By Brandi-Ann Uyemura
If you think San Jose Japantown is solely made up of restaurants and small shops, think again. Housed in a studio apartment and in the back corner of the Nichi Bei Bussan store lie a hint of Japanese culture’s past and future. While the Aspen Ten shoji screens displayed there reflects local art at its finest, it is the man behind it that embodies the culture and history of Japantown.
Aspen Ten owner Henry Nakata, Jr. said, “It’s funny cause when you grow up in grade school they’re always asking little kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be a truck driver.’”
He laughed. “And I ended up being one.”
It was an unexpected journey that took Nakata from his hometown in Denver, Colorado to San Jose. In the 1970’s, he moved to Japantown to work as a truck driver for his family’s trucking company, one that hauled produce from local farms to markets in San Francisco.
“There were all these trucks filled with produce on the highways and they were always spilling out. Right around here was actually a lot of the canneries.”
Nakata’s path reflects the history of the Issei migrating to the area to work on fruit orchards and depicts a different time period in San Jose. It’s a reminder of the historical Mariani cannery, which still exists today in the hard to miss water tower on North 7th and 9th streets.
For ten years, Nakata worked as a truck driver splitting his time spending six months doing seasonal work in San Jose then returning to Denver to do odd jobs such as landscaping and gardening.
After a decade of work, it was a culmination of events that ended his career as a truck driver. An end that came after his realization that the “produce business was dying out.”
According to the 2006 San Jose Japantown Historic Context and Reconnaissance Survey, by the late-1960s “high production costs, waste disposal problems, and decreased consumer demand” took its toll on the canneries in Santa Clara County. They would eventually close and its impact is evident in the fact that there are no surviving canneries today.
Another important factor was the effect of social justice movements occurring in the 60s and 70s.
Nakata said, “I’ve lived in a very moving period of time. A lot of things were happening. There were movements, fads, ecology, ethnic identit
y, and war.”
Two in particular would shape Nakata’s worldview and consequently shape his career. One was the Asian American Movement sweeping across the country in the 1960-70s.
“I was involved in the Asian American Movement, which was kind of a time when Asians became aware of their identity as Asian American. What was happening was we were becoming very assimilated so a lot of the culture was being lost. And that’s when we realized that we have a unique culture and it’s something we can be proud of. It became a strength for us instead of a liability.”
The results of which got him interested in taiko and woodworking, two Japanese cultural activities that were stepping-stones to creating Aspen Ten.
Nakata became a member of San Jose Taiko during its developmental stages in 1978, using his woodworking skills to improve their drums.
“I helped to develop the old drums, which they were having a lot of difficulty with at the time. They had drums, but they would collapse.”
The development of his rim reinforcements helped prevent San Jose Taiko drums from changing shape or from cracking as it did when too much pressure was put upon it. Not only did it reinforce the drum barrels, but it also reinforced Nakata’s passion for woodworking. After five years of working with San Jose Taiko, Nakata had a change of heart and went back to his carpentry roots.
“Well I had no musical background so it was very difficult for me to learn to play taiko. I realized I wasn’t going to get any good at it. I decided to do something more easy for me to accomplish and woodworking was one of them.”
One of the advantages of living in Japantown and being a member of San Jose Taiko was having a network of Japanese Americans who eventually helped him obtain a job at a Kazuo Onitsuka of Fuji Construction, a Berkeley construction company. He worked there for a year building Japanese shoji screens when another historical event significantly influenced his career path.
What is known as the eco-friendly or green movement today had its beginnings in the 1960s ecology movement. Environmental awareness sprouted in activities like recycling and was heightened by the California energy crisis in the late 1970s.
Nakata said, “There was this big energy crisis. Prices were escalated. There was gas rations. We had to buy gasoline on certain days so there was a big long line to get down there.”
A benefit of the energy crisis, however, was government tax credits for energy efficient homes.
“During the time, we went through this awareness of our excessive use of energy so insulating homes for energy efficiency was one of the priorities and there were a lot of government tax credits.”
Nakata’s idea to create his own business was fueled by the movement, his own concern for the environment and a customer’s question prompting him to research a new type of shoji screen in 1981.
“Customers were asking my boss if they could take the energy tax credits for the shoji screen and he said, ‘No they’re just for a decorative purpose.’ So what I did was research window insulation, how to insulate windows and create insulation by using shoji screens.”
The end product was an insulated window covering with a movable grill that he calls, “solar-ji.” Although it looks a lot like traditional Japanese shoji screens, it is its energy saving feature that he boasts most about.
“I set out to build an energy saving window covering. And it just so happens it looks just like a shoji screen.” He laughed.
Almost 30 years later, Nakata’s business is a one-man operation that blends time-honored tradition with modern eco-friendly features. It captures the essence of Japanese American culture and history in this Sansei’s life.
“Everything I do is part Japanese, part American. If you wake up every morning and look in the mirror you can’t help it.”
The duality between practicality and aesthetic, modern and traditional, eco-friendly and cultural and Japanese and American are key elements to his business. It also explains the store’s name. Aspen to represent the seasonal changes of the aspen tree and the similar seasonal adaptability of his shoji screens to go from summer to winter. He added ten, the Japanese word for heaven, in honor of its energy source.
While he refuses to call his shoji screens or custom furniture pieces art, there is an art about his story. It is seen in his strong passion both in his principles and in his screens, which he described eyes lit up as evoking a “unique light” and “an indescribable ambiance.” It also reflects the various social movements of the time. Essentially, Nakata’s story isn’t just one man’s story, but one story of a sansei and the legacy of the San Jose Japantown community.