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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wondering about Japantown's Future

On late Tuesday evening around 8:30PM, I went to San Francisco's Japantown for a nice late night dinner, which is rare because I don't usually go to Japantown at night.

And something crossed my mind as I walked through the Kintetsu mall that evening, I looked around and saw not many people walking down the aisles of the mall, yet it was so interesting to just go to Mifune for an order of cold noodles (the "Mifune Special") and realize that the place is nearly packed. I also realized that the other restaurants, including the ever so expensive Benihana was crowded too.

Sometimes I wonder if Japantown is really changing for the good or the bad. One observation I noticed as I was eating my dinner at Mifune is the other people around me. Interestingly, there was not even one fellow Japanese American in sight, and it was a little difficult to find a fellow Asian American. Most of the people I saw are European American.

Just this observation alone made me wonder about what might happen to Japantown. In a previous discussion with a friend, we talked and agreed that while we believe the people who have been raised or have been very active in this community feel that "outsiders" who want to help is an uncomfortable idea; the other point of view I mentioned is the concept of "strength in numbers."

In the society of Japantown, it is becoming much harder to gather the support of the people of the community to fight for the preservation of our community. Yet, when we think about it, we need that "strength in numbers" to help secure our community. One particular example I have noticed these days is at the Cherry Blossom Festival. As always, the "regulars" are out there to support our community, but these so-called "outsiders" also play a major role in supporting our community as a whole. In this situation, the best example I can provide is the anime fair and their segment of the parade. It is amazing to see many young people, many of whom are not even Japanese American, participating in this event.

In some form, our community needs to find a way to promote this idea of "strength in numbers," and anime and Japanese popular culture may be the new way to do it.

Right now, our community is like an "old school" society, where the community is old fashioned. We practice some good old traditions including martial arts, and our restaurants reflect an old fashioned style. Right now, the community is taking a turn, trying to get those numbers by simply relaxing this old fashioned ideal and welcoming in the anime and J-pop theme. The Miyako inn was transformed into a J-pop themed hotel, and we are now building the new J-Pop center.

To many people I speak to in the community, all of them believe in preservation of the community. To many of them, it is keeping the traditions of Japantown alive. Yet, I see that the anime and J-pop idea may be a new concept that might actually help us, although we are sacraficing the old fashioned ideals that have been with us for generations.

I love Japantown a lot. It is difficult for our community to come together and fight because many of us have a job and it makes it a challenge to be out there. I feel that I sometimes regret that I can't always be out there to be the young leader of the community, yet I am still proud of the accomplishments that I have taken part of, including my leadership work to fight to preserve Japantown during the massive sale of the malls and hotels in 2006.

In one view, it can be said that Japantown will always be here, no matter what happens in the future. To others, they feel that Japantown will disappear if we don't do anything.

Today, we are struggling with the planned demolition and renovation of the Japan center. There is word that they will destroy our existing infastructure and insert something even worse: a taller facility that houses businesses and homes, and may destroy the economy of our community. Those malls and the businesses who lease the spaces make a big impact to our community, and if they destroy the malls and the shopkeeps are forced to find somewhere else, will they ever return? Will they be guaranteed a space with the promise of the same rent rate?

It seems that nobody has the true guts to ask this question to the people. Many Japanese Americans in our community have this feeling that they should not speak out, yet there are legendary Japanese Americans who have spoken out on items in the past and have became the true leaders and representatives of our community.
  • Steve Nakajo, co-founder and Executive Director of Kimochi Inc., a non-profit senior services organization wanted to provide services to Japanese American elders because of the tradition of younger people always taking care of our elderly.
  • Paul Osaki, Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California always speaks out about the issues surrounding our community.
  • My late grandmother, Ms. Tsuyako "Sox" Kitashima was a survivor of the Japanese Interment Camps and was given a reality check from younger Japanese Americans that they should demand redress and an apology from the goverment for violating their civil rights and making them lose all their property. She was the first to speak out about her experiences in the Japanese interment camps and she went out of her way to ask other people give their testimony to government representatives at a special hearing at Golden Gate University. And nobody could really believe that a 2nd generation 60+ year old grandmother and the belief that 2nd generation Japanese Americans would keep quiet about their camp experiences, would be out there pushing congress and other people to fight for redress. In the end, a big reward came to light; Japanese Americans interned in the camps received a $20,000 check and an apology from the president. And all it took was to speak-out and fight for what you believe in. Even after redress, my late grandmother helped other Japanese Americans sign-up for redress, and went to local public schools to tell the story to make sure nobody ever forgets.
I sure want to be like my grandmother someday, and I did earn that true respect during the "Save Japantown" days. Yet, I always keep worrying about this little community that I call home.


www.Japanese-City.com said...

Incredible message. We appreciate your passion and dedication on these extremely important topics about the Japanese Culture and Community. We hope you continue the fight as we move forward.

