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San Jose's Japantown Stayed the Same for More Than 70 Years. Now, Change Is Coming.

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A man in a "Japantown" shirt holds out a tray of poke from the window of a Japanese market.
During the pandemic, Mark Santo started serving poke bowls at his 75-year-old Japantown grocery store, Santo Market. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

KQED’s San Jose: The Bay Area’s Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose’s wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29. 

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n Jackson Street in San Jose, the one- and two-story wooden buildings—with their mid-century neon signs and lunch specials in the windows—haven’t changed much since Evelyn Hori first visited the neighborhood 30 years ago. A group of fellow Japanese Americans brought the homesick UC Santa Cruz student to Gombei restaurant, where the flavors transported her to her mother’s kitchen in Los Angeles. 

“The style of Gombei restaurant is just so homey, traditional,” recalls Hori. “It’s the side dishes, like ohitashi—spinach with ground sesame seeds, fresh tofu. They’re not fancy, something you would make a batch of at home. When you have their fish, it’s with the bones and all.”

Hori was so charmed by that first visit to San Jose’s Japantown that she took a job at the senior center after graduation. And she’s raised her own family in the community, too. Since the end of World War II, Jackson Street has been a home away from home for Japanese Americans—first as refuge from racism and, more recently, as a place to attend cultural events, pick up fresh manju or slurp a bowl of udon. Unlike its counterparts in San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Jose’s Japantown is often overlooked. It’s just three blocks of low-slung buildings, and, like San Jose itself, it’s a place even other Bay Area residents don’t know much about.

Author Gil Asakawa, whose history of Japanese food in America, Tabemasho!, is slated for publication in 2022, calls it “Japanese American Mayberry.” Like the impossibly wholesome 1950s town from The Andy Griffith Show, it’s a safe, friendly neighborhood—with a Japanese twist. Bonsai trees stand in front of tidy bungalows, the main church is Buddhist and the corner grocery stocks miso and natto. 

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This area between downtown and Mineta International Airport is also prime real estate in a housing-strapped market. For decades, Japantown has been a place to get a taste of the past, but a wave of ongoing development projects could bring new life into this sleepy burg—or wipe out its character altogether. 

From inside a restaurant kitchen, a chef in a black uniform holds out a plate of katsu curry.
Shiro Kubota opened Gombei 40 years ago, but he still considers himself one neighborhood’s more “recent” immigrants. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

What could be lost is a piece of Asian American history. The neighborhood has attracted immigrants from Asia for over 100 years, as far back as when it was part of a Chinatown that has long since been demolished. Its Japanese identity was cemented during the post-World War II years. After Americans of Japanese descent were released from remote camps, such as Tule Lake or Topaz, at the end of the war, many of them gravitated toward San Jose, where a population of Chinese and Filipinos had maintained homes and businesses. Soon, the blocks around Jackson and Fifth Streets came to life with grocers, dentists and hair salons, as well as Buddhist and Christian houses of worship. In their native tongue, they called it Nihonmachi. For decades, all of the shops in Japantown have been mom-and-pop businesses, some of them handed down through three or four generations. 

Hovering over Jackson Street’s historic streetscape is the construction of a housing and retail complex that will bring 500 new apartments to the neighborhood. That means an influx of new residents, likely non-Japanese. Will they dine on donburi and join in the Nikkei Matsuri and Obon festivals? Or will they usher in a demand for Starbucks and Chipotle? 

America’s Most Traditional Japantown

Meanwhile, the comforting flavors at old mainstays like Gombei continue to draw visitors from near and far. “My wife and I go there every time we go to San Francisco. We love driving straight from SFO down to San Jose to have lunch,” Asakawa, the author, explains. “That’s definitely the kind of food I grew up with.” 

Shiro Kubota opened Gombei 40 years ago, dishing up homestyle meals to salarymen from the nearby Sony and Hitachi campuses. Now 70, he’s still behind the counter almost every day alongside a small crew of mostly Latino cooks. Although his staff fries croquettes and grills mackerel, he insists on arriving at the kitchen at 7am to make the curry and soups himself, keeping the flavor consistent, as he’s done nearly every day since 1981. “I have a recipe in here,” he says, chuckling and pointing to his head, “but it’s not written down.” 

Although Kubota occasionally allows new specials, his goal is to serve meals that remind him of growing up in Japan. Even though he arrived in America in the 1970s, he’s still considered one of the “recent” immigrants here. 

Some of Japantown’s restaurants go back much further. They evolved from the lunch counters that served the first wave of immigrants, farmers who began arriving around 1900 from rural southern Japan. The fare still reflects these down home roots. 

