 YEARS

    There are only 3 official Japantowns in the United States: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose. To celebrate San Jose Japantown’s 125th San Jose Buddhist church held a concert on August 15. The program included music by a chidori band, a koto performer and the taiko group. Another concert will be held at Wesley United Methodist Church (WUMC) on September 12.

    The August concert had a program guide to the music and various articles regarding the history of Chinatown and Japantown. These articles were basically tributes to John Heinlen and J.B. Peckham The history of Chinatown and Japantown are intertwined. Before Japantown there was Chinatown. The city of San Jose had 5 Chinatowns in its history from as early as 1866. When the fourth Chinatown was burned to the ground in 1887, by an arson fire, a German immigrant named John Heinlen met with some Chinese merchants to discuss the rebuilding of the town. In spite of local opposition Mr. Heinlen leased his property to the Chinese community for the rebuilding of a new Chinatown. This time the town would be made of brick, to discourage arson fire. For further protection, an 8 foot high wooden fence was built around the town and a security guard was hired.

    In the 1890’s the Japanese arrived and the Chinese merchants offered credit to these new arrival. In addition Mr. Heinlen leased land to the Japanese.

    Another person who proved helpful was J.B Peckham. To get around the laws, of the time, which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning property Mr. Peckham served as “caretaker” so the immigrants could buy property in their children’s name When the Japanese Americans in the San Jose area were interned, he helped these internees so they could hold on to their property.

    The bulletin included articles from Congressman Mike Honda; former Secretary of the Transportation Norm Mineta and Connie Young Yu, author of the San Jose Chinatown book. While Mr. Heinlen left no descendants, people who grew up in Chinatown/ Japantown remembered his generosity and spoke highly of him. In essence the articles were a big arigato or thank you to John Heinlen and J.B. Peckham.

    Demographics have changed overtime and San Jose Chinatown no longer exists. But as late as the 1960’s, some referred to the area as Chinatown. The area is now designated as Japantown; it is not exclusively Japanese in character. While there are Japanese shops such as Nichi Bei, where one can buy Japanese goods such as kimonos and martial arts equipment, there are also other institutions such as a Filipino community center and an Ethiopian church. In some ways the area seems like a nondescript neighborhood except for signs and markers indicating that this area is Japantown. One of the authors of SAN JOSE JAPANTOWN spoke of the “spirit” of Japantown. Perhaps with the move of the Japanese owned Union Bank to Japantown, the area more of a Japanese character. My guess is even if the area takes on more of a Japanese character it will not become an isolated village, but more of a blend of cultures.

    The point of mixing of cultures was made at the concert. Someone made the point that the taiko drum performers did not aim simply to follow what was in Japan. Instead they expressed interest in mixing influences from other areas such as Latin America. One of the works performed was entitled Shiawase Samba. Someone once told me there is no such thing as a “pure” culture. Unless one lives in complete isolation words, customs and ideas can cross boundaries. For example the Japanese have borrowed the word for bread, “pan,” from the Portuguese. The Americans have borrowed the slang term for leader, “honcho,” from the Japanese. (It is a corruption of the word “hancho”). Apparently the French word for waiter, “garcon,” has made its way into the Turkish and Iranian languages.

    Culture does not stand still and neither does time. At the concert music from various decades were performed. The song by the late Misora Hibari, who was popular in the 1960’s, was covered. A song from the 1980’s was also performed. Also performed was an international hit from the 1960’s known to the West as “Sukiyaki.” Yes, that was in the bulletin. The original title for the song was Ue O muite Aruko. The song was written by the lyricist after a failed protest against the U.S. – Japan security agreement. However the lyrics were deliberately kept vague so the song could be interpreted as a disappointment in love song. In fact one source I read stated the author wrote with the break up with his girlfriend. The British company which released the song in the U.K. figured people could not pronounce the original title, so they gave the song the title “Sukiyaki.” Think of it this way. Suppose someone in Italy writes a song in Italian “I just got dumped by my girlfriend and I’m sad.” A record company comes along and says this Italian title is too difficult for English speakers; so let’s call it “pizza.” For better or for worse this song has been known to posterity a “Sukiyaki.” Please pardon the editorializing but I think the British record company could have done better by calling the song “Sayonara” instead of “sukiyaki.” This so far has been the only Japanese song to reach number one in the United States.

    The first part of the concert was basically the audience sitting and listening. The second part of the concert involved taiko drum performances. During some of the taiko drum pieces, people would dance around the room in circle. The dancing reminded me of the bon dances, I saw in Hawaii. For some the dance has a religious significance of greeting one’s dead ancestors who return to earth at this time. For others the obon activity is just a chance to eat, drink and dance. One of the songs accompanied by with a dance was called Pokémon Ondo. For those of you who don’t know, Pokémon was a hugely popular anime series in Japan which was also became a big fad in the United States as well. The concert ended with as musical piece which seemed to incorporate old and new. It was called “tanko bushi and tanko boogie.” I remembered the “tanko bushi” song from about 45 years ago. I don’t remember the “tanko boogie.” My guess is the “tanko boogie” was a modernized jazzed up version of the song.

    The next concert commemorating Japantown’s 125th anniversary will be held at Wesley United Methodist Church (WUMC). The music at the concert will be given by the WUMC jazz band and the ukulele group. The musical instruments and songs will be more Western or American in focus. I did notice one Japanese song on the program

    For those who plan to visit Japantown, there is brochure which provides a walking tour of the area. While many of the old sites no longer exist, there are plaques and markers pointing out the various sites. Those interested in cultural activities may wish to check out the Yu-Ai Kai senior center. The Koto performer at the concert mentioned that her mother still teaches there. My guess is people there could give you other leads to cultural activities.

    Filed in: Articles of the month