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Japan Town San Francisco History and Business Issues

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Japantown, which is also called “Nihonmachi,” “Little Osaka,” and “J Town” consist of six square city blocks and is located in the Western Addition in San Francisco. This area is predominantly composed of Japanese restaurants, supermarkets, indoor shopping malls, hotels, banks, and other shops. It also includes branches of the famous Kinokuniya bookstores chain, based in the United States. The most popular area is the Post Street. It also comprises the Japan Center, which has been operational since 1968 and has three Japanese shopping centers and the Peace Pagoda. The Japan Center, though it looks quite conventional, has many delightful restaurants and shops, stairways, and open courtyards. It is considered the focal point of Japanese culture in the middle of San Francisco. The Peace Pagoda, designed by the famous Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, is a five-story stupa that represents a contribution to San Francisco by the people of Osaka, Japan.

japantown san francisco

San Francisco’s Japantown shares its borders with California, Geary, Octavia, and Fillmore Streets. It has about 150 small and medium-sized businesses with plentiful, affordable housing complexes for seniors. It also has non-profit organizations, such as the Northern California Japanese Cultural and Community Centre, Kimochi Senior Center, Nihonmachi Little Friends (preschool), Japanese American Citizens’ National Headquarters  League, the Japantown Task Force, the Japanese Benevolent Society, and the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America. (2000 Census, 2006)


The first Japanese, also called `Soko’ resided in San Francisco during the early 1860s. Initially, they lived in Chinatown and neighborhoods south of Market Street. Post the disastrous earthquake and fire in 1906, these Soko’s moved to the Western Addition where they opened their prayer centers and typical Japanese restaurants and shops. The area slowly began to look Japanese in every way, and soon looked like a Ginza, later known as Nihonmachi or Japantown. This was the birth of the Japanese American community in San Francisco.

San Francisco, California, houses the largest Japantown in the United States of America. However, it is smaller than the one prevalent in the United States before World War II. Therefore, it happened that after Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the US authorities took Japanese Americans into custody and put them in concentration camps. At the same time, African Americans encroached on the vacant neighborhood. These thousands of African Americans had come in search of wartime industrial jobs. During the war, however, Japanese Americans returned with Japanese refugees closely followed by Japanese government contributions, as well as Japanese businesses. The African Americans were relocated to places like Fillmore district in the west, Tenderloin in the east, and Hunters Point in the south because of Justin Herman’s redevelopment plans from 1960 until 1980.

At this point, many residents of San Francisco decided against returning after World War II. It resulted in forced captivity of Japanese Americans – some being probably second or third-generation Americans from 1942–45. About one-third of the internees decided to relocate themselves in the East and Midwest after the War Relocation Authority’s encouragement. In the 1950s, this expansion had a detrimental effect on Japan town due to the widening of Geary Boulevard and the obliteration of scores of Victorians to create the boulevard and the Japan Center Mall.

The famous Webster Bridge was also designed to be inspired by the conventional Japanese pedestrian walkways. The Post and Laguna Miyako Hotel boasts a beautiful Japanese garden. Also seen is one of the favorite destinations, the twin origami-style fountain in the middle of the one block open-air mall, which extends from Peace Plaza north toward Pacific Heights.

Business and Community

Due to the unified efforts of the developer and Japanese business enterprises like Kintetsu Enterprises Co. of America, a subsidiary of Kintetsu Corporation of Japan, the Japantown has been successful in establishing itself in terms of business. Under its aegis are the deluxe Miyako Hotel, and the Kintetsu and Miyako Malls. Apart from this, Japantown also consists of Kinokuniya Book Stores of America, the largest Japanese bookstore chain in the US, the Center’s Kinokuniya Building, which houses a mall, and the shop-lined Webster Street Bridge which connects the Kinokuniya Building with the Kintetsu Mall. Also seen is the American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (AMC), which consists of the Kabuki Cinema, Kabuki Springs and Spa, and Pasta Pomodoro restaurant.

Japantown has over 12,000 residents, and it looks similar to a little Japanese village, which is also called `Ginza’ in Japanese complete with cobbled streets and cherry trees. This place has an oriental look with Japanese supermarkets, bookshops, and many restaurants that serve authentic Japanese cuisine. The focal point of this small district, which has the Japan Center, also offers traditional Japanese style dip in the communal hot and cold tubs at the Kabuki Hot springs and offerings like the Shiatsu massage.