“Originally, with the Exclusion Act, there were mostly just guys here, so there were pool halls and barber shops,” says Gene Yoneda, who with his wife JoAnn owns Minato, the oldest operating Japanese restaurant in San Jose. Minato opened its doors in 1961 and changed ownership a few times before the Yonedas bought it. They still serve some of the original dishes, such as deep brown curry over rice or simmering pots of sukiyaki, but other entrées—such as homestyle butadofu, a stir-fry of pork and bean curd—have fallen off the menu. 

A spread of homey Japanese dishes; a plate of Japanese brown curry over rice is in the foreground.
Minato’s curry over rice has been a menu staple since the restaurant first opened in 1961. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

In the 1980s, Minato opened San Jose’s first sushi bar, which has now been replaced with additional seating. Today, the menu offers a little bit of this and that, including chicken-and-egg oyakodon or pork chop katsudon, along with several varieties of udon. It’s the kind of family-friendly place where Evelyn Hori brought her children to lunch after preschool or scout meetings. Kids receive tickets to trade in for plastic beads or a Disney notebook. Construction workers might sit next to local politicians. If a presidential candidate were to stump in Japantown, Minato would be the place.

The restaurant also sits directly across the street from the site of the new retail and housing complex under construction, whose exterior is now close to finished. “It was dusty, noisy, with tractors going back and forth,” Yoneda says.

Will hundreds of new residents mean more patrons for restaurants like Minato? Japantown eateries walk a fine line between too much and not enough. Even if newcomers choose bentos over burrito bowls, too many new customers could flood these small dining rooms, leaving restaurateurs unable to serve their regulars, much less greet them by name. 

For the most part, Yoneda tries to be optimistic. “Parking is the only issue I have,” he says. “We welcome everybody. Anybody that wants to come down here. It’s kind of cool.”

A view of one of the main stretches of Japantown, with a large construction zone to the right.
Minato sits directly across the street from the site of the new housing and retail complex. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

In spite of the looming changes, many of the shops in San Jose’s Japantown seem frozen in time. Shuei-Do Manju, a tiny storefront on Jackson Street, sells nearly a thousand pieces of mochi and other traditional sweets every day. Open since 1953, the shop gives off an old-fashioned candy store vibe. Youth sports trophies and a Kristi Yamaguchi cereal box are proudly displayed behind the counter, which features a glass case with round mochi, wafer-like monaka and pastel cubes of chi chi dango arrayed in lacquer trays. 

When Tom and Judy Kumamaru bought the shop in 1987, they spent six months learning the art of making manju from the original owners. Unlike packaged rice cakes sold in many Asian supermarket chains, the fillings and the chewy exteriors are all made from scratch each day, without preservatives. Each morning, the couple soaks azuki and lima beans for the fillings, which they wrap into handmade skins of mochiko sweet rice flour. Judy, whose parents were good friends of the founders, tests the fillings to make sure they’re just like she remembers. 

Over the decades, Tom has tested out various machines in hopes of perhaps modernizing the mochi-making process, but the equipment couldn’t handle Shuei-Do’s recipe for delicate, chewy dough. He says shops like theirs don’t even exist in Japanese cities. “They’re coming up with different types. Some really fancy, too, so fancy that you don’t want to eat them,” he explains. “When you go into the different countryside areas, the shops are kind of like ours.” 

An assortment of manju wrapped in paper sleeves.
The manju at Shuei-Do are made by hand from scratch each day. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

When asked if they plan to branch out into the mochi donuts or muffins that are lighting up Instagram, Tom laughs and points to the peanut butter filled manju as their most adventurous variety. He prefers the kinako flavor, dusted with roasted soybean powder.

Less Nihonmachi, More JTown

There’s a deep sense of community in Japantown, and perhaps no one is more deeply invested than James Nagareda. Not only does Nagareda oversee the local history museum, he serves on the board of the Japantown Business Association, and runs the Nikkei Traditions gift store and, until recently, an ice cream shop called Jimbo’s. He’s idealistic yet practical. “You have to look at it from both points of view, right?” Nagareda says about the new shopping plaza. “We’d rather have a small independent or family, which is awesome. But again, economics, it’s got to work.” Today, the only corporate presence is the San Diego-based Niijiya market. For many mom-and-pop shops, survival requires changing with the times. Nagareda sold Jimbo’s to new owners who have rebranded it as JT Express, serving take-out friendly sushi burritos as well as taiyaki and Bubbie’s ice cream mochi. 

One of the businesses that Nagareda hopes to preserve, however, is  Santo Market, the small Japanese-Hawaiian grocery store kitty-corner to the new housing complex. A giant ocean mural on the exterior befits a business riding the wave of change. Mark Santo leads his three siblings in running the store, which has been in the family since 1946. When local artist Juan Carlos Araujo approached him about having one of the first murals commissioned in Japantown, Santo convinced his nonagenarian parents to approve the work and persuaded Araujo to take inspiration from Hokusai’s classic art. 

