CHULA VISTA — Nearly 75 years after he lost everything when forced into internment camps with other Japanese Americans, Saburo Muraoka gained an honor that will endure for generations of Chula Vista schoolchildren.
The Chula Vista Elementary School District Board of Education named its soon-to-be 46th campus after Muraoka, who came to Chula Vista in 1915, built a thriving agriculture business, then lost it following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, he returned to Chula Vista, rebuilt his life, his business — and community.
“The story of Saburo Muraoka is a quintessentially American story — the story of an immigrant who came to this country legally as a teenager, worked hard, overcame the obstacles of one of the ugliest periods of discrimination in 20th-century America, started life anew and contributed greatly to his community,” former Chula Vista Mayor Shirley Horton wrote in a letter supporting the proposal to name the school after Muraoka.
Muraoka died in 1983. His accomplishments were included in a biography that was part of a series on local figures titled “They Made Chula Vista History.” The five booklets were developed by the Altrusa Club of Chula Vista, in cooperation with the district and Chula Vista Library — part of the district’s third-grade curriculum on local history.
Muraoka helped establish the San Diego-Yokohama Sister City program and later was one of the founders of a second sister city program between Chula Vista and Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture. He was among the founders of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. The Friendship Bell on San Diego’s Shelter Island is also among the continuing symbols of his work.
For his contributions to increasing understanding between the U.S. and Japan, he was awarded the Fourth Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese government and the Cultural Medal from the City of Yokohama in 1970. He was also a recipient of the Green and White Award of Merit from the Japan Agriculture Association.
In 1977, the same year that he and his wife Haruko celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, Muraoka was named a Nisei Week Pioneer and was recognized during festivities in Little Tokyo.
Members of his family still call Chula Vista home. Many were on hand for the board’s decision to honor his legacy by naming the district’s newest campus after him. Saburo Muraoka Elementary is believed to be the first school in San Diego County to be named after a Japanese American.
“It is wonderful that a Japanese American is being recognized for his contributions to Chula Vista history; Saburo being my grandfather is icing on the cake,” said grandson Ken Muraoka. “Thank you to the Board of Education and Superintendent Francisco Escobedo for making that happen.”
The district’s new campus will be located at 1644 Santa Alexia Ave., near Santa Victoria Avenue, in the Otay Ranch community of Chula Vista. It will cost about $48 million, including the purchase of the 10.3 acres that the school will be located upon. The facility will include a two-story eye-catching structure with 36 classrooms, including a multi-purpose room. The school can house up to 800 students and 36 teachers.
“The school is designed to foster student and staff member innovation and creativity,” Escobedo said. “What we were looking for here was an environment for academic collaboration and that makes use of design features that facilitate inquiry, communication, and small and large-group discussion.”
In designing the campus, an architectural team, district facilities and instructional leaders, and a construction crew visited newer elementary schools in San Diego County and elsewhere in Southern California to view design, lighting, architectural features and landscaping, and a variety of energy efficiency ideas.
“Each of those features is important in helping to complement instructional delivery,” Escobedo said. “It was essential that instructional delivery drove the design.”
Muraoka, an immigrant from Yokohama, came to Chula Vista to help with the business his father had started, making fertilizer from fish scraps, and growing “winter celery.” His innovative and aggressive approach to farming helped make Chula Vista the “Celery Capital of the World.”
Then, war came. The majority of mainland Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their West Coast homes during the spring of 1942. At the end of the war, Muraoka, wife Haruko and his family returned to Chula Vista, only to find all of their possessions had disappeared.
None of these experiences broke their spirit, family members said. In the American tradition, they started over again, buying land to grow cucumbers and other vegetables.
A ceremonial groundbreaking for the new school is scheduled for early June. There is already talk of a friendship garden, community garden, or combination of features to reflect the school’s namesake.