The deli counter that once teemed with the freshest seafood in the southern reaches of Santa Cruz County is now stocked with pickled ginger, miso paste, yan noodles, and fish cakes. But not much else has changed at Watsonville’s small, family-run Yamashita Grocery (also known as the Yamashita Market) in the past 70 years.
With moon-shaped glasses, a weathered grey fanny pack, floppy “Maui” hat, and a hidden, but clearly evident smile under his red bandana, Goro Yamashita carefully navigates through a labyrinthine maze of boxes and shelves, taking time to greet the steady stream of colorfully masked customers as they walk through the weathered metal doors of his store on Union Street.
It’s officially “Tofu Day” at Yamashita Grocery, so Goro, his two sisters , and his cousin Toshi are in a whirl of constant motion. They ring up customers on an ancient cash register, moving swiftly and in sync through a tiny space not much larger than the average garage.
The Yamashita clan—tight-knit as ever—has been doing the same thing, the same way, for their entire lives.
“Customers have been coming to us for fresh tofu, mochi, manju, and fish for decades,” says Goro, who adds that 95% is what they sell is Japanese.
Goro, the proud owner of Yamashita Grocery, has spent his entire life in Watsonville. He grew up helping his mother, who was born locally, and his father, who emigrated from Japan at age 13, at the store each day after school at Watsonville High.
“My dad, being the oldest child, felt like it was his responsibility to take care of things and run the grocery,” Goro says as he expertly cuts through a thick block of milky white tofu. “He loved this store. Number one was the store, number two was his bonsai plants, and number three was his family. It’s been important to us all to keep the store going.”
The store is a holdout—one of the few Japanese businesses in a city rich with Japanese history and tradition.
“We’re the last family-owned Japanese store around,” Goro said. “Other stores are more Americanized … like little Safeways. There used to be many, many more mom-and-pop Japanese businesses in Watsonville. But we’re the only one now. It’s sad.”
Japanese immigrants arrived in Watsonville as early as 1892. California was rapidly becoming the fruit and vegetable basket of the U.S., and cheap farm labor was needed to keep the immensely profitable ag machine running. A paltry 4% of fruit and vegetable crops originated in California in 1879. Three decades later, the Golden State was pumping out over half of the nation’s produce.
Pajaro Valley’s white farmers relied on Chinese field workers, who worked for a pittance for decades. But the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forced farmers to find alternative sources of field labor, and ended up opening the door for thousands of Japanese immigrants.
A trickle, and then a wave, of Japanese workers—mostly young, unmarried men from small farms and villages—began arriving in the Pajaro Valley around the turn of the century. Chasing the American Dream in the area’s lush fields and vibrant orchards, Japanese workers quickly earned a reputation as industrious, hardworking, and reliable. Tending mostly apples, strawberries and sugar beets, the Japanese transplants filled the labor vacuum left by the Chinese.
Japanese immigrants played a pivotal role in creating today’s “Salad Bowl of the World.” They provided not only cheap and necessary labor, but also a unique agricultural approach—with expertise and ingenuity in areas such as irrigation, mulching, seed selection and soil preparation. Japanese immigrants were able to cultivate small acreages intensively, with impressive per-acre yields and returns.
Pajaro Valley’s impressive strawberry cultivation, as it stands today, owes much to the creativity, flexibility and cooperation of Japanese immigrants.
Close to 700 Japanese called Watsonville home in 1910. Many lived in Japan Town—a vibrant community south of the Pajaro Bridge complete with bath houses, labor clubs, two churches, a laundry, medical doctors, a shoe store, photo studios, and general merchandise and grocery stores.
Branded the Enemy
By 1940, Watsonville’s “Nihonmachi,” centered along Union and Main Streets, had become a hotbed of Japanese culture, catering to local Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants who reside in a foreign country) farm workers and their families. There were kendo and judo dojos, boarding houses, a community center (Toyo Hall), a Buddhist temple, Japanese-language schools, a popular baseball field, and a variety of shops, laundries and markets, including humble Yamashita Grocery.
Then disaster struck, erasing decades of progress almost overnight. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt released Executive Order 9066, calling for the immediate roundup and internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans. The U.S. was at war with Japan, and all people of Japanese ethnicity were deemed the enemy.
Forced to quickly liquidate everything they could not carry with them—including homes, cars, land, farms and much more—close to 1,300 Nikkei and their families living in Santa Cruz County were forcibly relocated and interned in a temporary camp on the Rodeo Grounds in Salinas, and later moved to Arizona’s Poston Camp II.
