In the early 20th century, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway did not yet cut across this somewhat unsightly section of downtown Brooklyn to the east of Cadman Plaza. The area was hardly tranquil, of course. The Brooklyn Bridge and the newer Manhattan Bridge loomed overhead, while elevated trains ran across the former and terminated at Park Row in Manhattan. Factories, including a cannery, a book bindery, and a brewery, sat among the shops and tenements of the district.
So did a Japanese branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Between about 1895 and the mid-1930s, this area of downtown Brooklyn was home to a sizable Japanese American community, the only concentration in the borough until World War II. Most Japanese American New Yorkers in the prewar years lived in Manhattan, clustering around the West 60s and farther north, especially Morningside Heights. But the 1910, 1920, and 1930 US censuses reported that from 200 to 250 Japanese lived in Brooklyn, and around half of these people called Sands, High, Jay, Concord, and other downtown streets their home.
The Japanese Brooklynites, most of them single men, seem to have chosen the area for its proximity to jobs and transit: specifically, the piers, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the subways, the bridges, and the elevated trains.
The Japanese Y, first established in 1895 at 54 Sands Street, proved an early magnet for the community too. The Y was the first of its kind east of the Mississippi, because the Japanese population of the US was still heavily concentrated on the West Coast in these years. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that some of the Y’s residents were Japanese students planning to become Christian missionaries, while many others worked as salesmen in the silk companies and Japanese markets of Manhattan. By 1905, the institution had moved south to 17 Concord Street, and while some of its residents attended New York University and City College, far more worked full time as butlers, cooks, and domestic servants.
Similarly, after the turn of the century, most of the other Japanese American residents of the area were working-class people, just like their Irish, Italian, Greek, Russian, and Chinese immigrant and Filipino and Puerto Rican migrant neighbors. Like others who lived in the district, a good number of the Japanese worked at the Navy Yard, usually as stewards; others were cooks, waiters, and chauffeurs elsewhere in Brooklyn and Manhattan. A few, such as Yoshikazu and Tomi Okimiya, ran boarding houses that catered to the Japanese working men of the district, and a Japanese resident even ran the popular Navy Yard Restaurant on Sands Street.
In the 1930s, though, the Japanese population of the area fell quickly; by 1940, the number of foreign-born Japanese in the borough as a whole was less than half of what it had been in 1920. In many ways, this was an unsurprising result of American immigration policy. Because of anti-Japanese agitation on the West Coast, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 made a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan, whose government promised to prevent Japanese men, aside from certain categories of students and professionals, from emigrating to the United States. By 1924, the United States had also made the further entry of Japanese women illegal. Japanese immigrants could not become US citizens either (this did not change until 1952).
Such laws encouraged at least some of downtown Brooklyn’s Japanese–most of them young and single working men–to return to Japan. The Depression also hit the cooks, chauffeurs and butlers of the district very hard, because far fewer families could afford to hire them. Many Japanese domestics lived at boarding houses like the Okimiyas’ 184 High Street building, which the couple eventually sold to Matsuo and Yoshi Nara. The Naras couldn’t make it work either; by the mid-1930s, they gave up the business.
By 1940, as city officials planned the razing of much of downtown Brooklyn for Robert Moses’ program of “slum clearance” there, few traces remained of the once vibrant Japanese presence in the area.
Sources for this post included the New York Japanese Address Book (New York: Nippon Jin-sha, 1921); the Brooklyn Eagle; Ancestry.com; and the U.S. Bureau of the Census.