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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

An Art Project Explores The 'Hidden Histories' of San Jose’s Japantown

Robert Ragsac at the corner of 6th and Jackson Streets in San Jose.
Photo by Katherine Simpson
Robert Ragsac at the corner of 6th and Jackson Streets in San Jose.

Centered at North 5th and Jackson Street in San Jose, Japantown has been home to a variety of immigrant communities. The name Japantown doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the neighborhood’s past. The “Hidden Histories” virtual reality art project aims to connect the neighborhood's past to its present and future.

Robert Ragsac is a member of San Jose’s Filipino community and grew up in Japantown. He has fond memories of sneaking into the Japanese community center to watch Samurai movies.

“One of our Nissei buddies...He'd sneak us in, and we watched the samurai movies until we couldn't stand anymore. We started laughing and giggling and the elders threw us out,” says Ragsac.

When Ragsac grew up in the 1930s, the neighborhood was diverse. He calls it the “rainbow neighborhood,” in honor of the area’s multiethnic makeup during his childhood. Along with Japanese and Filipino communities, there was a large Chinese population.

Much of the neighborhood is gentrifying now, but Robert is part of a movement to document the neighborhood's 20th century heyday.

The history of the neighborhood is complicated. In the late 1800s the neighborhood wasn’t Japantown. It was Chinatown.

When anearlier San Jose Chinatownwas destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1887, a German-American landowner named John Heinlen leased property to the displaced Chinese-Americans.

Heinlenville Chinatown became a place where Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans could find familiar businesses and escape the racism of the broader community.

The three communities, along with a small African American population lived and worked there through the early 30s and 40s.

During this time, Many of the neighborhood’s residents, including Ragsac and his family, worked on farms.

“All locally owned farms,” says Ragsac, “a lot of them were owned by the Japanese.”

“And most of it was row crops. So it would be celery, string beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries,” says Ragsac, “And my sisters, they also participated in working on agriculture in agriculture...which was typical of the second generation.”

The flourishing multiethnic neighborhood of the 1930s didn’t last forever though. The community changed dramatically in 1942, with Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Ragsac Japanese neighbors.

Ragsac still remembers the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“My friend and I were going to go to school,” says Ragsac, “As we entered the playground, a lot of kids jumped on him. And we had no idea why. They were harassing him and beating on him. He started crying and so did I.”

“Well, 1941 when I was 10 years old, so is it. So you can imagine 10 year olds experiencing that on a playground for granted. And not knowing why,” says Ragsac.

Still, Robert says many Japanese residents—including Robert’s friend—returned in the 1950s. After returning, Japanese business owners organized a Nihonmachi or local business association. This is when the neighborhood became known as Japantown.

But as second generation immigrants have grown up and left the neighborhood fewer and fewer businesses have Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino ownership.

That’s why artists like Takeshi Moro, a first generation immigrant from Japan, joined the Hidden Histories project.

When he moved to the Bay Area ten years ago, the former location of Heinlenville Chinatown was a parking lot.

He says, “when the parking lot with you It felt transient in the state what it was but now that the condo is there I'm almost at peace that Heinlenville is never going to come back like it used to look like so that's why I think it's important to highlight Heinlenvillel right now because you know, this is a hidden history.”

“We don't want to lose the story.”

The neighborhood is still home to several Japanese businesses. A former gas station has now been converted into a coffee shopand stayed under family ownership. But many blocks are being replaced with condos.

And few people know about the history of Fillipino residents or the Helenville Chinatown.

With fewer and fewer Japanese residents and businesses, Ragsac says that the neighborhood, “belongs to the past.”

“But now Japantown, I believe, and this is part of the Hidden Histories project is trying to recognize the fact that it's going to be gentrified. You can't hold that back. And so whatever the flavor of that multi-ethnic groups was at the time that we experienced, is gone.”

But with the Hidden Histories project, it can live in the present too. Former residents like Ragsac and historians like Connie Young Yu helped nine artists put together virtual exhibits, accessible by app for anyone who wants to explore the neighborhood with an eye for its past.

The neighborhood is changing, but Ragsac wants the neighborhood to be recognized for how special it was.

“Before diversity became a national, I guess, imperative. We had that here, in this small area,” Ragsac says.

TheHidden Historiesinstallations are available to view any time with the AR-vos app. You can find a map at the project’s website. Robert Ragsac leads walking tours in the neighborhood focused on Filipino history. You can book one by emailing pinoytownsj@gmail.com or by following the Filipino American National Historical Society, Santa Clara Valley Chapter on social media.

Katherine Simpson is a teacher and journalist in the Bay Area. She's been working in public radio since 2018.