In the early months of 1942, there was a whirl of frenetic activity, and at times panic, as Pajaro Valley’s Japanese population prepared to move to a then-unknown destination. There was a massive surge in marriage license and birth certificate requests as families did anything and everything they could to ensure they stayed together. Vultures (not the animal kind) hovered around Watsonville, snapping up goods and precious heirlooms for pennies on the dollar. With no idea where they were heading, many Japanese families used the little money they could scrape together to buy warm clothing. As it turns out, there would be little need for sweaters and long underwear in dusty and desolate Arizona.
The decline of Pajaro Valley’s once-flourishing Japanese community was precipitous and brutal. Almost overnight, they were stripped of any and all rights they once possessed, and most of their belongings. Businesses closed, clubs disbanded, churches emptied, and families had to make quick but incredibly difficult decisions about what to keep and carry with them into their incarceration.
Besides property and rights, Japanese-Americans also lost family histories, irreplaceable photos, and historical artifacts during the war. Some families actually destroyed them themselves, burning piles of journals, photos, and other documents to avoid unwanted future attention from the U.S. government and FBI.
In its April 30, 1942, issue, the Register-Pajaronian reported, “By noon Thursday, no person of Japanese ancestry remained in Santa Cruz County for the first time in more than a half century.”
There were no trials, no lawyers, and no due process of law—despite the fact that 71% of the Japanese were U.S. citizens.
Conditions at the “temporary detention center” on Salinas’s Rodeo Grounds were appalling. The stench was unbearable. With no formal restrooms, raw sewage flowed freely in open trenches throughout the camp. Families huddled together in hastily constructed wooden barracks, or in tenements formerly used for livestock. Cold showers were available, but men, women, and children were forced to bathe together in military-style gang units. The Wartime Civil Control Administration, the agency in charge of the Assembly Center’s day-to-day operations, made it a mission to keep personal privacy—and hope—to a minimum.
A few months later, the WCCA announced that the new inmates would be shipped to southwestern Arizona, to one of the 10 “relocation centers” the U.S. government constructed to house the Japanese for the duration of the war.
At its peak, the Poston Internment Center housed over 17,000 inmates, making it the third largest “city” in Arizona. In terms of area, Poston was the largest concentration camp operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II. The sprawling complex was divided into three separate mini-camps—nicknamed Dustin, Toastin, and Roasten by its inmates. Hastily constructed, uninsulated barracks made of tar paper and redwood cracked and shrank under the desert sun.
Each relocation center functioned as its own town, with a post office, schools, and farmland for keeping livestock and growing food. But there was a constant shortage of basic supplies—including lumber, food, and clothing. Without adequate nutrition, many inmates at Poston began to lose weight and wither away upon arrival. Outbreaks of disease, including tuberculosis, were common occurrences in the concentration camp. Periodic dust storms brought with them fainting spells, bloody noses, and heat rashes. With limited access to medical supplies, many Japanese inmates died of preventable causes.
Just a month after President Franklin Roosevelt announced that the “military necessity” of camps like Poston no longer existed (in December of 1944), the United States Supreme Court issued a formal ruling—Endo v. the United States—which would lead to their permanent closures.
Following that decision, Supreme Court Justice William Francis Murphy voiced his criticism of the Japanese internment, writing, “I am of the view that the detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive, but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the evacuation program.”
In the early months of 1945, after three long years of living in an atmosphere of fear, despair, and suspicion—behind razor wire and under constant armed guard—Pajaro Valley’s Japanese population were released.
The suffering of Japanese Americans didn’t end there, however. Families who returned to the Pajaro Velley faced bitter racism and rampant discrimination, and found a city in chaos. Much of their hard-earned land (and agricultural leases), farm equipment and possessions were gone: either sold to the highest bidder for pennies on the dollar or simply taken. Many formerly well-to-do Japanese business owners returned to Watsonville with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“Some found their belongings, which had been stored by churches or trusted neighbors, while others discovered their homes in disarray, their things stolen or broken,” reported the Register-Pajaronian on Sept. 8, 1945.
According to the head of the local War Relocation Authority (WRA), an organization set up to assist persons of Japanese descent in resettling, “The biggest problem facing local WRA representatives is housing. Hostels will have to be established throughout the area to house the returning Japanese.” Some Japanese families were able to stay at hastily constructed hostels, while others spent their nights on the floor of the Buddhist temple on Union street.
One the largest economic impacts on Japanese Americans during World War II was the reassignment or cancelation of agricultural leases. An agent from the Farm Security Administration swept into the Pajaro Valley just days after local Japanese American citizens were taken to the Salinas Assembly Center. His sole job was to assist anyone (non-Japanese) wanting to farm the land of those who had been interred. Close to 70% of the land tended by Japanese Americans was leased, often with the help of the U.S. government. During the war, the majority of the leases were terminated, leaving many returning families landless and destitute.
