Traditional societies regard arson as one of the most heinous of crimes. The threat to human life is obvious. It’s also a crime against history.
On May 1, an arson-caused fire destroyed a large part of the Japanese Cultural Community Center and Boy Scout Troop 413 Hall in Arroyo Grande.
The hall was used as a community center for teaching the Japanese language, Kendo (a martial art of sword-fighting based on traditional samurai swordsmanship), calligraphy, weddings, funerals and a variety of cultural events.
Among the materials lost in the fire were $10,000 worth of judo tatami mats.
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The center was built in 1935 with $15,000 donated by Mitsugi Fukuhara.
Students there attended language classes on top of their regular schooling and the chores required of children growing up on farms.
Until 1935, they would have had to travel to the Buddhist Temple and Home School in Guadalupe or to a similar school on French Road, now Madonna Road in San Luis Obispo, for the lessons.
The school became a gathering point for many of the community activities of the large and thriving Issei and Nisei families of the region. Ironically, these families would vanish with the outbreak of war seven years later.
After the infamous Executive Order 9,066 (the War Relocation Order) was issued on February 19, 1942, assembly points were designated where the 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast were expected to gather.
The language school was where many South County families gathered to be sent to internment camps for the duration of the war.
As the Second World War was ending, hostels were needed to house families as they were returned to their former communities. Because the majority of families had leased their homes and farms, they had nothing to come back to.
After a brief stay in the hostel, most of the families moved on to wherever work was available in other parts of California.
Lillian Sakurai recalls how in 1945, her mother and father, Haru and Hiyoshi “George” Nishijima, and her younger siblings came back to Arroyo Grande. They no longer had a home or leased land in Pismo Beach, so they stayed at the Japanese school.
Lillian recalls her brothers: “Lloyd was a strapping 6-foot, 1-inch senior on the Arroyo Grande High 1946 basketball team, while Paul played football. Kaz Ikeda says, ‘In those days, before television for entertainment, it was so good to see all the town people come and start watching Lloyd at the games, and it seemed to make prejudice disappear.’
“But there were no jobs in the area. So ‘Pop’ moved the family to a strawberry sharecropping camp in Madrone, south of San Jose.”
Lillian soon joined her family, helping on the farm for five years.
Iso Fuchiwaki had attended the school before being sent to the Gila, Arizona, War Relocation Center. She and her husband, Hilo, rented the former Japanese language schoolteachers’ home on the site following their marriage in 1947. By that time, all but two bachelors living in the schoolhouse had left for permanent homes. They raised their daughters on the property.
Boy Scout Troop 413 has been meeting at the hall since 1969. And the memories go on.
This afternoon, Troop 416 will hold a wake commemorating the Japanese Cultural Community Center at its historic location, 490 E. Cherry Avenue, Arroyo Grande at 5 p.m.
Those who participated in making the rich Japanese American and Boy Scout heritage of this site are invited to share their stories with the community.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.