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Five Points Walking Tour Showcases Japanese-American Culture

Five Points is one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods.  Many know it as the Harlem of the West for its jazz and culture, but it also had a rich post-WWII Japanese history. 

Courtney Ozaki is making sure these stories are archived and told with Stories Of Solidarity: The Japanese Americans in Five Points. Stories in Solidarity is a neighborhood mapping project and exhibit sponsored by the Japanese Arts Network and the Mile High Japanese American Citizens League. The walking tour allows one to hear the stories of Japanese Americans who grew up in the area. 

“There’s no better way to learn about it than from the people who lived it,” said Ozaki.

After World War II, Japanese Americans were released from the internment camps like Amache in Granada, Colorado, with $20 and a bus ticket. Many moved to Five Points and the Denver area. According to, Denver had the second-largest relocation population, just behind Chicago. After the war, the Japanese community in Colorado grew to 11,700 with the majority living in the Denver area.  

“Japanese Americans came to Five Points, specifically, but also just Denver in general, after World War II, because it was seen as a place where they would be more welcomed,” Ozaki stated. 

Ozaki shared a few favorite stories passed down from her dad. One day, he was playing in an alley down the road from where he lived on Larimer Street when he smelled something delicious. 

“He walked over to where he smelled this—he followed his nose,” Ozaki said. “There was a woman standing outside her door making fresh tortillas, and she offered him one.”

Her dad said the tortilla was the best thing he ever tasted, sparking his love for Mexican food. To him, it demonstrated how the Five Points community was close and took care of each other despite people being from very different backgrounds.   

Another story she shared was from an older gentleman named Richard, whose grandmother would always speak to a neighbor over the fence between their houses. One was speaking completely in Spanish, and the other one was speaking completely in Japanese. Yet they had long conversations with each other speaking their own languages. She also shared how Japanese kids would go to Sonny Lawson pharmacy, the first Black-owned pharmacy in Denver, for free ice cream. 

The walking tour begins at Sakura Square at the intersection of 19th and Lawrence St. Originally a nine-block community, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority transformed the area into LoDo in the 1970s. Many Japanese Americans would have been forced to relocate if it weren’t for the efforts of the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple. They were given the opportunity to move into a one-block radius that already housed the temple, according to the Sakura Square website

Since May1973, Sakura Square has been a multigenerational neighborhood. It houses dedications to Denver Japanese American heroes like Minoru Yasui, a lawyer, and Yoshitaka Tamai, a Buddhist priest. But the square is also home to a bust of former Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr, who publicly apologized to the Japanese Americans who were interned in the camps. 

“[Governor Carr] standing up for us is such an important example to show and to share with not just kids, but adults,” said Stacey Shigaya, executive advisor of Sakura Square LLC. “There’s so many adults right now who are being so divisive and selfish and closed-minded in the way that they’re acting.”

Shigaya said it’s important to keep the stories and culture of Denver Japanese Americans alive because we can learn from history and not repeat it. 

“We want people to learn from it because we see how things like that, our history, is repeating itself,” Shigaya said. “For example, on the southern border, people are being treated without dignity and being held without having committed a crime.”

Sakura Square is a place for Japanese Americans to celebrate their heritage and Shigaya said it’s necessary to preserve the neighborhood for future generations. She has two children and wants them to be proud of their history. Each year, the square hosts the Denver Cherry Blossom Festival, which includes a market and performances like Zotto, put on by the Japanese Arts Network. It creates a great opportunity for people across the metro area to immerse themselves in the culture. 

“We want to have something for future generations,” Shigaya said. “I have two kids, and if they have kids, I want for them to be able to look back at Sakura Square in the future and know that there’s something still going on for them—they can still participate in their community and learn more about their culture.” 

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