At Sakura Square: Wariness Over Changes to Historic Home for Denver's Japanese Community

With a noted development team and world-famous architect at the ready, a proposed overhaul is in the works for the site of Denver's annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But will a revitalization of this Japanese-American block in Denver bring new life to Sakura Square, while preserving its deep history and mission?
The Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple remains the oldest structure in Sakura Square. And Sakura Square is the last remaining section of Denver's onetime Japantown.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Japantown extended for several blocks in this downtown neighborhood, before it was leveled in the name of urban renewal. Members of the temple bought this one-square block that remains – bordered by 19th and 20th, Lawrence and Larimer Streets – for $188,800 in 1971, in order to preserve some of their local heritage, as well as their economy.

The temple is a religious space, a gathering space, an educational space (classes in aikido, for instance, are taught within its gymnasium). It's been situated in its present location since 1947, but, as an entity, it celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary last year.

The temple's ornate, golden-hued altar contains flowers, religious artwork, incense burning. Heading the service on a recent Sunday was the Rev. Doei Ed Fujii, who raises his hands together in gassho, a "natural expression of reverence and gratitude," according to the temple's service book. As a group, the attendees sing a song of sacred vows.

Then a series of announcements is made by sangha members – the temple's congregants – which includes the lineage of Japanese-Americans who founded the temple, in addition to a sizable, non-Asian contingent.

One member announces an upcoming flu shot clinic, and how offerings today will go towards Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Another urges congregants to join the choir. There is talk of a ukulele group and a calligraphy class.

Then, an issue on everyone’s minds is addressed. Two men take to the microphone: Charles Ozaki, the president of the Sakura Square LLC, which owns three-fourths of the property on this square block, and Chad Nitta, president of the temple's board, which owns the other quarter of Sakura Square.

Nitta offers to address any "concerns and questions" that the sangha might have about the proposed redevelopment of Sakura Square, being jointly overseen by the two groups. He notes that Sakura Square was first established over forty years ago, having been dedicated in 1973. "It's time to take a look at how to refresh that development," says Nitta.

Besides the temple, Sakura Square presently plays host to an aging, 20-story apartment building and a parking garage. There are businesses there, as well, including a barber shop, a couple of restaurants, and the longstanding Asian market Pacific Mercantile. Concrete footpaths are well-worn. A one-time doctor's office at street level displays a "retired" notice on the door.

But according to a press release issued June 20, major changes are in the works. A redevelopment team has been chosen for the square: the Nichols Partnership, working together with Barry Hirschfeld, Jr. In the near future, a completely new face will likely be given to the block by Denver’s Anderson Dale Mason Architects, working with renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the winner of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Phase I of the project could begin in 2018.

The details of the plan remain unresolved. Will it include a museum, increased retail, more housing? A new and more modern temple? And how will it impact the elderly residents currently living on the block and reflect on the Asian history and culture the site represents for Denver? For many in Denver’s Japanese community, Sakura Square is a beloved place.  

After the service, Rev. Fujii sets onto his desk the prayer beads he'd been holding – which, he says, originated long ago as a calculator, but have come to signify adherence to the Buddhist path. Fujii has been in the US for over forty years, and at the Denver temple over six. Asked about the changes coming to Sakura Squre, he says that, for him, a grander, new temple at Sakura Square isn't as important as wisdom, compassion, enlightenment – the Buddhist path. "That's the most important thing," Fuji says, calculating the balance at hand between the sangha's past, present, and future needs.

In Sakura Square's park area along 19th Avenue, there's a statue of the late Reverend Yoshitaka Tamai, who provided spiritual instruction to Buddhists throughout the West. Tamai Tower at Sakura Square is named after him. At one time, most of its approximately 200 apartments housed Japanese-Americans, but now it's down to only about ten out of the nearly-filled units – leading one representative of the Sakura Square LLC to say that the tower, which will likely be torn down, has "fulfilled its original mission." Etched in stone next to Tamai's likeness are his words, "The highest life is when everything results in feelings of gratitude."

Another statue is dedicated to Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, for whom many Japanese in Colorado still express gratitude. In the midst of World War II, Carr, a Republican, allowed Japanese people to relocate to Colorado – an exceptional policy at the time, post-Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese left the West Coast, which due to President Roosevelt's executive order, was forcing them into internment camps. Although many were American citizens, the Japanese were labeled as enemies and potential saboteurs. Some people have another term for the prisons —  "concentration camps." Colorado had its own in Granada, called Amache.
Sakura Square is the last remaining section of Denver's onetime Japantown.
After the war, Japantown was one of the few places that once-interned people could reside in a relatively safe environment. Although it was part of Denver's skid row of flophouses and warehouses, Japanese-owned businesses thrived there: there was the Japanese barber shop, bakery, hotel, cafe, grocery store, tofu maker, dry cleaner, newspaper.

