The San Benito County Japanese American Community Hall, which opened in 1935, still functions today as the center of the San Juan/San Benito Japanese American community. Photo by Mas Hashimoto

Highlighting the 80th anniversary of the founding of the JACL Chapter

By David Unruhe

The year 2015 marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the San Benito County Chapter of JACL. The chapter is centered in the Old California Mission town named after St. John the Baptist, better known as San Juan Bautista. San Benito is one of the smallest counties in California, both in terms of size and population, and it is easily overshadowed by adjacent Monterey and Santa Clara Counties. There are only two cities in the county, San Juan Bautista and Hollister, the county seat. It is primarily a farming county.

San Benito JACL Chapter President, Kurt Kurasaki

San Benito JACL Chapter President, Kurt Kurasaki. Photo by Mas Hashimoto

The history of Japanese Americans in San Benito County is a familiar one. The Issei began arriving in the county in the early part of the 20th century as agricultural workers. Eventually, they married and began families, and then bought farms in the name of their Nisei children.

The peak years for the San Benito Japanese American community were from about 1920-41, when farm ownership was at its highest and there was a Nisei baby boom. In the middle of this time, in the depths of the Great Depression, a need for a community center was recognized. Land on the edge of San Juan Bautista was bought, and the Japanese American Community Hall was built for about $26,000. Such an undertaking could have only been accomplished by the skill and labor of the Issei, as most Nisei were not old enough to assist with the project.

The hall opened in 1935, the same year that some of the older Nisei founded the JACL chapter.  For the next six years, the hall served as a JACL office and meeting place, San Juan Howakai/Watsonville Buddhist Church, San Benito Gakuen, in addition to various other uses, including a theater for samurai movies. Estimates vary as to the size of the community at any given time, but at its peak, Japanese Americans represented about 20 percent of the total population of the county, with the number closer to 30 percent in the school system.

And then it was all over. Just when it seemed that the country was climbing out of the Great Depression, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and then all of the Issei and Nisei looked like the enemy. Although the Japanese Americans in San Benito County didn’t experience the extreme hatred and overt racism as those in other parts of the state, the hostility was there just the same. By late spring 1942, “all persons of Japanese ancestry” had been forcibly removed from their homes and farms, first to “assembly centers” and later to incarceration centers. The San Benito JACL Chapter continued to function while at Poston, Ariz.

The San Benito Nikkei community never recovered from the wartime incarceration. Following the war, a number of families did
return to the valley and attempted to restart their lives and their farms, but the numbers never approached those of the prewar years.

In 1985, the chapter helped to organize an event recognizing the 50th anniversary of the founding of the San Benito JACL. Almost 300 people, mostly middle-aged Nisei, attended and reconnected with their roots and old friends. Photographs of this event are proudly displayed in the hall.

In 2015, the hall still functions as the center of the San Juan/San Benito Japanese American community.  It’s still on the edge of town (San Juan Bautista hasn’t grown much), and fields of row crops are visible just behind the building. There is no signage on the building, and the street doesn’t get much traffic, so the building is pretty anonymous, but it is well-maintained. The chapter is struggling, like many small, rural chapters, as the Nisei generation passes on, and the Sansei continue migrating to the cities. The number of Sansei farmers can be counted on one hand.

The chapter hosted the May meeting of the NCWNP District Council, and attendees were treated to a delicious tri-tip meal, complete with San Benito chili and chocolate-dipped strawberries for dessert.