Thriving Oakland "Japantown" Was Shattered by WWII. The first Japanese immigrants to the United States landed on California soil in the 1890s, when Japan reopened itself to the rest of the world after 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Most of those who were chosen by the Japanese government to make the trans-Pacific journey came from Kyushu, an agriculturally based prefecture.

The first settlements were mostly rural, but immigrants periodically returned to urban centers. San Francisco was the cultural center for the Japanese immigrant community, but many also settled in Oakland, mostly in West Oakland around Market Street.

By the 1910s, the Japanese community in Oakland was thriving. The 8th Annual Japanese American yearbook, published in 1912, listed dozens of Japanese-owned laundromats, green grocers, barbers, tailors, and restaurants. There was the Tokio Dyeing and Cleaning works on Broadway, owned by the Yokomizo brothers; T. Mitoma Company on East 12th Street for shoes; and the Amano Tailor Company on 7th Street, which specialized in men’s suits.

The A-1 Fish Market on 8th Street, still owned by the Yamagata family, is one of the last downtown Japanese-owned businesses from this era.

The arrival of Japanese immigrants wasn’t welcomed in California. In 1913, the state passed the Alien Land Act, which prohibited Japanese-born immigrants from owning land. The inhabitants of Oakland were vocal about their dislike of this new immigrant group. The Alameda County Union Labor Record reported an "Oakland meeting of the California Anti-Oriental League," in January, 1920; in February, the paper published an article against "encroachment by Japanese business on California."

Congress responded to public fears of uncontrolled Japanese immigration in 1924 by passing exclusionary laws to bar Japanese immigration outright. These laws defined the Japanese-American immigrant experience in Oakland and in the United States. The community became, in effect, closed to the influence of new immigrants. Growth was solely due to propagation from within. This meant that each successive generation had a comparatively homogeneous age, cultural perspective and socio-historical experience – an immigrant history unique to the Japanese-American community.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many areas of Oakland society made it a point to exclude Japanese immigrants. For example, Piedmont Baths in Adams Point did not allow Japanese patrons. Upper-income residential neighborhoods, like Lakeshore Highlands along Trestle Glen, prohibited non-whites from living in these neighborhoods unless in a servant’s capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted these restrictions in the 1940s.

By the late 1930s, Oakland City had hired only one employee of Japanese descent: a Lakeside Park gardener.

The resentment against Japanese immigrants came to a head when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The Japanese-American community became the target of wartime hysteria and deep-rooted prejudice. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to relocate persons of Japanese descent, Japanese-Americans in Oakland were given one week to sell off their property at distressed prices. Most of them were first detained at the Tanforan Assembly Center, a horse race track in San Bruno. They were made to live in horse stalls for several months, and then moved to the Topaz relocation center in central Utah.

Perhaps because of their bitter experience with their neighbors in Oakland, many Japanese Americans chose not to return to Oakland after the war. An article in the Oakland Tribune on November 24, 1947 noted: "Although 30 percent of the local Nisei [Japanese American] evacuees have not returned, there is a growing movement of Japanese Americans from other areas to San Francisco." The article noted that more Americans of Japanese decent resettled in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, and some settled in the Sacramento and Fresno areas; but Southern Alameda County and Oakland had fewer Japanese Americans than before the war.

Today, there are few remnants of the once vibrant "Japantown" in Oakland. The Buddhist Church of Oakland embodies the history of the Japanese-American community in Oakland.

--Yvonne Kennedy

A newsstand in Oakland. Dorthea Lange. (Property of the National Archives)

The Masuda family posted this sign outside their Oakland grocery store, Wanto Company. Dorthea Lange (Property of the National Archives)




May 1942: A Japanese-American girl guards her family's belongings in preparation for the relocation. Dorthea Lange (Property of the National Archives)


May 1942: Japanese-American residents in Oakland were given one week to sell off and pack up their homes. Photo Dorthea Lange (Property of the National Archives)


A father and his three sons wait for the buses to take them to Tanforan race tracks in San Bruno, where Japanese-Americans from Oakland were temporarily "housed" in horse stalls from May until September 1942, when they were then transferred to camps in Utah until the end of World War II. Photo Dorthea Lange (Property of the National Archives)


Employees wait for customers at Market Laundry Company on Myrtle Street in Oakland, c. 1920. (Oakland History Library archives)


A horse and buggy from Market Laundry of Myrtle Street, makes a pick up in front of Shimada Tailoring. Market Laundry was one of the dozens of Japanese-owned Laundromats that served Oakland in the 1920s. (Oakland History Library Archives)