To keep island transplants from driving up to San Mateo to buy haupia mix and poi at Takahashi Market, the shop started expanding its selection of Hawaiian goods. The family developed a poke recipe, and Mark’s sisters started making strawberry daifuku on Tuesdays and Saturdays, tucking a whole berry and red bean filling into mochi dough. To fill the void left by the closure of San Jose’s beloved Aki’s Bakery, the market started selling guava cake by the slice at the takeout window. 

Closed for in-person shopping since the beginning of the pandemic, Santo Market is now more of a takeout joint than a grocery. There’s usually a crowd in the small parking lot; the market averages 60 pounds of tuna a day, in addition to barbecued tri-tip and teriyaki sandwiches. The daifuku often sells out before noon. 

In early October, the market celebrated its 75th birthday. Mark Santo himself turned 60 this year, and many of Japantown’s legacy restaurateurs are also in their sixties or seventies. Their children and grandchildren build websites, set up credit card systems and even design T-shirts, but not many of them want to take on the hard work of the food industry.

Two men stand in front of a large, ocean-themed mural on the exterior wall of Santo Market.
The pandemic forced Mark Santo (right) to modernize and diversify his traditional Japanese market. Here, he poses in front of the market with his brother, Scott Santo. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

San Jose’s Japanese population has been shrinking for decades, because of aging and exodus to the suburbs. Only one percent of the local residents identified as Japanese in the latest census survey. In many ways, even without the massive new complex, change in San Jose’s Japantown is already well underway. A younger, more diverse crowd is drawn to the neighborhood for art walks and car shows. “Those who are coming to Obon were me and my parents, their friends who’ve been coming for 60 years,” Santo says of the annual Japanese Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. “Where these guys are bringing in fresh blood, fresh people, new people.”

Walk down Jackson Street today, and you can see the changes all around. A Depression-era gas station owned by Roy Murotsune, whose family bought the property after World War II, has been converted by his daughter and grandchildren into Roy’s Station. At this popular cafe, purple-haired Gen-Zers sip Verve coffee alongside Japanese retirees. Joggers with Labradoodles swerve around senior citizens ambling down the sidewalk. “I get annoyed sometimes when I’m trying to buy groceries at Nijiya and there are millennials and tech bros clogging the aisles, tripping out over the ‘crazy’ Japanese snacks and laughing at the labels,” says music journalist and longtime San Jose resident Todd Inoue, who frequents the neighborhood a few times a month.

Along with the customers, the merchants are also becoming more diverse. Lotus blossom banners are fading, while street-art style murals brighten once blank walls. Empty storefronts fill up with snapbacks and T-shirts, succulents and art supplies, reflecting an urban, multicultural aesthetic. It’s less Nihonmachi and more JTown. In a way, it’s a return to the neighborhood’s pan-Asian roots, with Filipino, Vietnamese and Hawaiian business owners.

More San Jose Food

In fact, the earliest restaurants in the area were not Japanese, but Chinese. The oldest one was Ken Ying Low, housed in a two-story Victorian era building across from the construction site, which was once the center of San Jose’s last Chinatown. According to historian Curt Fukuda, the banquet room was the site of many Japanese Americans wedding and funeral banquets in the olden days. After housing Filipino, Cuban and Chinese cuisines, the building became home to a new tenant: a pizza shop whose signature pie, the “JTown Street,” is loosely modeled after Japanese okonomiyaki—hoisin sauce and sweet mayo drizzled over shiitake mushrooms and shredded romaine. Inoue, the music writer, enjoys the tekka don at Ginza restaurant, but he’ll also grab a beer at the pizza shop.

Despite its moniker, Japantown has always been a big tent: There are Korean and Mexican restaurants, and even stalwart Gombei sometimes offers chicken adobo, a nod to its longtime Filipino neighbors. Being the overlooked country cousin, the community around Jackson Street has quietly watched and learned from redevelopment in San Francisco and LA in the 1960s and ’70s. And San Jose, a city that recently apologized for the burning of an early Chinatown, may have the kind of multicultural ethos where Japantown can grow, yet stay true to its roots.

After decades of exodus, some Japanese Americans are interested in returning to this urban village. At age 55, Inoue is considering a move from the suburbs to one of the new apartments when he retires. “Japantown is still a living, breathing community and you see that in the people and the business. You see the Lotus preschool kids doing their rounds, the elders at Yu-Ai Kai [senior center] and Fuji Towers,” says Inoue. “There’s a comfort and familiarity in the daily life, but also glints of progressive change.”

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Grace Hwang Lynch is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist and essayist, with an eye for Asian American culture and food. Her work can be found at PRI, NPR, Tin House and Catapult. She’s at work on a memoir about Taiwanese food and family. Follow her on Twitter @GraceHwangLynch.

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