Monterey's Nihonmachi - Japan Town

In many towns and cities across America where clusters of immigrant populations have settled, significant sub-communities have evolved. These sub-communities have familiar ethnic identities such as the Irish in Boston; Polish in Milwaukee and Chicago; Swedish in Pennsylvania and New England; Chinese in New York City and San Francisco; Latinos in the cities of Arizona, Texas and California. All these ethnic communities share one characteristic: each has both defined and enriched its resident community and our collective culture.

As these ethnic groups competed for jobs and other limited resources, inter- and intra-group conflicts have occurred. Many new immigrant groups have come to America providing an industrializing economy with cheap labor, mainly living in big cities where industrial growth and economies of scale produced ethnic concentrations. The process of moving up the social and economic ladder inevitably produced some discord, but it is also true that this sense of group boundary gave rise to ethnic solidarity, neighborhood associations, group trust and business opportunities.
And so it was the case for the Japanese on the Monterey Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century. Monterey’s nihonmachi, (Japan Town) established roots in the 1910s and 1920s, and soon became the hub of business and social activity. This little community was bounded by Tyler Street to the west, intersecting with Franklin to the north, Cortes & Camino El Estero on the east, and Webster and Pearl Streets on the southern side.

In this 11-to-12 block area, many Japanese businesses flourished; hotels and restaurants met the needs of out-of-town visitors as well as locals; several families resided here; entertainment centers dotted the streets; the Japanese Church of Christ (renamed El Estero Presbyterian in 1941) brought families together on Sundays; and the Japanese Association Building (later renamed the JACL Hall) served as a center that bonded Japanese families with a rich variety of programs, services and community events.


JACL Building
JACL Hall in 2010, virtually unchanged from 1926 when first built.
El Estero Church old
Japanese Church of Christ in 1926, today known as El Estero Presbyterian Church

Nihonmachi buzzed with daily activity catering to virtually all the needs of the Japanese community. There were about two dozen retail businesses. As early as 1906, Rokumatsu Ono established a general marine supply store, R. Ono & Company, located on Washington Street between Franklin and Del Monte. A second fishing supply store, the Owashi Ship Chandlery & Grocery, operated at the corner of Franklin and Figueroa. In 1919, Torakichi Tabata and Tonosuke Esaki opened Sunrise Brothers on Franklin St., later moving to 438 Washington Street, providing basic groceries and special holiday items.

Map of Monterey’s Nihonmachi. Legend indicates businesses and family homes in this area during the first half of the 20th century. Only the JACL Hall at 424 Adams Street and El Estero Presbyterian Church on Camino El Estero remain today.

The burgeoning fishing industry attracted crews of fishermen from many other California ports. To meet the needs of these crews for a place to eat and stay overnight, the Higashi family started the Higashi Hotel, initially located at the corner of Del Monte Avenue and Adams St. In the early 1920s, the Higashi Hotel relocated to the 400 block of Adams Street, directly adjacent to the south side of the Japanese Association Hall. Another boarding house on Washington Street, Kumamoto Ya, was owned and operated by the Marumoto family.

Families considered dining out a special treat, a time to relax and meet other friends over dinner. Some of the restaurants patronized for their good food included the Canton Restaurant on Washington Streer, The Wakaba Japanese Restaurant & Bar on Franklin between Alvarado and Tyler, and the Higashi family’s Azuma Tei, conveniently located just below the second story rooms of the Higashi Hotel on Adams Street.

Other businesses opened to meet the everyday needs of community members. The Suyama Shoe Repair shop cobbled footwear at the store on Tyler Street and expanded to sell items such as candy, peanuts, popcorn and cigarettes. In 1920, the Kodama family opened Owl Cleaners, the first Japanese-owned dry-cleaning business in the nihonmachi area. Other pre-1945 cleaning businesses included Izumi’s Laundry on the corner of Del Monte and Washington, and Yokohama Laundry located at the intersection of Franklin and Adams.

