San Jose’s Japantown carries history within its shops, reminding people of the times before cell phones, internet and the tech industry in the Bay Area.
Nichi Bei Bussan, a gift shop in Japantown, has withstood the test of time after witnessing the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“At one point, we were the new kids on the block and now were one of the oldies,” said Arlene Tatsuno Damron, owner of Nichi Bei Bussan.
The store was originally founded in San Francisco in 1902 by Damron's great-grandfather after immigrating from Nagano, Japan, but the San Francisco earthquake caused the walls of their building to collapse. So the original store was destroyed and soon after came internment. Damron's family went first to Tanforan Racetrack, one of the seventeen temporary detention camps established by the U.S. Army, where she and her second brother were born.
When they got out, they had hopes of starting a shop again in 1945, so they opened another in San Francisco by 1946. But Damron brother’s sudden death from a routine tonsil operation created too much pain for the family and led them to San Jose’s Japantown, where they started NB Department store - which stood for name brands in hopes of fitting into the American lifestyle.
“We had Levi’s, Dickies work pants, Hanes, nylons, yarns knitting needles,” Arlene said. “We were a regular department store with a Japanese department which over time took over the rest of the store.”
Today, Nichi Bei Bussan has transformed into a Japanese gift shop filled with hand-sewn kimonos, happi coats (a traditional Japanese straight-sleeved coat), Noren (traditional Japanese fabric dividers) and more.
This summer, Nichi Bei Bussan celebrated its 70th anniversary in San Jose’s Japantown.
“As my father said, nothing lasts forever,” Arlene said when asked where she sees her store in the next few years.