In January 2006, my son, George, moved up in the TV news market to San Jose, after paying his dues in the smaller markets of Midland, Texas; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri. He’s been with NBC Bay Area going on seven years.

From the get-go, he would excitedly tell me that “this street,” “that school,” and other public sites had Japanese names. Known to us down here in Southern California, of course, is the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. We know him as the former mayor of San Jose, congressman, secretary of transportation, and other titles. There is also a stretch of the highway named after him.

But who are Kishimura, Kato, Miyuki, Muraoka, Yamane, Nagareda, Oyama – all with streets bearing their names? George thinks they are old farm families whose properties are now residential areas with “drive,” “court,” and “place” on short blocks with the names on street signs.

There’s a Miyuki Dog Park and a Miyuki Street. Nagareda Drive and Muraoka Drive are cross streets in an industrial area whose employees are non-JA. Muraoka appears again in a residential area with Yamane Drive. Googling the names to see the origins was unsuccessful.

Japanese names are throughout the Northern California cities of Gilroy, Fremont, San Jose and Oakland. In Oakland, there’s Frank Ogawa Plaza. Frank Ogawa was a civil rights leader and the first Japanese American to serve on the Oakland City Council (1996-1994).

Tom Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose is a high-achieving school. Matsumoto was a farmer all his life and served on the Evergreen School Board for 37 years. The school was named in his honor in 1999. He passed away in July 2012.

George Shirakawa Sr. Elementary School is in San Jose (unfortunately, son Shirakawa Jr., a Santa Clara County supervisor, has been in the news unfavorably for financial misdeeds). Shirakawa Sr. was a San Jose City councilman and a teacher and coach at Silver Creek High School.

Civil rights figures Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui are also recognized, especially Korematsu as a native son of Oakland. In a San Jose neighborhood, two streets intersect as Korematsu Court and Hirabayashi Drive. There is also a bronze relief of Korematsu in front of the Federal Building. In Davis, the Fred T. Korematsu School, K-6, opened in 2006. Oakland has Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, a K-5 school. In 2011, the State of California designated Jan. 30 as Fred Korematsu Day, making him the first Asian American to be so commemorated in the nation.

It has made me wonder why Southern California, with its large population of Japanese Americans since pre- and post-World War II, has few names in public places.  Japanese American farmers, nurserymen, and flower growers made their impact but nothing, as far as I know, remains as reminders in West Los Angeles, Torrance, Gardena, Carson, Palos Verdes, San Fernando Valley, etc.

In Los Angeles, the names seem confined to the borders of Little Tokyo. We have Judge John Aiso Street running in front of East West Players, Ellison Onizuka Street in Weller Court, Toyo Miyatake Way on San Pedro Street, and, most recently, the Frances K. Hashimoto Plaza at Azusa and Second Street.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school district in California and second-largest in the U.S., only one elementary school, Hamasaki School, is named — after a former principal. Lasting less than a year, Gardena Community Adult School was named George Kiriyama Community Adult School.

Torrance has the largest population of Japanese Americans but not one school or any area bears a name of a pioneer, except the George Nakano Theatre, which encountered some hate mail during the process. Nakano was the first minority Torrance city councilman, serving nearly 15 years before going to the California State Assembly in 1998 as the first Torrance resident to serve in the Assembly. He termed out, serving six years.

There was an attempt in the early 2000s to rename Arlington Elementary School in North Torrance after Ted Tanouye, a 1938 Torrance High School grad, an honor student and star athlete, who died in WWII and received the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously, the highest military recognition – the ONLY Medal of Honor recipient in the City of Torrance.  He was a native son, receiving his education in Torrance.

I was very disappointed to hear at the time that the renaming attempt failed, due to parental objection that his name was too hard to pronounce, among other excuses. Most disappointing to hear was that Japanese American mothers were among those protesting. What better way to remember and teach his legacy to the children of the school – a Torrance kid like ALL of them who gave his life for THEM. Disgustingly – but maybe not surprisingly – the name was rejected.

The National Guard Armory bears his name (better there, they said — after all, he was a soldier) and a marker is in front of Torrance High School (better there, they said — after all, he’s a graduate). Not important enough to name their school after.

Last year, Fred Korematsu Day was officially recognized by the Pasadena City Council and the Pasadena Unified School District for the first time in Southern California through the efforts of Wendy Fujihara Anderson, who organized the event.

On Jan. 26, 2013, Fred Korematsu Day will be commemorated in Torrance at the Katy Geissart Civic Center Library from 2 to 4 p.m. Serving on the planning committee are Kanji Sahara and Janet Okubo, Greater L.A. Singles JACL; Kent Kawai, South Bay JACL; Alayne Yonemoto, Torrance JACL; and George Nakano and I, Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California. The Torrance City Council passed a proclamation in January 2012, recognizing Fred Korematsu Day in Torrance.


Iku Kiriyama writes from Torrance. Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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