January 2018

The First Japanese Neighborhoods of New York

Worlds Fair
Worlds Fair 1939
©The Japanese American Association of New York

New York is home to a vibrant Japanese and Japanese American community filled with business owners, professionals, artists, students, and others pursuing a great range of interests. Over 30,000 Japanese nationals live throughout the five boroughs of New York City, but there has never been an official “Japan Town” or “Little Tokyo” comparable to New York’s famous Chinatown. The majority of them reside in Manhattan, followed by Queens and Brooklyn, and their presence is so ubiquitous that it may be rather difficult to imagine a time when there was hardly a trace of Japan anywhere in the city.

The first Japanese diplomatic delegation, dressed in traditional kimono and carrying samurai swords, arrived in 1860. Their arrival was much anticipated, with over half a million New Yorkers turning out to see the parade that was held in their honor on Broadway; however, despite this attention, it was not until the late 1800’s that Japanese immigrants began settling in New York, and in rather surprising places.

Meeting House

Rented Meeting House - Harlem (1927)


The first Japanese residential community in New York grew around the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Early Japanese immigrants included those interested in business or scholastic endeavors, but were mostly comprised of crew members on ships who aspired to new lives in this far away land. They found work as laborers and domestic workers and faced the daily challenges of learning the customs and the language of their adopted home. By the early 1900’s, there were roughly 3,000 Japanese issei (first generation immigrants) living in New York and they built up a number of Japanese boarding houses, restaurants, churches, and other businesses to serve their community as it expanded. Institutions that still serve as communal gathering points like the Nippon Club, Japan Society, and the Japanese American Association were also founded then.

Poet's Society

New York Poet's Society "Sumi no Kai" pose in Van Cortlandt Park (1948)


During this same period, a Japanese neighborhood developed in Lincoln Square, attracting working class Japanese and Japanese Americans, many of whom were employed in the restaurant industry. The Upper West Side and Morningside Heights also became popular areas for Japanese families to settle, naturally leading to the opening of a number of Japanese-owned stores in the area. A small park on Riverside Drive near 122nd Street was even renamed Sakura Park in 1912 after a donation of cherry trees from the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York.

The contributions of these first communities paved the way for generations of Japanese to come live and work in New York City. In particular, there are notable Japanese populations in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the East Village, Astoria in Queens, as well as in Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The indelible presence of Japanese culture is found in the arts, business and everyday life of this diverse city. This could not have happened without the Japanese who came to New York more than a century ago, and their influence continues to grow with those who follow in their footsteps.

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Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York; however, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.