Elegant lacquer bowls, vintage toys, tea sets and more crowd the top of a folding table in a cramped office space in Denver’s Sakura Square. They’re all slated for sale at the 47th annual Cherry Blossom Festival, where taiko drummers, dancers and other Japanese artists will perform alongside the packed stalls. “It’s our chance to be Japanese for a day,” says Vicki Taniwaki.
She’s at a makeshift desk in the office that’s been taken over by festival preparations. Next to her sits Marge Taniwaki, Vicki’s mother and “the original left-wing activist,” according to her daughter. Vicki’s an activist, too — dedicated, like her mother, to preserving and providing for Colorado’s Japanese-American community (numbering just over 11,000 in the 2000 census), and making sure that the community’s history is remembered.
In April, Marge took part in a protest in Dilley, Texas, where demonstrators hung thousands of origami cranes around the perimeter of the South Texas Family Residential Center, an ICE detention camp. They also made a pilgrimage to Crystal City, Texas, a 45-minute drive. There, fewer than eighty years ago, a different internment camp was constructed to hold other families. Around 2,200 individuals of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes in Peru and held in the U.S. as part of a “prisoner exchange program.” Only eighty were allowed to return to their homes in South America after the war; most of the rest were deported to Japan, while fewer than 400 remained in the U.S.
Forgetting past horrors can be easy, especially when those horrors are visited upon a different group of people. Even among Japanese-Americans, the desire to not look back can be strong. But the Taniwakis take a different stance. “We need to face up to the trauma of incarceration,” says Marge. For them, that translates to being an active presence within Colorado’s Japanese-American population.
Much of the Taniwakis’ work takes place in and around Sakura Square, which serves as both a commercial development and a center for Denver’s Japanese-American community. The fenced-in entrance to the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple is at the corner of 20th and Lawrence streets, the courtyard of Tamai Tower at 19th and Larimer. Many Denver residents know the block simply as a spot for lunch or a place to park for a Rockies game. But for those of Japanese ancestry, it can be an anchor, a hub, a connection to a sense of home and identity. For Vicki, it is a place where “it feels safe to be Japanese.”
The architecture of Sakura Square, designed by Bertram A. Burton in the early 1970s, mimics Japanese style and created a number of parks and passages, open to the sky but cut off from the street, filled with sculptures, trees and secluded places to sit. Even in the quiet center of the block, though, the changing neighborhood around Sakura Square intrudes. A bright-red construction crane looms in the sky to the west. A new high-rise is going up on the 1600 block of Market Street. Across from the quiet rock gardens of the temple, a luxury apartment building rises on the site where the temple got its start over a century ago.
Sakura Square sits squarely between Denver’s buried past and its encroaching future. And increasingly, the tenants of this block find themselves wondering what that future holds for both Sakura Square and Denver’s Japanese-American community as a whole.
The first to arrive were the Issei. Leaving the tumult of industrialization and militarization taking place in Meiji-era Japan, they made their way to the Front Range from Seattle and San Francisco, drawn by available farmland and the opportunity to work for themselves.
In the Japanese diaspora, it is customary to name the generations. The Issei are the emigrants who set out to make new lives in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and elsewhere, mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The children of the Issei are called the Nisei, the second generation. The child of at least one Nisei parent is Sansei, followed by Yonsei and Gosei for the fourth and fifth generations, respectively. As in most immigrant groups, each successive generation is further removed from the source of cultural traditions, becoming more and more Americanized.
Studies call Japanese-Americans the fastest-assimilating group in American history. Vicki points out that Japanese-Americans are more or less “considered white” by the general public, but it’s not as simple as that, she says. Their assimilation into American society is measured against that of other immigrant groups, particularly those of East Asian ancestry. And even that acceptance comes in a society where the distinction between “white” and “other” permeates communities.
The Issei arrived in an America that was far more hostile to Japanese immigrants than it is today. In the early twentieth century, many states enacted alien land laws that prevented foreign-born individuals from owning property and, in some cases, even leasing it. California’s law went on the books in 1913, and Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and others soon followed suit — a wall of states where Japanese immigrants could not own land. That wall led right to Colorado, which did not enact any such law. In 1909, Colorado had the fourth-largest number of Japanese of any state, after Hawaii, California and Washington.
