Koda Farms

The Little Building That Could: A New Beginning for the Castroville Japanese School

By Brandi-Ann Uyemura

CASTROVILLE—On Dec. 18, a community came together to celebrate their hidden treasure, a modest Japanese building located on the corner of Geil and Pajaro streets in Castroville.  Like the 1930’s children’s book The Little Engine That Could it is a story of possibility, perseverance and plain old luck brought an old Japanese schoolhouse back to life, 74 years later.

In the 1930’s, the face of Castroville was a lot different than it is today.  At that time there were about 250 Japanese families in Salinas valley and about 25 of those families in Castroville. Japanese immigrants came initially to the area in the 1890’s to work on the sugar beet plantation. With an increased population, there was justification to create a language school to preserve and pass down Japanese culture to younger generations.

While the 1930’s were a time of economic depression, historian Sandy Lydon said the Japanese in Salinas and Castroville “had enough economic muscle to buy an entire block of land” and build a schoolhouse. In addition to being used as a Japanese language school, the small one room 1,600 sq. ft. building accommodated Buddhist ceremonies, weddings and other community events.

One of the most indicative features of the building is how un-unique it is, which reflected the political and social climate of the time.

Lydon said, “In 1935, a lot of Japanese communities learned that if you have something that’s very Japanese, it tended to attract the wrong kind of attention.  They learned to keep a low profile.”

The schoolhouse, which was dedicated on Aug. 31, 1935, was built with minimal Japanese style evident only in the small upwards tilt of its roof. Lydon believes its subtle architecture is one of the reasons why it sustained time and war.

Although inconspicuous, the building was eventually closed less than six years later following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1942, the Japanese community was sent to the Salinas Assembly Center and ownership of the building switched hands to Robert and Catherine Silva. Despite anti-Japanese arson attacks, the Silvas were able to protect the building and it survived throughout the war.

More than 50 years later, the Japanese schoolhouse was still standing, left abandoned and waiting for its story to be retold and its doors reopened. Ownership of the building would pass on to the Castroville Union Elementary School who wanted to tear it down and sell the land. Castroville historians rallied together along with former student Kunio Sumida to preserve the building and make it a part of the National Register of Historic places.

The final chapter of the story was played out by the Monterey County’s Castroville Redevelopment project. In Jan. 1997 they bought the property and since then have worked together with an advisory committee and a team of people to reopen the school to its original form.

Yet, the war and anti-Japanese sentiment took its toll on the community. The 2000 census showed the Japanese population was at a mere .1% in Castroville.

So why rebuild an old Japanese schoolhouse in an area without a Japanese community?

Lydon said, “It represents the hopes and dreams of immigrant parents for their children. It didn’t matter if they were from Japan, Spain, Italy or Mexico. The desire is the same. It’s universal.”

It is also the meaning behind the school’s theme, “Kodomo no tame ni” or “For the sake of the children.” It is a concept that developed in one of the committee’s meetings. Committee member Francisco Casas was discussing his efforts to teach guitar lessons to the Latino children in Castroville when fellow member Helen Kitaji remembered this appropriate Japanese phrase. Finding commonality cross ethnicity, the project has enabled future generations of all backgrounds to come together to celebrate diversity.

Redevelopment Analyst for the County of Monterey Jerry Hernandez who worked on the project said, “We see universal appeal across the board.  Everyone can identify, every parent wants their child to succeed.”

The project has already reunified two people from the school’s past. Bruna Odello was the only non-Japanese student who had the privilege to attend the schoolhouse. She lived near one of the school’s teachers Yoshio Matano. The two developed a friendship, which ended abruptly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Lydon was able to bring the two together during the kick off fundraiser for the school. He said, “There was not a dry eye anywhere. It was a gift!”

It is fitting then, that on a sunny afternoon in Castroville on the corner of Geil and Pajaro, where Watsonville taiko players performed, two representatives of different religions blessed the house and the community watched as the red ribbon was cut, that the doors to the Japanese schoolhouse was finally reopened.

“You don’t get that chance very often. To see something manifest itself like that. All these things came together. It was just meant to be,” Lydon said.

The event attracted a diverse group of people from young and old and from a variety of cultures with a flurry of excitement and anticipation about the future. William Thayer construction project manager Robert Love said, “This was one of my favorite projects to work on-to see what it was before and to work on [replicating] all of its historical features.” Love said he definitely would return to the site.

There was also a group of young girls reading a series of informative panels located outside of the building. And it brought out Haruye Obata, a former student of a nearby Japanese language school. Obata carried a 1930’s photo of the building. It drew in a crowd of curious people with a desire to figure out the answers behind the nondescript building, another Japanese schoolhouse mystery.

Meanwhile, Lydon asked for good weather and a fresh perspective on an old story.

“This has to do with all of us not just you or them. We want to go beyond the Japanese community. It is a symbol, a beacon of hope. We’re breathing life back into a building that never had a chance to be what it was supposed to be, where children can connect with culture of their parents and grandparents and that by doing so they deliver the message that this is all part of the American tradition.”

Lydon’s wishes were fulfilled and despite all odds, this modest building stands where it did almost 75 years ago and is bringing new hope to future youth.