Concerning the community of JapanTown, about 1000 residents are Japanese descents, which forms 10 percent of the population, 44 percent which is equivalent to about 5000 people are Caucasian; 2,000 residents are of another Asian origin, and another 2,000 which forms 17 percent are African American. Apart from this, about 9,000 Japantown residents, which comprise about 80 percent are renters, and 2,000 are home-owners.

One of the key offerings of this place is the annual festival of The Cherry Blossom Festival which takes place in April, as well as the Japantown Street Fair in August, attracts tourists as well as residents to take part in music, festivities, dance, street parades, food bazaars, martial arts, and tea ceremonies. The Asian and Pacific Islander communities in San Francisco hold these festivals. A new festival was launched recently, the Obon Festival, which had kimono-clad dancers performing traditional Obon dances along with local Asian art and food festivals. (Unexplored, 2006)

Current Issue

Recently, specific issues cropped up in the Japantown of San Fransico, which included the infamous Kintetsu of America Enterprises’ planning to sell all its property in Japantown. Owing to this, there were concerns by the local community of Japantown that their cultural heritage would be lost. The city organized several gatherings at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which had active participation by over 200 community members, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and other community leaders to decide on the sale of the properties hear public’s grievances. Apart from this, to preserve the neighborhood, a Special Use District designation was suggested as a legislative tool.

To resolve the problem, the community leaders suggested that the Japanese American community be given priority for the buying of the properties. This was due to the property already being taken away by the city through redevelopment. The responsibility of selecting bidders, who would adhere to the Kintetsu’s ideas to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural identity, was given to the law firm of Minami, Lew & Tamaki LLP.

The growing concern among the local community about losing their cultural heritage of Japantown leads to the formation of the “Save Japantown” campaign by Aaron Kitashima, a student of Asian American Studies from the San Francisco State University. He also happened to be the grandson to the late “Godmother of Japantown” Ms. Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima, a leader of the Japanese American redress movement. As part of the action, signature campaigns were set up, which got tremendous response.

“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. Shortly after the campaign, the Sundance Corporation bought the Kabuki 8 screen theater with the assurances that the theater would continue hosting annual cultural celebrations. 3D investments followed suit with the purchase of some more properties again with the commitment of taking care of the JapanTown’s identity. (Unknown, 2006)

In 1920, 5,000 Japanese resided in the city with the focus being in Japantown, whereas today, only 1,000 of the neighborhood’s 11,600 residents are Japanese, according to census data. The reality is that Japantown today is more of a shopping and eating hub than a community of Japanese residents. This neighborhood consists of `Nisei’, who are second-generation Japanese Americans in their 70s and 80s. “Japantown is the real source where you can find Nisei, who has been in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team]. You can find those people who were interned, “Aaron Kitashima said. “You can’t learn that from a textbook or learn it from a class.” (Chang, 2006)


According to the report in the SaveJapantown website, despite the Japanese American population in Japantown dying down, it is still a secure cultural hub, with 150 small businesses, a cultural center, several social service agencies, and a bilingual preschool. The local community appeals to the City of San Francisco, the Kintetsu of America Corporation, and the AMC/Loews Theatre Corporation that they would take serious consideration of losing nearly 3/4 of the Japanese neighborhood would be a devastating loss to the preservation of their community. If the properties are sold to the people for the wrong intentions, it is felt that the Japantown’s oriental neighborhood would be lost forever.

  • Unknown, 2006, website viewed on 5th December, 2006, Nihonmachi, also known as JapanTown http://www.inetours.com/Pages/SFNbrhds/JapanTown.html
  • Chang, Momo website viewed on 5th December, 2006 Saving Japantown www.savejapantown.com
  • Unknown, 2006, website viewed on 5th December, 2006, Recent history and controversy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japantown,_San_Francisco,_California
  • Unknown 2006, website viewed on 5th December, 2006, 2000 Census, Japantown Task Force, Japantown Merchants Association, http://www.sfbg.com/40/22/news_japantown.html

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