Japanese Community Center in Santa Maria.
Members of the Santa Maria City Council, the Recreation and Parks Commission and the Japanese Community Center board participate in a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for the new Japanese Community Center in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Construction has started on a new center to memorialize and celebrate the Santa Maria Valley’s Japanese pioneers, many of whom saw their lives uprooted when they were sent to internment camps 80 years ago.

The new center will sit near the historic Smith-Enos house at the Enos Ranch development between College Drive and Bradley Road. 

As plans moved forward, the city formed a partnership with the nonprofit Santa Maria Japanese Community Center to memorialize generations of residents in the Santa Maria Valley more than 80 years after they were sent to internment camps during World War II.

“I can’t believe we finally made it to the groundbreaking,” said Wes Koyama, president of the SMJCC. “It took a lot of hard work and patience from a lot of people assembled here to make this day possible.”

He recalled that in 1925, first-generation Japanese residents opened a Japanese language school in the valley. A year later, they purchased land at 134 N. Western Ave. to build a small school and teacher’s residence.

In addition to teaching second-generation residents, or Nisei, the Japanese language and customs, the facility also provided temporary shelter for those returning from internment camps after World War II.

In 1952, the school helped people study for citizenship tests, with Koyama noting they had been barred from becoming citizens before that point. 

Wes Koyama, Santa Maria Japense Community Center president.
Wes Koyama, president of the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center, speaks about the nonprofit group’s role during the Japanese Community Center groundbreaking ceremony in Santa Maria on Wednesday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

For decades, the facility continued to host fundraisers, social events and Japanese language lessons until its closing and sale in 2017.

When they learned about a new community center, the nonprofit organization contacted the city, donating $300,000 to the project, which also received $500,000 in federal funds. 

“One of the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center’s missions is to preserve what the first generation Issei accomplished and how they contributed to the Santa Maria Valley as a whole,” Koyama said. “The majority of the Issei were farmers, but there were others in various areas of employment that helped shape what the Santa Maria Valley is today. 

“This mosaic of their qualities and their life experiences will be showcased in our gallery at the new center.”

Architects Tom Martinez and Randall Araki designed the 10,000-square-foot center as a bigger version of the barn that once sat on the Enos-Smith house property, according to Recreation and Parks Director Alex Posada. 

Along with housing an office for the nonprofit group and displays to celebrate their contributions to the valley, the facility will be available for rental for private events and fundraisers, Posada added.

Mayor Alice Patino read an email from a daughter of Toru Miyoshii, who served on the City Council before being elected to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino.
During a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino reads a comment from the daughter of the late Toru Miyoshii, who served on the City Council and Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“He was proud of his Japanese heritage and of the Japanese pioneers of the Santa Maria Valley who contributed not only to the local economy but also to the vibrant diversity that makes Santa Maria unique today,” the mayor read from Lisa Miyoshi Daum’s letter.

SJCC officials said a donation plaque wall will be included in the center’s lobby with options ranging from $500 to $10,000. Additionally, the naming rights of the conference room will be provided for $15,000.

Donations are tax deductible, and checks can be made payable to the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center and sent to 237 Town Center West, Suite 110, Santa Maria, CA 93458. 

“This is a new beginning for our club, and I’m excited about what the future holds for us,” Koyama said.

For more information, Koyama can be reached via email at weskoyama@gmail.com or through the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center’s Facebook page.