With a population of almost 1,800 at the onset of WWII, Oakland’s Japanese American community was among California’s largest. Only Nihonmachi in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento were more populous. Japanese immigrants began settling in Oakland in the 1880s and by the 1910s, had built a community of over 1,500 people. This growth was partly in response to the 1906 earthquake and fire, which pushed many refugees from San Francisco to outlying towns where they set down roots. By 1940, Oakland’s Japantown had a wide array of professional and commercial services, and an extensive list of religious, cultural, recreational and educational organizations. Although many areas of the city excluded Japanese as residents, Nikkei businesses and cultural organizations were found in a remarkably dispersed pattern from East Oakland to the Berkeley border ten miles north. While Oakland’s Nikkei community does not conform to traditional notions of a readily identifiable ethnic enclave, West Oakland and Chinatown were especially significant centers for pre-WWII Japanese American life.
Of over 360 pre-WWII listings, we documented more than 140 extant structures in Oakland — the highest number of historic resources in the entire Preserving California’s Japantowns survey. These ranged from grand edifices like the Buddhist Church and elaborate downtown towers that held offices of Nikkei professionals to modest Victorian homes that held midwives and literary associations to the numerous early 20th-century commercial structures that still line many of the Oakland’s thoroughfares.
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