Many of the Issei settled on land north of Denver; Brighton, Longmont, Greeley and Fort Lupton all had strong populations of Japanese farmers. Some communities put down roots farther south, particularly in Rocky Ford and other towns along the Arkansas River. By 1925, Japanese farmers in the San Luis Valley were producing vegetables across 4,000 acres. Some of these farms remain today; Sakata Farms in Brighton and Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford are familiar names in Colorado agriculture.
Other Issei followed the path of opportunity-seekers before and since: They headed to Denver. While Colorado did not have alien land laws on the books, a de facto system of segregation was in place, effectively restricting Japanese business ownership to lower downtown — particularly between 19th and 20th streets, from Lawrence to Blake. This was the foundation of what would become Denver’s unofficial “Little Tokyo.”
In 1915, a trio of Buddhist ministers came to Colorado to provide services to the state’s Japanese-American communities. One of them, Reverend Tessho Ono, moved his family to Denver the next year with an eye toward establishing a Buddhist congregation in the city.
Ono was greeted with a dinner at the 20th Street restaurant of Minejiro Nagasuki. The assembled community voted in favor of starting a church and began raising funds from Japanese-Americans as far south as Pueblo and as far northeast as Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The Denver Buddhist Church was officially established in 1916, operating out of a rented hall at 1950 Lawrence. In 1919, the congregation purchased a larger property at 1942 Market, two blocks northwest of its current home. Eventually, the Denver-based church began establishing satellite organizations to serve Japanese-Americans across the plains.
According to Denver Buddhist Temple employee Donna Inouye, the Issei who established it were skeptical of the concept of credit. When they acquired the Market Street property, they bought it outright. They did the same nearly thirty years later, when they purchased the property that would become today’s temple.
Maps from the New Deal era (digitized by the University of Richmond’s “Mapping Inequality” project) show that this part of Denver was not officially redlined, unlike Five Points, mere blocks away. Instead, it was listed as “sparsely built up” by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation — a government-sponsored company created as part of the New Deal. The Little Tokyo area was not given an official grade (which was based on the ethnic and economic makeup of the population). In practice, this freed lenders to exercise their own prejudices when dealing with prospective property buyers, and kept Denver’s Japanese-American population isolated to a few blocks.
This was the status quo for Denver’s Japanese-American community through the 1930s. But on the horizon was an event that would affect Japanese-Americans across the country.
“California is a large state and has plenty of land…where these enemies should be herded together and treated the same as our citizens in Japan are treated, as animals.”
The letter from Denver resident John Cook is typical of many in History Colorado’s digital archive of Governor Ralph Carr’s correspondence. The form letter Carr sent in reply attests to the frequency of such complaints; it also speaks to the fine line the governor walked between his public stance against the internment of Japanese-American citizens and the need to allay the fears of Coloradans stoked by racist fear and propaganda.
“Colorado has not invited the Army to bring Japanese into this state,” Carr wrote in reply to Cook’s letter. “It has simply been suggested that if the best interests of our country demand it, Colorado will obey orders.”
Today, Carr is remembered as the governor who stood up against Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942, which forced those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast into internment camps — some in that state, some in the heartland, including Colorado. Prevailing prejudice in the population made this a politically untenable stance. Carr had first been elected in 1938, then re-elected in 1940, back when Colorado governors served two-year terms. But he was narrowly beaten in the 1942 Senate race by Democrat Edwin Johnson; the loss is attributed to his stand against internment.
There’s a bust of Carr in the shady courtyard of Tamai Tower. The inscription below reads, in part, “...the precious democratic ideals he espoused must forever be defended against prejudice and neglect.”
Even though Carr did not remain in office, the reputation he established for Colorado as a place more welcoming toward Japanese-Americans took hold. While 8,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to the Amache internment camp in Granada, in far southeast Colorado, 2,000 Japanese-Americans made the journey to Denver from the West Coast voluntarily. After the war, some of those forcibly moved to Colorado returned to California; others chose to stay. Some did not have a choice.
