The Nishimoto family has been a part of the Madera Community since the early 1920’s. The American life for the Nishimotos began as farmers in Parlier, California, when the US was in the early struggles of an economic depression. The family was part of a farmland co-operative during a time when Japanese immigrants were restricted from purchasing property. Tamaichi Nishimoto had been born in Hawaii, a US territory, so he was able to work around the law and purchase property for the co-operative. To their dismay, the challenges of the early Depression were too much for the co-operative, and they lost the farm.
Kameyo and Tamaichi had friends that had moved to Madera and decided to follow them. After settling in Madera and working in the fields and selling firewood, Kameyo thought it a good idea to borrow money to open a small grocery store in north Madera. The store was located near the Fresno River bridge, and they named it Bridge Store.
In those early years, the Nishimotos worked with local farmers to take vegetables up into the foothills to sell and trade for firewood that they would sell at the grocery store. The original Bridge Store building had glass double doors facing North D Street, and the oiled floors creaked as the customers shopped. The store was filled with staples such as flour, bread, coffee and firewood to meet the needs of the neighborhood.
The whole family worked in the store, the young Nishimoto couple and their 5 children, Mildred, Keith, Mary, Sunny, and Patty. After school the children would come home and help serve the dedicated customers.
Kameyo became known as Mama Nish. She learned English to better serve her neighbors and customers. Many generations of Maderans have memories of Mama Nish greeting them at the front of the store with a great smile and giving penny candy to the children. The Bridge Store was becoming the center of the neighborhood with Washington Elementary School just a block away.
Mama Nish always encouraged both her own children and the children of her customers to pursue an education. She always felt it was important to improve oneself for a better future. She was known to help Washington School with whatever she could donate.
Back in those early years Madera was a small community. The Nishimoto family built bonds with many Madera families. One of those families was the Barcroft Family. Charles Barcroft was a prominent attorney in Madera and known to be very fair. He helped the Nishimoto family with many of the legal challenges facing an immigrant family starting a business.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 set America’s path into World War II, and changed the lives of many Americans and immigrants. Kameyo had not yet received her citizenship, and the country she left decades before had attacked the United States. The Nishimoto family feared losing everything they had worked for. Mr. Barcroft helped transfer ownership of their property and business to the five Nishimoto siblings, all young adult American citizens.
February 19, 1942 brought more feelings of doom and fear as President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 declaring all of the Western United States military sensitive areas, and subsequently ordering all people of Japanese descent to report to the Department of Defense. Mr. Barcroft again came to the aid of the Nishimotos. He helped the family quickly draft a lease agreement with the Hart family in Madera to take over the Bridge Store. Mr. Barcroft promised to manage the lease and make sure the bank and taxes would be paid. His honorable actions ensured the Nishimotos would have a home and a business to return to after the war.
Wartime incarceration of the Nishimoto family began at the Fresno County Fairgrounds. The War Relocation Authority converted the racetrack stables into the Fresno Assembly Center to house many Central Valley Japanese Americans. Before the war, Keith volunteered to serve in the US Army and was in active duty when the Nishimotos were ordered to report. The rest of the family spent several months at the Fresno Assembly Center until they were transported by train to Jerome, Arkansas, where one of the many War Internment Camps was established.
The conditions of “Camp” were difficult to bear. The Nishimotos and other Japanese American families were forced to share barrack space. Toilet and shower facilities were communal and especially demeaning for the older Japanese Americans. After a year at the Jerome Relocation Center, the Nishimotos were able to ask for release and relocation with the aid and sponsorship of Keith who was still serving in the US Army. The family was allowed to relocate to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the remainder of World War II. While in Minneapolis, the Nishimotos found various jobs as housekeepers and store clerks. Sunny was able to attend business school.
Sunny was drafted into the US Army in 1944. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division and attached to the Military Intelligence Sector with his brother Keith. Earlier in the war, Keith’s intelligence team decoded information that revealed Admiral Yamamoto’s transport schedule and helped the US Navy and the US Army Air Force track and shoot down the bomber carrying the Japanese Admiral. Sunny trained to be an Army translator and prepared for transfer to the Pacific theater. After the United States dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forcing Japan’s surrender, Sunny was stationed in Japan as a civilian liaison and translator.
After the war the Nishimotos returned to Madera unsure of what awaited them. Mr. Barcroft did as he promised and took care of the family properties. The family was able to reopen the Bridge Store and resume operations. They had endured many harsh remarks stemming from the war, however they remained hopeful their dedicated customers would return. It is a worthy demonstration of community support that a majority of their many customers returned to greet and welcome the family. The Nishimotos have been forever grateful that the citizens of Madera were able to look beyond racial fears and help them recover from the lost time of the war.