Gary M. Yamashita's parents met in Colorado after being interned during the war in California. Yamashita is now the CEO of Sakura Square LLC. His own mother has asked him about the upcoming razing and revitalization of Sakura Square: "Why do we need a new temple? I love the temple we have now."

Yamashita says the block needs to restore its viability, especially given the high cost of its annual maintenance. Yamashita cites over $2 million spent, last year, on concrete upkeep alone. Luckily for its owners, Sakura Square has become prime Denver real estate. And through the development team's inclusion of Denverite Barry Hirschfeld Jr. – the project's "overall cultural ambassador" who has spent "over twenty years of living and working in Japan," according to the press release – and the renowned architect Shigeru Ban, Yamashita hopes commerical entities in mainland Japan will consider locating offices or stores in Denver – not just Los Angeles, Seattle, or San Francisco. As for architect Shigeru Ban, who has designed projects globally (including the Aspen Art Museum), Yamashita says, "We feel that having his fingerprint on our project gives us credibility in terms of Japanese businesses looking at Denver."

Others have concerns.

Marge Taniwaki is a political activist and serves as the recording secretary for the Japanese American Resource Center of Colorado, which is located in Sakura Square. The center assists individuals with retirement planning, in addition to preserving artifacts (for instance, farm implements, since many Japanese were farmers) related to Japanese history in Colorado. Taniwaki says of the upcoming redevelopment, "I'm a realist: I understand that Sakura Square has to have commerce in order to exist and to thrive...My concern is that the Japanese nationals will come in and be backed by a lot of funds, and that the Japanese-American entities might be pushed aside by Japanese nationals with a lot more money."

Besides just commercial interests, Taniwaki would like to see a branch library in Sakura Squre, like Denver already has honoring African-Americans in Five Points and Chicano activist Corky Gonzales on the west side. She hopes the center can accommodate, not just tourist attractions, like, say, an upscale sushi restaurant, but also a research center where people can learn about their Japanese family history or the "concentration camp" in Granada, Colorado.

Taniwaki, herself, was imprisoned with her family at a camp in California – Manzanar in Death Valley – when she was seven months old, for close to four years. "We all lived in tarpaper-covered barracks, ate in mess halls, used latrines," says Taniwaki, 76. "There was no privacy. People were shot and killed for touching the barbwire. So, my mother always told me to never touch the barbwire."

A deep and connected historyJolie Noguchi at the Pacific Mercantile.

Many families have memories of the camps.

Jolie Noguchi, 59, had relatives who were imprisoned at Tulelake in California and the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.

After being released from his interment in California, Noguchi's grandfather, George Inai, started the Pacific Mercantile grocery store in Denver in 1944. Pacific Mercantile has been in its present location, since the opening of Sakura Square.

Inai was originally going to call his business Nippon Market, until Governor Ralph Carr, himself, weighed in. Noguchi says that Carr told her grandather, "George, please think of another name, because there's still animosity between the Americans and the Japanese." So, Inai drew upon his personal connection to California, when ultimately making his decision.

During his lifetime, Inai, who died in 1993, earned loyal customers. He'd deliver 80-pound sacks of rice to customers scattered throughout Colorado, sometimes traveling all the way to Montana. And he served patrons within Sakura Square's Tamai Tower. ("I'm saddened to see the elderly having to move," says Noguchi about the store's remaining customers there).

Noguchi is counting on that continued loyalty during the upcoming construction in Sakura Square. Since her Asian market will be forced to suspend operation there, Noguchi hopes to economically bear the transition with the help of the store's mail-order business, by working out of one of the store’s warehouses  and by opening a pop-up location. Noguchi would like to continue serving customers at Sakura Square in the future. She wants to provide more take-out food choices (like bento boxes) for a younger downtown clientele, in addition to opening a tea garden at a museum that's been proposed for the square.

Pacific Mercantile is now a fourth-generation family business: "I'm happy to say that my daughter wants to keep it going," says Noguchi.

In addition to family traditions, there are community ones, too. Noguchi has fond memories of Sakura Square's popular, annual event: the Cherry Blossom Festival, which features Japanese drummers and more. She recalls times past when her community danced in the street at the festival, honoring the deaths of relatives.

"We respect those that preceded us," says Noguchi, who just lost her own mother, Suzanne Nagai – who worked in the store several  days a week until passing away this month at age 89. "Without them, we wouldn't be here."


Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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