Marge Taniwaki’s mother was born in San Francisco, a U.S. citizen. Her parents sent her to Japan for her education; it was common for immigrants to send their children to their home countries to study if they could afford to do so. When she returned, she got married and started a family. Marge was seven months old when her family was sent to the Manzanar internment camp in California.
Even after the war, the federal government determined that her education in Japan made Marge’s mother “possibly loyal to the emperor,” despite the fact that she was an American citizen. Because of this designation, after the family was released from Manzanar, they were given $25 and bus tickets away from California, which eventually led them to Denver.
Even though internment was officially over, its economic and cultural damage remained. Because interned Japanese-Americans had been forbidden to speak Japanese, many Nisei and Sansei children did not learn the language of their ancestors. Years after the war, the pressure to assimilate led many families to forgo teaching their children Japanese language and traditions.
Many Japanese-American landowners had also been deprived of their land during the war. To get around alien land laws, some Issei had purchased property in the names of their American-born Nisei children. When they inherited the land of children killed fighting in the U.S. Armed Forces, the State of California filed a number of escheatment suits, arguing that their ownership was invalid under those same laws. Those who returned from the camps and tried to fight the lawsuits often faced a choice between capitulation or spending a fortune to retain land they already owned. This, too, drove many Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to head inland.
By 1950, Denver’s Japanese population was over 5,400, nearly twice what it had been in 1940.
Instead of helping to bring this state’s Japanese-American community together, Marge Taniwaki believes the trauma of internment, also called “the removal,” made it more fractious. “If not for the removal, there wouldn’t be this underlying competition with each other,” she says.
Competition in the camps for food, favor and safety often expressed itself as a competition to seem the most “American.” That competition “impacts cohesiveness,” Marge explains. “It impacts our ability to act as a community.”
Vicki reinforces this. “If I’m walking down the street and I see another Japanese-American, one of us will cross the street,” she says.
Which makes Sakura Square all the more remarkable.
Jolie Noguchi remembers how, after Coors Field was built, people who had never been to that part of Denver started coming in to Pacific Mercantile. “Some customers would ask how long we have been here,” Noguchi recalls. “When we tell them, they are shocked they have never been here before.”
And shocked by all that the store contains: a produce section loaded with hard-to-find goods, a well-stocked seafood counter, and shelves of everything from books to soy sauce to traditional candy that’s a big draw for the Japanese-American community around the holidays.
Noguchi’s grandfather, George Inai, moved his family inland from Sacramento because of Colorado’s more welcoming attitude during the war. Inai had owned a grocery store in California and wanted to stay in the business. He opened his Pacific Mercantile at 1925 Lawrence Street in November 1944; the family lived not far away on Humboldt Street. Noguchi and her two brothers took over ownership of the store when their mother passed away, in 2017.
“I loved the old neighborhood,” Noguchi says. “Everyone was treated as family and watched out for each other.” Noguchi has been working at Pacific Mercantile since she was twelve, but hung out there when she was even younger. “We had a room that rice was stored in, and that would be our play room. At least until our uncles found out,” she says. “Sakura Square has always been a safe haven for our families.”
That sense of safety and community has been helped by the presence of the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple. In 1947, the temple purchased a lot at 1947 Lawrence Street, directly across from the hall where the temple was first established and next door to Pacific Mercantile, and built a new, larger temple. As Denver’s de facto segregation eased and Japanese-American families moved throughout the metro area, the temple served as a nucleus, drawing the community back to a shared space. Inouye says that congregants came from as far away as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs to the temple, which became a second home.
“Families from the temple didn’t know we had a front door, because they always came through the back door, where my grandmother would be cooking in the little kitchen,” Noguchi says.
Family was at the heart of the next major project to come to the block, too. Tamai Tower dominates Sakura Square, its beige walls and balconies rising above the trees of the courtyard. Temple members formed the Tri-State Buddhist Church Apartments Inc. (TSBCAI) to build the apartments in 1962 with the aid of a forty-year loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The units serve as subsidized housing for aging Issei in the area. The apartment complex was named for Reverend Yoshitaka Tamai, who served the temple and its congregants from 1930 to 1964. Remembered for his kindness and service as well as his longevity in that role, Tamai is the subject of the most prominent statue in the courtyard.
