Amidst traffic on Pleasant Valley Road, a corner three-acre lot marked with tall, rectangular white wooden markers and small granite headstones sits much as it did a century before, when the early Japanese-Americans of Oxnard created a cemetery. Members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) commemorated the 100th anniversary of the cemetery on the corner of Pleasant Valley and Etting roads with their annual cleanup on May 10.
Cigarette butts, liquor bottles and even potato chips littered on the ground remind visitors of a community encroaching upon what was once surrounded by agricultural land. In addition to cleaning up the lot, the JACL is also undertaking the task of recording information from the approximately 130 headstones, many with original Japanese inscriptions.
“It’s hard for us to get information,” says Jefferson Kunisaki, president of the Ventura County chapter of the JACL. “I’m sure [for] a majority of these people, their relatives don’t exist anymore.”
Many of the deceased resting at the cemetery were immigrant men with no family in the United States. The cemetery’s history began when the Buddhist Church procured the land plot from the Free Masons in 1908. Currently, the Buddhist Church also holds an annual cleanup at the cemetery in July, around the time of the Japanese festival of Obon.
“We would be interested if anyone knew someone here,” says JACL member Ken Nakano.
Although the cleanup is organized every year by the Ventura County Chapter of the JACL, most members present at the May 10 cleanup originate from other parts of the country, like the Los Angeles area or Hawaii. But familial ties are not the only reason to care for the cemetery.
“So you know that you’re loved one is really resting in peace,” says JACL member Anne Chilcott. Although she has no family at the cemetery, “somebody has to be the watchguard,” Chilcott says. She says many families have exhumed bodies from the cemetery and reburied them in other cemeteries to avoid desecrated headstones and other possible vandalism.
“Our goal is to preserve what’s here and enhance it,” Nakano says. “Preserve the history of the Japanese of Ventura County.” The cemetery received the designation as a Ventura County Historical Landmark in 1971.
The cemetery also stands as a reminder of discrimination for immigrated Americans. At the turn of the 20th century, separate cemeteries for non-whites were a reality of an age of blatant and open discrimination in California. Prohibitions for immigrated Americans, such as the Alien Land Law of 1913, also prevented many of the Japanese-American farmworkers from owning the land they farmed.
Even in death, Japanese-Americans faced racial discrimination: Records obtained from the Museum of Ventura County show the cost of burial for Japanese-Americans in the segregated lot to be five times the cost of burial plots in the neighboring Masonic Cemetery.
In the years following World War II, when detained Japanese-Americans were allowed to return to their homes in the Western United States, the cemetery gained support through the efforts of the minister of the Nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans) Methodist Church, K. Baba. During his lifetime, Baba acted as a liaison between other Oxnard ethnic communities and Japanese-Americans.
Burials continued at the cemetery until the 1960s, when the last of some single men were buried there. Since that time, some bodies have been removed by relatives.
“It’s much more practical [for family members] to be in one place,” Chilcott says.
Several notable Oxnard families, including the family of former Oxnard Mayor Tsujio Kato, have been involved in the preservation of the Japanese Cemetery. Matriarch Hanako Kato appeared in the Los Angeles Times in March 1982 for her effort as an unofficial caretaker at the site during the 1980s. At that time, the cemetery boundary was easily trespassed by youth and others in the community.
In more recent years, the younger Kato and Nakano worked together to request the City of Oxnard to verify the boundary of the cemetery and obtain a tall metal and stone fence for the cemetery at the Pleasant Valley and Etting roads intersection. The JACL is currently negotiating the possibility of extending the fence to the other side of the triangular-shaped property, which currently has a smaller chain-link fence, making the spot an easy place to hop a fence into.
To contact the Ventura County chapter of the JACL, or for more information about upcoming events, e-mail the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.