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The Japantowns of Placer County
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The Japantowns of Placer County

By California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and David Washburn
2007, 40 pages, Paperback.

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Located in the foothills east of Sacramento, the town of Penryn was once surrounded by rolling hills filled with peach, plum, and pear orchards. Japanese farmers leased or owned a substantial portion of the fruit ranches in this area, and the money they made in turn supported a local economy of Japanese businesses. By the early-1900s, a commercial district was established along Penryn Rd. in Penryn containing a number of Japanese owned stores, such as the ones Mr. Yokota so fondly recalls. This Japantown, or Nihonmachi as it is referred to in Japanese, was more than just a concentration of merchants; also found on Penryn Road at this time was a large Buddhist church, a social hall, as well as other civic organizations. Together these buildings acted as a commercial and cultural center for the Japanese of Placer County. For their part, the neighboring communities of Loomis, Newcastle, and Auburn had a number of Japanese businesses that catered to local Nikkei residents. Although they were fewer in number than in Penryn, Japanese merchants from these towns were mainstays of their respective communities. Today, however, only remnants of these once active businesses and community organizations are still standing-a building here or an old facade there. Why, one might ask, are Placer County's Japantowns worth remembering at all if so few structures remain? The answer can be found in the memories of Mr. Yokota and others like him. By combining peoples' stories with photographic documentation, we can begin to understand how Placer County's historic buildings and abandoned lots previously acted as focal points for the region's Japanese Americans. In doing so, we gain insight into these once vibrant communities and deepen our understanding of California's rich cultural history.

The word "Japantown" usually makes people think of the tourist sections in San Francisco or Los Angeles. It would surprise many in California to learn that there was once an active Japantown in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Even in Placer County, few residents could identify where the area's Nikkei used to shop, socialize, or attend church. This is especially disconcerting considering the impact Japanese farmers had on their local economies and the tragic history of the World War II internment camps. In light of these facts, this project intends to familiarize Californians, particularly those living in the area of study, with the history and achievements of Placer County's Japanese community.

Although Nikkei lived throughout the region, this project will document the four towns that had the most noteworthy communities: Loomis, Penryn, Newcastle, and Auburn. All of these towns had a number of Japanese businesses and at least one church (except for Newcastle), yet only Penryn had a truly distinct Japantown. Special interest will therefore be paid to Penryn. Yet regardless of the size or stature of these communities, most residents today are unaware of the history that took place in the orchards and neighborhoods around them. This project will deal specifically with buildings where Placer County's Japanese history unfolded; the hope is that these structures can act as tangible examples of a bygone era. Fortunately, there are a number of existing structures that played important roles in the development of these four communities. Still, without proper historical context the significance of these buildings would be lost on those who visit them. This project will provide this context by using accounts from oral histories, clippings from archival newspapers, and an extended collection of current and historic photographs. In other words, it will unite story and place. The goal is to turn presumably anonymous buildings into living examples of Placer County's rich Japanese American history.

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