We are also fighting to get the Japanese Community excited once again. We built a web site to get the Japanese excited about Japanese Culture by actively focusing on Japanese Cultural Events. If people don't support these events and the community, it will continue to lose momentum and eventually die.

Please help us by listing our Japanese Cultural Site to your community.


Rob Anderson said...

According to the Japantown task force, only 10% of the population of that neighborhood is ethnically Japanese (http://www.jtowntaskforce.org/demographics/demographics.race.pdf). Hence, Japantown as an entity is really about a marketing strategy for that neighborhood. Nothing wrong with that, but let's not forget that assimilation is the American ideal, not fighting to retain ethnic neighborhoods.

Akit said...


Thanks for your comment. True, it does seem to be a marketing strategy especially since the city screwed us all by redeveloping the area into a tourist attraction (did you know it was cheaper to just rehab the old victorians?).

Personally, I hope Justin Herman is spinning in his grave.

Greg said...

Um , pardon my french but Rob Anderson the rent controlled jerkoff that he is who has been on a tear like Chris Daly on this issue, is a loser/rentcontrolled jerkoff who needs to sit down, take his government subsidy and SHUT THE FUCK UP!

No I mean that. He has a burning hatred for Japanese Americans that is pathological and he needs to shut the frak up.

Yes the SF Redevelopment agency frakked up. That said, Rob just gets off on the idea of screwing over african americans and japanese americans. he literally can't achieve climax without it!

he's a sick lameass mofo. Rational people, however sign their names to their comments and don't back down from folks who are socialists like Rob who want the same idiots who run MUNI running their electrical system!

Akit said...

Now that I think about that comment by Rob Anderson, here's my reaction towards your idea that Japanese Americans are assimilating into American society.

It is true in some form, yes Japanese Americans have heavily assimilated into the melting pot of "America" but that's primarily because of the internment camps, forcing Japanese Americans to assimilate very quickly to make "model" camps resembling classic American towns, and after leaving the camps, tried to shed as much of their Japanese culture and suppressing the stories about the internment camps.

However we have reached a point in our community where alarms are ringing off in our heads. This alarm is telling us that we are forgetting our identity and culture, and should try to stop assimilating, but to persist the Japanese American culture to future Japanese Americans. One particular example is that the older members of the community is promoting the Japanese American culture and identity to young Japanese American women in the Cherry Blossom Pageant program. In this form, it makes it possible to help PRESERVE at least some form of Japanese American identity, instead of just blending into the melting pot we call "America."

Akit said...

Oh, one more thing. Although 10% of the neighborhood is Japanese American, be aware that Japanese Americans live in other districts and across the bay as well, and do come to the neighborhood as well. Many moved-out because of redevelopment.

We are still proud people, especially the ones who pride in obtaining redress.

Unknown said...

Let's turn this discussion around a bit. Glendale, a city in Southern California used to be the very archetype of a sort of Norman Rockwell Northern European American community. In the 80s and 90s it was transformed into the largest Armenian community in the country.

Now if I go to the local coffee shop, I'm surrounded by people who don't "look" like me. If I were to turn around and say, "We need to fight for our community." then wouldn't I come under some criticism for those views?

It's really no different when an Asian American looks around and says, "Hey, there's nobody here who looks like I do."

The fact is, those customers eating at Mifune are what's keeping Japanese culture alive in San Francisco, _no_ _matter_ _what_ _color_ _they_ _are_. Without them, Kintetsu mall would not survive at all.

The growth of Japanese popular culture among people of non-Japanese decent, may remove some of the exclusivity you appear to desire, but serves to strength and retain Japanese culture in America.

You'd do well to embrace it.

Akit said...

Was I just insulted? It is a little challenging to hear "You'd do well to embrace it" without hearing the tone of that statement.

Craig, it is not how small the Japanese American population is, or how many Japanese Americans are left in the community, it is preserving the physical community (its remaining properties and economy).

The malls and hotels conquer about one-third of the neighborhood, and I'm trying to say that we need to help preserve Japantown by taking advantage of "strength in numbers." Traditional Japanese Americans need to accept the fact that they must welcome people who are not Japanese American to help fight for the community.

Rob Anderson said...

Not clear what the unhinged "Greg" is even talking about here. I'm on "a tear" about what exactly? What does rent control---which I support with great reluctance---have to do with Japantown and assimilation? I certainly do not have a "burning hatred" for Japanese Americans or any other ethnic group. I happen to think that assimilation is the American ideal, which means that we shouldn't work to hard at preserving ethnic neighborhoods. Nor am I a "socialist." I'm actually a registered Democrat who's part of the conservative wing of that big tent party. Nor do I support public power. Greg signs his first name but, not surprisingly, doesn't give us his full name.