San Juan Bautista Historical Society Celebrates Japanese-American History

The Luck Museum organizes an open day to promote the Japanese community.

Tourists who visit San Juan Bautista to visit the Mission and the city’s Old West historical remnants might be surprised to discover that it was once home to a thriving Japanese community. Today, one of the few haunting signs of their presence is the sizable Japanese section of the San Juan Cemetery. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of 1942 displaced Japanese immigrants and citizens, causing hard evidence of their contributions to the city’s heritage to be erased.

On October 1, during its open day at the Musée de la Chance from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the San Juan Bautista Historical Society (SJBHS) will explore the history of the Japanese in the city and share fascinating artifacts from its archives on all aspects of San Juan history. The project stems from the work done by Evelyn “Cookie” Nishita Hibino. Hibino is the daughter of Kimiko “Kimi” Sasaki Nishita, who in 1907 was the first Nisei girl born in San Juan Bautista.

“As we look around our community and the Bay Area,” said SJBHS member Georgiana Gularte, “San Benito County is slow to commemorate our Japanese residents who were born here. Cookie has researched this story, and now it’s time for us to join in.

SBCHS President Wanda Guibert worked to uncover important information that is already in the society‘s collection.

“During COVID, we were going through older issues of Mission News for articles on Chinese, Japanese and Filipino residents, trying to build a collection of articles,” she said. “We really want to build our archive on members of the non-European community because most of what we have is Euro-American oriented news and material.”

An important resource of the SJBHS is San Juan Bautista’s Focused Historical Context Statement, a 2005-2006 study that involved a survey of the city and its people. According to this document, Japanese immigrants first arrived in the city in the late 1890s in search of agricultural work, and by 1910 half of the city’s 210 Japanese residents worked on seed farms.

As was the case with Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants could not buy land, leaving those interested in agriculture to work as sharecroppers.

In 1910, Third Street, between Washington and Franklin streets, became a small Japanese business community. Oka’s hotel was located in the current Casa Rosa building at 107 Third Street, and the Vache Adobe, located at the Jardines restaurant at the corner of Third and Washington streets, had been converted into a deli and Japanese bath. A Japanese-owned fish market was located at 106 Third Street, the current location of Dona Esther’s restaurant.

By 1915, the population size was large enough to require the construction of a school that also served as a community center. In 1930, a larger community center was built on First Street, around the corner from the San Juan Bautista Community Center. A chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was founded in 1935.

With Roosevelt’s Executive Order of May 1942, Japanese Americans were deemed a national security threat and 120,000 immigrants and citizens were sent to internment camps. Although the Japanese residents of San Juan Bautista had long been accepted by the city, they were not immune to the order. An archive of photographs in the Library of Congress documents the sending of the Japanese from San Juan Bautista to “reception centers” in Salinas, where they worked in the fields and cleared the cemeteries while waiting to be sent by bus and train to internment camps.

After the war, Japanese residents returned to San Juan Bautista, but to a much more hostile environment. Business owners were not allowed to take back their stores, landlords refused to rent to families, and by 1950 the Japanese population had fallen to 30% of its pre-war size. The community continued to disappear, although some Japanese residents still gather at the JACL.

The understanding that much of the short history of the Japanese in San Juan Bautista has gone untold is a strong motivating factor in SJBHS’s drive to collect and preserve what they can before it is gone. lost in time. The society encourages residents to come forward and help.

“What we want is for people to come and tell us more about what they know,” Gularte said. “We also encourage people to bring us items for our collection that they may want to be preserved as part of the city’s historical archives.”

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