Celebrating 102 years of community
Aldersgate Church reaffirms Palo Alto's Japanese community's longevity with an annual spring fair
When Brad Shirakawa set out to write a history of Palo Alto's Japanese and Japanese-American community, he expected to create the kind of 50-page pamphlet that most small organizations publish to commemorate milestones.
Instead, it took nearly 200 pages of text and color photographs to chronicle that history in a coffee-table book.
A century ago, Palo Alto had its own Japanese neighborhood. Walking down Ramona Street between Forest and Channing avenues in the downtown area, one could notice the aroma of fresh tofu being made at old man Kusaka's place, Shirakawa noted. Directly across the street, there were Japanese foodstuffs at Kihachi and Riki Sato's grocery store. A block away on Emerson Street and Forest, the Palo Alto Laundry Co. was owned by Josaburo and Rina Okado.
The Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church, which formed in 1909, was the centerpiece of the community. It was a gathering place of worship and social interaction in the heart of Palo Alto's "Japantown," Shirakawa said. The church was located in Okazawa's University Hotel at 827 Ramona St., and Rev. Otoye So was the first minister.
This month, on April 30, Aldersgate United Methodist Church — as the original church is now known — will hold its annual spring bazaar. The bazaar is open to the public and features Japanese cuisine, a crafts and collectibles sale and an artist's gallery (new this year) of the artists of Aldersgate, Rev. Roger Morimoto said.
The church is now located across town on Manuela Avenue in the Esther Clark Park neighborhood in south Palo Alto.
Shirakawa, secretary of the church, created the book for Aldergate's 100th anniversary in 2009. The book describes in voices and images the people who first populated Palo Alto's little-known Japanese-immigrant and Japanese-American community downtown. It was the largest minority in Palo Alto, Shirakawa said.
"There were enough Japanese … (that) we would play cops and robbers, hide and go seek. ... We never associated with American children," early resident Soyo Takahashi, who was born in 1917, told Shirakawa.
There were barbershops and boarding houses, a poolroom and employment agency, a hotel and even a Japanese-language school.
Residents lived mostly on Emerson and Ramona streets, with Forest and Channing avenues as north and south boundaries in what is today called University South.
No one from the old neighborhood still resides there, but the church is still the centerpiece of that community.
The church has been through many changes, as have its members. But despite racism, disease and forced removal from their neighborhood during World War II, the church and its congregation remained strong and vibrant, members say.
One quarter of Palo Altans who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic were from the Japanese neighborhood. During the influenza epidemic, the Japanese community established a temporary hospital in their mission school to treat influenza cases from all over the city, Shirakawa said.
The neighborhood and church community were torn apart during World War II. Many members were sent to internment camps in Wyoming, he said.
The church became a sanctuary again, even without its members' voices. Residents stored their belongings at the church before they were relocated. By now the church had moved to Page Mill Road, with a congregation of 60. Alon Wheeler, a church member, watched over the possessions and made sure they were safe.
Residents returning from the camps did not repopulate the Ramona Street community — many had their homes taken away. But they still attended the church, Shirakawa said.
The modern church merged with the United Methodists in 1964 and built at its permanent location on Manuela in 1965. It grew from a handful of members in the 1920s to 303 in 1975.
Today, there are about 250 members, Morimoto said.
The church as a community is more fractured now.
"We don't have to come to church to find friends," Shirakawa said. To the Issei and Nissei — new immigrants and their American-born offspring — "the church was everything to them," he said.
"The way people construct their lives — their idea of community — is different from what it was years ago," he said.
But people come to Aldersgate from as far away as Fremont and San Jose, and it has become a hub for Japanese nationals on extended work or research stays, he said.
A few years back, members voted to become a "reconciling" congregation, accepting and welcoming of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender lifestyles.
Morimoto looked around the sanctuary. The earliest Christians in Japan met in a feudal lord's castle, where they were not persecuted, he said. Aldersgate's design emulates a feudal-lord's home.
Every September, a huge salmon dinner takes place, where members gather to prepare and share scores of the great, pink fish.
Despite social and technological changes, Aldersgate still preserves and expands what neighborhood means.
"This is part of their sense of community," Morimoto said.
What: Aldersgate United Methodist Church Spring Bazaar
When: Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Where: 4243 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto
Info: 650-948-6806 or www.aumcpa.org/
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.