With the aid of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, TSBCAI developed Sakura Square around the existing grocery store, temple and apartment building in the early 1970s, to showcase Japanese architecture and provide a home for Japanese-owned businesses. The development was named after the sakura, the pink, five-pointed cherry blossom that heralds the beginning of spring. In 1973, Sakura Square held its first Cherry Blossom Festival, the marquee event on its annual calendar.
Today the square is operated by Sakura Square LLC, which resulted from a reorganization that split TSBCAI into a company that runs the property and the Sakura Foundation. While Sakura Square still owns Tamai Tower, it’s managed by Cornerstone, which operates numerous apartment complexes around the city. Gary Yamashita is currently the CEO of both Sakura Square and the Sakura Foundation. The foundation’s stated mission is to sustain the temple, provide cultural outreach and education, and maintain the heritage of those who settled in the area.
By the time Tamai Tower’s HUD loan expired in the early 2000s, the area around Sakura Square had gone from neglected to booming, first with the development of LoDo to the southwest, and then the construction of Coors Field. As the neighborhood’s character changed, property values exploded. Vicki Taniwaki thinks that TSBCAI would never have gotten the initial loan if HUD could have anticipated the growth in surrounding blocks.
By the early 2000s, the rest of Denver had begun to catch up with Sakura Square. And development in the area has only continued; the block is included in the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s Arapahoe Square project, which aims to encourage redevelopment in the 96 acres between 20th and California streets on one end and 24th and Lawrence streets on the other.
In June 2017, Sakura Square LLC and the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple announced its own proposed redevelopment with Barry Hirschfeld Jr. and the Nichols Partnership. The plan outlined on the company’s website is sparse on details, though it does note that “Sakura Square will remain a place to offer programs, celebrations, festivals, classes and events in order to share the Japanese culture with the greater Denver community.”
The website also makes it clear that the temple will remain in its current location. Early on in the process, Vicki Taniwaki says, Sakura Square LLC sent out a survey asking about the location of the temple, and respondents voted overwhelmingly for it to stay. While initially the project seemed to be on the fast track, it stalled this spring. But although a concrete proposal has yet to be brought forth, the temple continues to work with Sakura Square LLC on any possible development of the block.
When reached by Westword, Yamashita declined to comment “until we have more definitive plans in place.”
While the community waits for an announcement, all the changes in the area, including encroaching gentrification, make members uneasy; they fear the unknown. “Where things were set in stone, they’re now back to square one,” says Vicki. “It’s home. It’s the only home we have in Denver.”
Marge Taniwaki describes the prospect of Sakura Square’s identity being subsumed by the city around it as “heartbreaking.”
Others aren’t as fearful. “When I first heard of the redevelopment,” recalls Jolie Noguchi, “I was scared, not knowing what was going to happen to our store: Are they going to sell the block? Are we going to have to move? What will happen to our family and employees?” But as time went on and Sakura Square LLC improved its communications, she changed her opinion.
“I am very excited to see what Sakura Square will become in the future,” says Noguchi. “We have many ideas for our new store, which will incorporate the community as a whole.”
She recognizes that the path won’t be without bumps; any construction associated with redevelopment will disrupt business. “We know we need to find another location, because it may take two to three years or more to redevelop our new location,” she adds. “We want to stay in the neighborhood.”
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Keeping the neighborhood together, making sure that “existing businesses are not to be displaced,” concerns Marge, too. She would also like to see meeting spaces offered to community groups at reasonable rates, and wants Sakura Square to remain a home base for Japanese-Americans who come from as far as Nebraska and Wyoming.
All three would like to see a research library dedicated to Colorado’s Japanese community in the area, similar to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points.
Sakura Square should “retain its purpose as an homage to the Issei and Nisei who sacrificed for their children,” Vicki Taniwaki concludes. The block should honor what the Japanese community built here. Not just Sakura Square itself, but the long-gone newspapers, barbershops and stores that linger in the memories of longtime residents.
Forced into a tiny pocket of the city, they made a community. Despite all the forces that pulled at those bonds, something remains at the heart of it. A temple, a grocery store, a block in the center of a city’s identity crisis.