When I drove to Japantown, I was looking for a new gi. I would also get a long drink of history, flavored with sweet human spirit.
Nichi Bei Bussan is a small shop in downtown San Jose. They sell Japanese clothes, art, books, crafts, and fabrics. I was there for their annual sale. I needed a new gi, the traditional white uniform worn in martial arts. I spoke to a tiny Japanese woman behind the counter and learned it was her store. Her name is Arlene.
Arlene was talking to another customer, pointing proudly to the cash register. She tells anyone who notices it that it's the original one they have been using in the store since 1948.
Arlene is the store's third generation. Opened by her grandfather, Shojiro Tatsuno, in San Francisco in 1902, it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and opened in a new location a year later. She notes, with irony, that the store originally sold Western clothes to new immigrants but now sells Japanese clothes to westerners.
The family closed the store in an "evacuation sale" when the family was interned to Topaz during World War II. After the war, the family reopened the San Francisco store at a new location and opened the San Jose store at its current location, in 1948. Arlene's father, Dave, ran the San Jose store and her uncle ran the San Francisco location.
The store doubles as a museum, with artifacts from Topaz and many documents, pictures, and objects the family acquired over the years. In the photo behind Arlene are three generations: Her son, her brother, and in the photo behind them, is her father.
The internment of Japanese-Americans is one of the most painful episodes in American history. Generations later, it is still compelling. Arlene was born in internment, 5 months before the family was released. She will tell you stories of how her Dad organized talent shows and how he took illicit 8-mm films of life at Topaz. Arlene explained, "Dad's Topaz film is the second amateur's movie ever added to the Library of Congress's Film Registry (the first was the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination). Bay Area-based Gravitas Docufilms filmed a documentary, These Amazing Shadows, about the registry and the importance of film preservation. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and included parts of Dad's film with interviews with George Takei (Star Trek's Mr. Sulu), San Francisco District Attorney Jeff Adachi, and me."
In 1973, the store remodeled and switched to their current specialization in Japanese products, some imported and some art items on consignment.