Saving Japantown

Sale of historic district properties presents the city with cultural preservation challenges

By Momo Chang


As San Francisco's Japantown celebrates its 100-year anniversary, the threat of cultural displacement looms. Two hotels, a movie theater, and two malls are up for sale, and no one seems to know what will happen to the spaces.

This is one of only three Japantowns left in the country (the others are in San Jose and Los Angeles), so many are talking about the importance of cultural preservation. But what exactly do they mean?

The reality is that Japantown today is more of a shopping and eating hub than a neighborhood of Japanese residents. In 1920, 5,000 Japanese resided in the city, most of them in the area now called Japantown; today only 1,000 of the neighborhood's 11,600 residents are Japanese, according to census data.

Residents long ago were either forcefully displaced due to internment during World War II or pushed out by redevelopment in the 1960s and '70s.

"There's a challenge in maintaining the cultural history and identity if your population is declining rather than growing in your neighborhood," Linda Jofuku, executive director of the Japantown Task Force, told the Guardian.

Prior to the war, her grandparents operated a grocery store in Japantown but were forced to evacuate and lost their business. Many Japanese Americans relocated to the Richmond or Sunset districts, or to nearby areas like the South Bay, Sacramento, and the East Bay, said Jofuku, who herself grew up in Mountain View.

Many neighborhood residents are nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans in their 70s and 80s, said Jofuku, who coauthored Images of America: San Francisco's Japantown.

"Japantown is the real source where you can find Nisei who have been in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team]. You can find people who've been interned," said Aaron Kitashima, 22, an Asian American Studies student at San Francisco State University. "You can't learn that from a textbook or learn it from a class."

Kitashima found out about the buildings' sale in a newspaper article and started a "Save Japantown" online petition, which received 10,000 signatures in just a week. His petition also circulated the news to a younger generation — those who don't live in Japantown or read newspapers.

Kitashima, who is half Chinese and half Japanese, told us an ongoing issue is that many in his generation are mixed heritage, or hapa. That, coupled with the fact that the younger generations either grew up in or are moving to the suburbs, makes organizing around a particular neighborhood more complicated.

"I don't even know how much the younger generations are doing to preserve the community," he said.

Though the Japanese American population in Japantown is on the decline, it is still a strong cultural hub, with 150 small businesses, a cultural center, several social service agencies, and a bilingual preschool.

"Japantown is not just people who live or work here — Japanese Americans come back to Japantown for a sense of community," said Sandy Mori of Kimochi, a senior service agency based in Japantown that serves 2,000 elderly Japanese Americans in the Bay Area.

But over the years, developers have been encroaching on properties. In 2000 investors bought Japantown Bowl and turned it into market-rate condos, which cost between $500,000 and more than $1 million per unit. Only 2 of the 48 units were set aside for affordable housing, according to Jofuku.

Just last year, residents and community leaders successfully stopped Starbucks from opening up shop in the condo complex, a proposal that sparked a backlash because several mom-and-pop cafés are already in the neighborhood, including Café Hana and May's Coffee Shop — as well as a Starbucks just two blocks away. But both family-owned cafes are located in Kintetsu Mall, one of the buildings up for sale.

Jofuku argued that more mixed housing, with affordable units for the elderly and young professionals, will bring diversity to the neighborhood to help sustain it.

"If you're relying on people to come on the weekends, it's not enough," she said. "You need cash flow during the week."

At a community meeting Feb. 21, Kintetsu's legal representatives confirmed there is a buyer in mind but that confidentiality agreements prevent them from disclosing who they are or what their intentions are for the property.

"The real travesty is we don't even know who we're dealing with," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who attended the meeting and whose district includes Japantown, told us. He said the most lucrative development in the city is building market-rate condos.

Mirkarimi told us he planned to introduce legislation to the board Feb. 28, after our press time. Although it was still being developed when we spoke to him, Mirkarimi said it could include a special-use district that dictates how property can be used, or retail legislation that would prevent big chains from coming in to change the complexion of a neighborhood.

Kintetsu, the Osaka-based company that is selling the hotels and malls, is represented by Minami, Lew, and Tamaki, a San Francisco–based law firm with a reputation for civil rights work, most notably for reopening the US Supreme Court case Korematsu vs. United States.

Don Tamaki, who represented Kintetsu at the community meeting, stated that the company will make sure new owners protect the cultural heritage of Japantown.

"But that can be dissected and defined in a million different ways," Mirkarimi told us. "And that worries me."

And Jofuku noted that there's a lot at stake when community members have no control over the future of Japantown.

"If you don't own the land, you can't control how it's used," Jofuku said. "That's the concern of the people, particularly for tenants." *

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.


AMC Kabuki Theaters (due to an antitrust ruling)

Radisson Miyako Hotel, Best Western Miyako Inn, Miyaki Mall, and Kintetsu Mall


Japantown's borders are California, Geary, Octavia, and Fillmore Streets.

1,000 Japantown residents (10 percent) are of Japanese descent; 5,000 (44 percent) are Caucasian; 2,000 (20 percent) are of other Asian descent; and 2,000 (17 percent) are African American.

9,000 Japantown residents (80 percent) are renters; 2,000 are home-owners.

150 small businesses currently exist in the neighborhood.

There are several affordable housing complexes for seniors.

Nonprofits and organizations located in Japantown include the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, Kimochi Senior Center, Nihonmachi Little Friends (preschool), national headquarters for the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japantown Task Force, the Japanese Benevolent Society, and the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America. *

Sources: 2000 Census, Japantown Task Force, Japantown Merchants Association