Searching for Japantown

Preserving Japanese Culture amid Rampant Development

A monument to Japanese culture in San Francisco's Japantown

Credit: Japanese American Cultural and Community Center

Last year, San Francisco's Japantown celebrated its 100th anniversary under a shadow. Japan-based Kintetsu Enterprises announced in 2006 that it was selling its interests in the city's Western Addition neighborhood. The upcoming sale of two hotels and two malls—nearly two-thirds of Japantown's real estate—has raised serious concerns in the community, even though the buyer, Los Angeles-based 3D Properties, has agreed to accept the city's binding covenants requiring them hold the properties for 15 years and continue to allow use of the malls and hotels for Japanese American events.

Yet some, like Paul Osaki, director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, worry that the covenants do not go far enough to guarantee the long-term protection of Japantown. They do not specify that the hotels must remain hotels, which he says is crucial to maintaining tourist traffic in the area. He also worries that if rents in the malls are raised, many smaller businesses may be forced out.

"No legislation that I have seen will do everything that we think needs to be done to effectively protect the cultural integrity of the neighborhood," Osaki says. "Our biggest fear is that our culture here becomes something you can only visit in a museum, behind glass cases." He says it's important for local businesses to own Japantown in order to protect it but says they were not given that option, making any preservation efforts an uphill battle against time.

Preserving America's Japantowns has been a growing concern throughout the Japanese American community in the past few years, especially as the generation that experienced the World War II internment ages. Japantowns once dotted California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. It is estimated that there were once more than 50 Japantowns in California alone. Today, the Japantowns of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose are the only ones left.

Like many ethnic neighborhoods, the areas formed at the turn of the century as a place where immigrants could find services that were denied them in other parts of cities because of language barriers and prejudice. They were places where the immigrant community could find social support, get legal help, do business, and celebrate their traditions, and pass Japanese culture on to younger generations. Today, these areas have the same functions: San Francisco's Japantown, for instance, is home to more than 200 community service and religious organizations and hosts several yearly festivals. 

"Main Street" in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo

Credit: Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corp.

Though these areas have historic significance, they have undergone drastic changes since World War II. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war emptied these communities and many internees lost their property and businesses. As redevelopment swept through cities in the post-war era, many families were displaced again in efforts to revitalize these areas, further eroding the community. Most Japantowns disappeared altogether, and today there are only a few remaining structures marking their existence.

One notable exception to this pattern was in San Jose's Japantown. Families were able to return to San Jose after the internment in a way that they couldn't in other cities. The properties of many in the community found sympathetic stewards, and nearby San Jose State University opened its doors to Japanese Americans, giving many families a reason to return. Because of this, the neighborhood retained not only much of its traditional use, but its historic fabric as well. A recent historical context and reconnaissance survey by the city found that the 6-to-10-block area might qualify not only as a National Historic Landmark, but also a Traditional Cultural Property—a designation used only for Native American sites until now.

It may be too late to use historic designations to save other Japantowns harder hit by redevelopment. In 2001, California passed legislation to help its Japanese Americans draw up plans for preserving the remaining Japantowns.

"It's something, but it's almost too late. There's a lot that's already been done that works against you," says Chris Aihara, chair of the Planning and Cultural Preservation Committee for Little Tokyo, Los Angeles' Japanese section. "I think what we have come to understand in terms of preservation is that there are buildings, but they are significant because of the activities [that took place there]—what people recognize is the association they have with the area."

Little Tokyo became a Community Redevelopment Area project in 1970, after the community raised concerns about losing their neighborhood to blight and development. The project, which expires in 2010, created a way for the community to have direct input into the development of the neighborhood and helped them to preserve its function as a cultural center for Japanese Americans in Los Angeles. 

A historic view of San Francisco's Japantown

Credit: Japanese American Historical Archives

"We weren't using words like preservation, but there was a lot of talk about future generations," Aihara says. Though part of Little Tokyo is a National Register-listed historic district, including the church that served as an assembly point for the Japanese Americans leaving for internment camps, new development has displaced much of the area's original housing and altered the look of the neighborhood.

"Its kind of a balance," Aihara says. "The community is interested in having a broader consumer base. At the same time, there is kind of an ongoing discussion about who the community is for and what we are working towards. There is always concern about how does this stay meaningful for the Japanese community."

In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Japanese companies invested in Japantown redevelopment with an eye to preserving them as tourist destinations. But Osaki says that these communities should represent more than cheesy tourist traps. "This is really where our stories were born, where our culture and history started. Things happened here."

San Francisco's Japanese American community was hard hit by the internment and redevelopment. Many returning from Topaz and other internment camps found that their neighborhood had been reclaimed by African American war industry workers during the war. By the 1950s, the area had become so crowded that the city declared it "blighted" and began an intense redevelopment program that forced as many as 400 families out of the area. Today, as in other Japantowns, less than 10 percent of its residents are of Japanese descent.

Japanese American community leaders worry about preserving these areas as a place where their children and grandchildren can come to learn about their Japanese roots and their own local history. "To say this is a home base for people is pretty articulate," says Sally Zarnowitz, the city's acting Historic Preservation Officer . "They don't want to see that home base lost."

A thriving Japantown in Salt Lake City was lost to redevelopment in the 1960s. The only two remaining structures—the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and the Japanese Church of Christ—still draw hundreds of families from the greater Salt Lake Valley for church services annual festivals. Recently the Japanese Community Preservation Committee worked with the city to protect the churches from further development, which opened a dialog about reviving Japantown. The city has shown interest in the idea, and the Urban Land Institute has offered to help in the planning process. "The older people remember what it was like, and the young people would like to have a share of that," says Haruko Moriyasu, director of Asian-Pacific American Studies at the University of Utah.

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are looking at special zoning ordinances to help protect the neighborhoods long-term.

Aihara feels that it is important for cities to save Japantowns and other ethnic neighborhoods as places that reflect the greater diversity of American culture. "These neighborhoods tell the fuller and richer story of California and the United States," she says. "We are all descended from immigrants. The way we act out our experiences might be different, but it's all the same story in a way. When we share ideas, sensibilities, ways of looking at things, I think we can learn something."                                                                          

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