Pajaro Valley’s Japanese community lost other economic niches during the war, too. During their internment in Arizona, a law was passed that barred all those of Japanese ancestry from acquiring commercial fishing licenses. The once flourishing Japanese abalone and sardine industry was eliminated almost overnight.
Following their three-year incarceration, Japanese Americans faced the most hate and animosity in agricultural valleys, where people feared competition from returning farmers. Salinas was one of the least receptive areas on the Central Coast. “No Japs Wanted” signs were a common sight, and many Japanese Americans were unwelcome at barber shops and gas stations. It was difficult for some to separate them from the Japanese Army in the Pacific.
“There was so much hate and discrimination here after the war. We all felt it. People were stuck in their ways. Watsonville was never the same for us. I remember my mom dealing with it. People would see her and refuse to sell to her. Like butter and things she really needed,” Goro says.
World War II marked the end of regional Japantowns like Watsonville’s “Nihonmachi.” Not a single one of the once-vibrant cultural and business centers survived Japanese internment.
Many Japanese emigrants threw in the proverbial towel—fleeing the Pajaro Valley for greener and more welcoming pastures. It’s estimated that only one-third of Japanese American residents living in the region returned after the war. The congregation of Watsonville’s Buddhist temple that numbered in the hundreds in 1940 dropped to dozens in 1945. The families who did come back, like the Yamashitas, struggled to start over, and desperately tried to regain their footing in an unwelcoming climate.
During the Japanese internment, the produce giants of Pajaro Valley scrambled to find workers for their fields. The valley’s agricultural machine attracted thousands of Mexican migrant workers. And just like the Chinese and Japanese emigrants of decades prior, the Mexicans who settled in Watsonville made it their own. Today, the population of Watsonville is mostly Latinx—close to 85% according to recent census data.
“Most of the Japanese people in Watsonville—adults and kids—are gone. They just moved on. They needed or wanted to leave the area. Or didn’t want to go into agriculture or farming. They moved and didn’t come back,” Goro said. “I was one of the only Japanese students at Watsonville High. At one time local schools were full of Japanese kids like me.”
With a weathered facade—peeling pinkish paint, rusty brown screen doors, and a small paper American flag in the window—Yamashita Grocery has no signage whatsoever. You could easily drive by its Union Street location hundreds of times without noticing it was there.
Through sheer force of will, and a little luck, Goro’s uncle was able to piece together a “new” Yamashita Grocery following World War II—in its current location. The tiny operation has survived by word-of-mouth, and customers have been coming to the Yamashita family for their tofu, noodles, mochi, vegetables, sake, natto, and Japanese sweets for decades.
But recently, a new generation of (Yelp-and-Google-driven) hipsters has discovered the market.
“Since sushi got more popular, a lot more non-Asian people are shopping here,” Goro says. “They want to make Japanese noodles and their own sushi themselves. A lot of non-Japanese are buying Japanese goods. Hispanic, white … eating habits have changed. People crave variety. Something different. So they come to us. We’re seeing a younger, hipper crowd.”
For decades, the Yamashitas relied on a local tofu company named Murata—one of the last four remaining Japanese family-run businesses in the area (there was Murata, Yamashita, Wada and Bridge Street Grocery)—for its fresh product.
“Murata and the other businesses closed down, sadly,” Goro says. “They had no kids or relatives who wanted to take over their operations. Now, we’re the last ones here.”
With Murata closed, Yamashita Market had to scramble to find a new supplier—one that could match Murata’s delicate (but not mushy) texture and consistency. The artisan tofu from Sunnyvale’s Gombei Tofu fit the bill nicely.
“Once a week, as we have done for decades, we offer our customers the freshest, finest tofu around,” Goro says. “People call ahead and pre-order their week’s supply and pick it up each Thursday. The tofu is sold in blocks and made the same day. There can be lines and it sells out quickly.”
Like everyone else these days, Yamashita Grocery has had to change and adapt in the face of Covid-19. Customers are asked to wear masks when they enter, and only a certain number of shoppers are allowed in the already-cramped space at a time.
With more and more customers deciding to “shop local,” the Yamashita family has struggled to keep up with rising demand for some Japanese staples. Signs are posted limiting the types and quantities of ramen, soba and udon noodles people can buy each day.
“We were seeing panic buying here. People were going crazy. Things have cooled off a little, but now, people don’t want to drive large distances—like over the hill. So we’re seeing quite a few new customers. Lots of ‘I didn’t know you were here’ stuff. Our business has picked up,” Goro says.