Customers filled the chairs atTakamoto Barber Shop near the corner of Washington and Del Monte or at Futamase Barber & Bath House on Franklin. Home furnishing items and gifts could be purchased at Yamate’s Oriental Gift Shop on Alvarado, just across the street from the Miura’s Japanese Art & Dry Goods.

Evening forms of entertainment could be found in Monterey’s nihonmachi to satisfy diverse needs. Those with a predilection for gambling could go to two gaming houses that were located at the intersection of Washington and Franklin Sts. While most families bought groceries and cooked at home, others enjoyed an evening out with family and friends at one of the local restaurants mentioned above.

Without question, however, the center of social activity focused on many day and evening programs held at the Nihonjinkai Hall (Japanese Association Hall) at 424 Adams. This is where local notables and organizations met to discuss and assess any problems faced by Japanese community members, planning strategies and solutions for dealing with a range of social and financial issues. The Hall provided meeting and performance space for a wide variety of events: shibai, a form of kabuki and story-telling performed by locals; group meetings for members of clubs like shigin, ikebana, fujinkai, and Nihon gakko classes held after school and weekends for young children to teach them Japanese language and culture. One of the more popular programs at the Hall was showing chanbara movies, filled with samurai and sword fighting, always sure to rouse the crowd.

Early Japanese families also established residence in Monterey’s nihonmachi, centered along Adams and spread out among other adjacent streets in this 11-block area. Among some of the family homes on Adams St. we can find the names Takigawa, Oda, Narazaki and Manaka. At the intersection of Cortes and Anthony, the Okumuras (NW), Satos (NE), Oyamas (SE), and Katos (SW), occupied homes on the four corner lots.

As surely as foreign and domestic economic circumstances drew Japanese immigrants to the Peninsula and led to the formation of Monterey’s nihonmachi, so too did economic changes after 1945 lead to the fragmentation and eventual disappearance of nihonmachi. Between 1900 and 1950, the maritime industry based on abalone, tuna, salmon and especially sardines, generated a boom economy for fisherman and canneries. Job demand brought a steadily increasing number of Japanese and other ethnic immigrants to the Monterey Peninsula, giving rise to the diverse nihonmachi businesses sketched above.

After the end of the Second World War, many Japanese families returned to the Monterey Peninsula to reestablish their lives and former occupations. Given economic developments beyond their control or ability to forsee, the foundation for Monterey’s nihonmachi began to crumble. Firstly, the well-documented rapid decline and disappearance of sardines undercut the economic rationale for much of the canneries and ancillary retail businesses. Secondly, the growth of multinational corporate business and the huge economies of scale, made it virtually impossible for small, Japanese-family-owned, mom-and-pop type stores to compete on price. Sadly, over time, stores in nihonmachi gave way to this economic reality. Whether small family-run farms, neighborhood shops, or maritime-related businesses, nihonmachi properties, one-by-one, were sold to financial corporations and big-box stores.

This economic tide of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is not likely to be reversed. If we walk the streets today that cover Monterey’s old nihonmachi, virtually every single Japanese business has been razed and replaced. The singular structure that still stands today in 2010 is the iconic Japanese Association Hall, originally built in 1926, renamed in 1942 as the JACL Hall.

If you walk through this area defined as Monterey’s nihonmachi, the JACL Hall building at 424 Adams serves as a symbol of the most important challenge facing us today. This challenge is to preserve as much of Japanese culture and Japanese contributions to the history of the Monterey Peninsula. There are city, county and state policies that support the preservation of historically important sites. The JACL Hall has received city designation as a historical building deserving of preservation.

The JA population, JACL and allied preservationist groups must do whatever we can to keep nihonmachis intact and to preserve what we have left to serve as a lasting cultural reminder of the Japanese on the Monterey Peninsula. To this end the Monterey Peninsula JACL is currently engaged in a major project aimed at establishing a Cultural Heritage Center, housed in the JACL Hall. The goal is to create a repository of artifacts, photographs, exhibits, and papers, open to students and community members, that documents not only Monterey’s nihonmachi, but also the history of the Japanese on the Monterey Peninsula.