Tourists who visit San Juan Bautista to tour the Mission and the historic Old West remnants of the town might be surprised to discover that it once hosted 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 1942 Executive Order 9066 displaced Japanese immigrants and citizens alike, resulting in the erasure of tangible evidence of their contributions to the city’s heritage.
On Oct. 1, during its open house at the Luck Museum from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the San Juan Bautista Historical Society (SJBHS) will be exploring the history of the Japanese in the city and sharing fascinating artifacts from its archives on all aspects of San Juan’s history. The project stems from 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 in commemorating our residents who were born here who were Japanese. Cookie has been researching that history, and now it is time for us to join in on it.”
SBCHS President Wanda Guibert has been working on uncovering important information that is already in the society’s collection.
“During COVID, we were going through older issues of the Mission News for items on the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino residents, trying to build up a collection of articles,” she said. “We really want to build our archives on non-European community members because most of what we have is European-American oriented news and materials.”
One important resource at the SJBHS is the San Juan Bautista Focused Historic Context Statement, a study that was done in 2005-06 that involved a survey of the town and its residents. According to that document, Japanese immigrants first came to town in the late 1890s looking for agricultural work and, by 1910, half of the 210 Japanese residents of the city worked at seed farms.
As was the case with Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants could not buy land, leaving those interested in farming to work as sharecroppers.
By 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 Jardines Restaurant at the corner of Third and Washington streets, had been converted to a grocery store and Japanese bathhouse. A Japanese-owned fish market was located at 106 Third Street, the current location of Dona Esther’s Restaurant.
By 1915, the size of the population was significant enough to require building a schoolhouse that doubled 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 Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) chapter was founded in 1935.
With Roosevelt’s May 1942 executive order, Japanese Americans were deemed a threat to national security and 120,000 immigrants and citizens were sent to internment camps. Though the Japanese residents of San Juan Bautista had long been accepted by the city, they were not shielded from the order. An archive of photographs in the Library of Congress documents the Japanese of San Juan Bautista being sent to “reception centers” in Salinas, where they worked in the fields and cleaned cemeteries while waiting to be sent by bus and rail 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 reclaim their shops, landlords refused to rent to families and, by 1950, the Japanese population shrunk to 30% of its pre-war size. The community continued to fade away, though some Japanese residents still meet at the JACL.
The understanding that much of the short history of the Japanese in San Juan Bautista has not been told is a strong motivating factor in the SJBHS drive to gather and preserve what they can before it is lost to time. The society encourages residents to step forward and help.
“What we want is for people to come and tell us more of what they know,” Gularte said. “We also encourage people to bring us things for our collection that they might want to see preserved as part of the town’s historical record.”
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