Lodi’s Japantown started on Main Street

Lodi’s Main Street just east of the railroad tracks became Japantown. The historic block is a focus of the statewide Preserving California Japantowns. The Hinode-Miyajima building at 4 N. Main St., shown at right, is being identified with a Lodi Historical Society plaque next Saturday.

The first Japanese pioneers in the Lodi area arrived in 1890. Seven men came to work in the sugar beet fields in the Delta region.

In 1890, 21 years after the first Japanese men came to California in 1869, growing numbers of Japanese men were attracted to the Delta region farms where they could find work.

With farms nearby, Japanese men began settling in Lodi and other communities. For the next 50 years, a community of Japanese businesses and boarding houses for the farm workers developed and flourished on Lodi's Main Street.

One notable merchant on Main Street and early immigrant to settle in Lodi was Seijiro "Joe" Masui. His story was like that of many Japanese men in early Lodi.

Masui was the youngest of five sons born on a farm in Hiroshima, Japan in 1872. In the Japanese culture, the first son inherited all the land when the father died. Knowing he had no chance of land ownership, Masui left Japan as a teenager for the United States, where many young Japanese men were going. Masui served as a cabin boy on a transport ship to Seattle.

In Seattle, Masui and a friend worked as civilians on U.S. Navy ships for a short time. Tiring of that work, they went south to the Delta farms along the Sacramento River near Walnut Grove, where they heard there was work.

About this time in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Masui keenly felt the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time and decided to change his first name to an American name. He became Joe Masui.

Masui first worked for a farmer named Woods on the north side of the Mokelumne River, northeast of Lodi. Masui's job was to arrange Japanese labor for the ranch. More and more Japanese men, called Issei, which meant the first generation to come to the United States, settled in the region to work at the many farms. While he earned a living as a farm laborer, Masui dreamed of becoming a merchant and owning his own store.

In the early 1890s, Masui realized his dream and built a store on Lodi's Main Street, one lot north of Pine Street. His store was called the Hinode Company. "Hinode" means "sunrise" in Japanese. Masui sold liquor, locally made wines, imported sake, soy sauce, rice and framed pictures of Japan. A friendly, well-liked man, Masui's store was busy. In addition to running his store, Masui continued to arrange labor for Woods and other farmers.

In 1896, the wooden building of the Hinode Company caught on fire and burned to the ground. Masui rebounded from this harsh blow and rebuilt the Hinode Company on the same lot. This time, he used cement blocks manufactured by a Japanese contractor from Sacramento. In this new building, Masui expanded the general merchandise and sold vegetables, Napa greens and fruit.

Now successful, Masui was ready to become a family man. He wrote his family in Japan that things were going well in his new country but that he missed family life. In Japanese culture of the time, the heads of households selected marriage partners for their children. Masui's family sent him a photograph of the bride they chose, Yoshino Nakano. The marriage took place in Japan without the bridegroom.

Yoshino, like many other Japanese "picture brides" around the turn of the century, came to the United States and met her husband for the first time. Like her husband, Yoshino adopted an American name — Mary. They began their long and happy marriage living above the store on Main Street.

While Main Street filled up with Japanese businesses, Masui's store continued to be popular with Lodians. Masui, according to his son Eddie, didn't charge Victor Larson, George Beckman and other friends for drinks.

In keeping with the custom among storeowners of the day, customers bought items on credit and paid later. Masui apparently was kind-hearted and would not lean too heavily on his customers for payment. Within a few years, the business finances suffered.

In 1910, the Hinode Company was $8,300 in debt, and Masui had to close. In 1911, the building housed the Miyajima General Merchandise Store. The upstairs became the Miyajima Hotel.

Joe and Mary Masui went to Riverside County and found work harvesting oranges. When that season was over, they moved to Brigham City, Utah where a friend suggested they come to raise sugar beets for the Utah Sugar Company.

In 1914, their only son was born. They named him Utahka Edward after the state, but he was called Eddie. After Eddie graduated from high school, the family moved back to Lodi in the early 1930s. They lived on the Old Vine Vineyard west of the Towne Ranch on West Turner Road, and the family worked for the Earl Fruit Company.

In 1938, Eddie Masui married Shizko Sakamoto. The couple had met at a Buddhist Church youth conference. Shizko was known as Dorothy. The young couple lived with Joe and Mary in the Old Vine home.

The next year, Joe Masui developed a new type of tomato that the Flotill Cannery in Stockton liked. In 1940, the tomato crop was a success, and Joe and Eddie Masui made plans to expand. In the fall of 1941, they had enough tomato plants in hot beds to fill 300 acres they had rented. They rented an additional 100 acres to plant sugar beets.

But then on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Fear of a possible Japanese invasion on the Pacific Coast was very real. Lodi and other communities tested air raid sirens and immediately adopted "black-out" regulations to extinguish all lights at night. Fear and distrust of Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast grew.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all citizens of Japanese ancestry and all Japanese aliens from Washington, Oregon and California to be relocated to the interior of the country.

Like all Japanese-Americans in the spring of 1942, the Masui family made arrangements for relocation. The first group of Japanese-Americans in the Lodi area gathered at the National Guard Armory building on Washington Street on Monday, May 18, 1942. They were bused to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, where they lived in temporary quarters until October when the permanent internment camp was ready in Rohwer, Ark.

The Masui family reported to the Walerga Assembly Center south of Sacramento on June 14, 1942, Eddie Masui's 28th birthday. They were sent to the Tule Lake camp near the Oregon border. After a short stay, the family was able to relocate to Ogden, Utah since that was an interior state and they had lived there many years earlier.

After the war, the family returned to Lodi in 1946. Joe Masui enjoyed nine years of retirement and died in 1955. His wife Mary died in 1966. Their son Eddie Masui and his wife Dorothy continued to live in Lodi and had three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Eddie Masui died in 2000.

Information for this article was taken from the late Jim Sasaki's speech before the San Joaquin County Historical Society in October 1979 and an interview with Dorothy Masui and the late Eddie Masui conducted several years ago.

Vintage Lodi is a local history column that appears on the first and third Saturday of the month.

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