The experience of almost losing everything by the actions of our government taught Mama Nish many lessons. She continually stressed the importance of an education. She learned that although the government forced them to leave everything behind, their minds and all that they had learned could not be taken away from them. In her quest to learn English and become a citizen, she learned about the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. She was confident that one day the US would admit to the wrongful and illegal incarceration of the Japanese Americans.
Mama Nish received her citizenship in 1954. She was very proud to be an American citizen. She truly felt the United States was the greatest country on Earth and that Madera was the best place to raise a family.
In 1965 the Nishimoto family reinvested in their growing business and built the Bridge Shopping Center to expand their grocery store. Built right next door to the original Bridge Store, the Family continued to serve their neighborhood that they were a part of for so many years. The family opened N-M Department Store and a coin-operated laundromat. In the late 1970s the family divided the department store and opened a health food store. It was the first local place for Maderans to find whole grain breads, fresh tofu, vegetarian goods, specialty vitamins and supplements. The Nishimoto businesses flourished and the family eventually expanded Bridge Store into the vacant spaces of the Shopping Center originally intended for lease to retail businesses.
In 1978 Sunny opened a take-out chicken restaurant that he named Fastway Chicken across the street from the Bridge Store. The restaurant became a convenient dinner stop in the north Madera neighborhood. In 1982, Sunny brought early morning and late night services to the neighborhood when he built and opened Fastway Market, a quick stop convenience store with gasoline, on the corner across from both Bridge Store and Fastway Chicken.
Mama Nish did not live to see the day when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and authorized the United States government to apologize and pay redress to every surviving internee of the War Relocation.
Mildred, the eldest of the siblings, founded the Nishimoto Family Scholarship Fund with the reparation money she received. The scholarship is open to any senior student of a Madera Unified High School. Mildred and her siblings were graduates of Madera High School. Mildred was always a proud graduate of the school and loyally met for reunions with her fellow alums through much of her life.
Mary married Ginks Nishioki. Mary was a Public Health nurse and was a beloved supporter of Japanese exchange students attending Fresno State and other Fresno schools. She was a dedicated member of the United Japanese Christian Church, a Japanese American church that preserved the Japanese culture among the younger generations in the Congregation.
Patty married Keith Okamoto and lived in Texas much of her life. Their children are Robert, Carole, and Andrew.
Keith Nishimoto married Mickey (Masako), and their children are Judy and Joyce. Both daughters attended Madera High School and graduated from college.
Sunny Nishimoto married Dorothy, and their children are Mary, Wally and Ruth. All three attended Madera High School and graduated from college.
Sadly the Nishimoto family closed the Bridge Store on December 30, 2016. Economic pressures were too much for the small family supermarket. The family is still operating their other businesses. They hope to flourish and venture into other opportunities to benefit Madera.
The Nishimoto Family Scholarship founded by Mildred is an on going scholarship for Senior students of Madera Unified School District. It is managed by Judy, Joyce and Mary. Students are asked to write an essay describe how witnessing or experiencing discrimination or bigotry has affected them and influenced their vision of who they want to be in the future. The award is meant to help the recipient through the first year in a 4-year college, community college, or trade school. The Madera community has supported the Scholarship Fund through their generous donations in memory of those in the Nishimoto family who have passed away through the years.
Keith and Sunny were both active members of the Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 1981. They were proud of their service to our great country. The family continues to support veterans and the Post.
To this day the Nishimotos hold a deep appreciation for their community of Madera. All are ardent supporters of education. Through the decades, generations of the family have been active in service groups and youth support organizations, and they intend to continue to help the community with its good works. Wally & Kathy operate Fastway Chicken and volunteer for the Madera Evening Lions Club, Boy Scouts, and Campfire. Ruth and her husband Gaylen Thelander manage Fastway Market and they volunteer for the Madera Leo Club, Boy Scouts and Campfire.
Just a mile from the Bridge Store, the Madera Unified School District built an Elementary School and dedicated it to the Nishimoto Family. So many in the community voiced their support to name the school after the north Madera family. The Nishimotos felt profoundly honored. After nearly losing everything to events outside of their control, education was of utmost importance. Sunny was often invited to speak to students of Madera Unified, and he was often heard saying, “You can lose everything, but you will always have your knowledge. Learn whatever you can, because that can never be taken away.” The Nishimotos believe the future is bright for Madera if youth have a strong education and the support of community.
The history of a family often sets the direction and character of those in the family. Multiple generations of the Nishimotos owe a debt of gratitude to the family matriarch for imbuing a strong work ethic, a commitment to education, and an appreciation for community. The family has faced many challenges and reaped many rewards. The Nishimotos feel a deep obligation to Madera for taking care of them when in times of need, and the family is thankful for their success in the community.