Defining Cultural Preservation: Findings


Despite a decrease in the Japanese American resident base since the redevelopment process began, Japantown continues to be the geographical, and consequently the emotional core for a dispersed Japanese American community.  It is home to organizations and institutions that serve the religious, cultural and social needs of (a) community spread throughout the city and the Bay Area.  This community . . . finds a sense of place in the culture and history present in Japantown’s physical environment.[1]


The matrix developed for this report reflects not only the input of the community-based SB307 Committee but most significantly feedback from the community generated by public presentations of the draft report.  The matrix list and related data sheets (attached) identify some of the cultural preservation targets in San Francisco’s Japantown that not only reflect Japantown’s unique culture and identity but also serve as continuing points of cultural experience.  While this process of information-gathering was originally conceived of as an organizational tool, it was also shown to be an effective community development tool. 


This method of data collection – direct recognition, solicitation of description from the source (e.g., artist, merchant, community activist), responses by community members to the data – stimulated discovery for some, renewed enthusiasm and appreciation for others, and awakened a passion among the members of the community to ensure the acknowledgement of that which they felt contributes to the culture of the community.  By involving community stakeholders, experts, JTF board, staff and student interns in direct contact, ostensibly for data collection/report development, the process provided a means by which community stakeholders could both name that which they held to be culturally-significant and elaborate on why they held it to be so.  Merchants and businessmen not used to being in the public spotlight were compelled to tell the story of their place in Japantown at public presentations.  Suggestions from some sparked ideas and/or drew controversy from others, invigorating and enlivening the discussion around what defines both community culture and preservation.  The community continues to be engaged in this process, continually bringing forth additional recommendations for inclusion.


Rather than serving as a static document meant to supplement a government report, the matrix has become a living document that can serve as a means of tracking an ongoing experience, engaging community input in a continuing review process, providing a current basis for cultural heritage preservation priorities.


The issue of what is current, however, serves to point up several complexities related to the geographical, neighborhood context of traditional community planning when applying them to San Francisco Japantown.  One is the current geographic parameters.  Given the relocations – both natural and political – that have dispersed the people of the community and diminished the area considered to be within the boundaries, there are many historical and cultural experiences and resources that have already been lost to Japantown proper.  Some, like Nippon Goldfish and Pine United Methodist Church, relocated post-Redevelopment to other parts of the city not considered part of the current study area.  Others, like the offices of The Nichibei Times, are located on a block once considered to be within Japantown but is now included as part of another neighborhood.  The geographic parameters also isolate those cultural resources which, while not physically located in Japantown, are inherently connected to the fabric of Japantown.  One example of this is the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, once owned and operated by the Hagiwara Family, one of the few remaining examples of traditional Japanese garden design and craftsmanship. 


There are also permanent losses identified by many community members who responded to the presentations as essential to the community’s culture even as it exists today.  They identified many long-time Japantown institutions that have closed shop, e.g., Yamada Seika manjuya (confectionary), Honnami Taieido art goods store, Goshado bookstore, Nichibei Bussan Department Store, Evergreen Fountain, Jim’s Drugs, American Fish Market and the many barbershops that served both the sartorial and the social needs of the community.  These may fall into that category of “intangible resources” whose memory serves as a cultural touchstone, having been a part of Japantown in a not-too-recent past when bilingual neighborhood services (pharmacies, dry cleaners, shoe repair, et al.) were vital to the community’s existence.  Also in the category of intangible resources are individuals who, by their contributions to the culture of the community, might be designated perhaps as “living cultural treasures,” such as Taiko Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka; Mrs. Kikuyo Sekino, Omote Senke School of Tea; and former San Francisco Poet Laureate Janice Mirikitani.   Some have already passed on, such as artist/activist Mitsu Yashima, youth advocate and U.C. Regent Yori Wada, civil rights activist Edison Uno, labor activist Karl Yoneda, peace activist Dr. Clifford Uyeda, journalist Michi Onuma, performance artist/educator/activist Sachiko Nakamura and historian Seizo Oka.  Their memory and the lesson of the transience of experience serve as inspiration to engage in the work of preservation actively and immediately.


The business community has responded enthusiastically to the data-gathering process.  Several of the merchants who participated in the data sheet process were proud to point out that their businesses located in Japantown not only reflect the culture and but also draw consumers and investors to the neighborhood, as cultural events and non-profit organizations draw visitors and participants to the neighborhood who in turn support many of the businesses.  It is this interdependence of Japantown’s cultural resources that could be the key to its preservation and growth.  The two largest public events – the Cherry Blossom Festival held in the spring and the Nihonmachi Streetfair held each August – serve as good examples for the ways in which the community works together on multiple levels.  The spring festival was initiated largely as a cultural festival from a more traditional perspective, while the summer festival was initiated by the activist and non-profit community to engage the community’s youth and reflect Japantown’s more contemporary reality.  Though separate – and sometimes disparate – in the past, over time, both festivals have become opportunities for the different factions in the community to work together with the ultimate goal being both the celebration of Japantown’s culture and attracting support for Japantown’s various arts, business and social service interests.


By viewing the cultural resources of the community as a kind of “cultural capital”, in which all segments of the community can invest and from which all segments of the community can profit, the potential for a self-sustaining ecology in Japantown to support cultural maintenance becomes clear, one that is based on energy generated through participation – of residents, former residents, patrons, visitors, business investors, property owners and government.  Phase II of the planning process generated some possible ways to facilitate this participation which are supported by the current research to date:

·        Identification and support for economic engines compatible with Japantown’s cultural and educational institutions would enhance economic viability beyond subsidy – Community-driven economic development focused at small businesses is essential.   As an inner city business district, the health of small culturally-identified restaurants, shops and professionals located within the neighborhood serves to maintain the flow of visitors and patrons to the community, drawing site-specific commerce and traffic. [e.g., see data sheets: Anime Parade, Benkyodo, Kintetsu Mall, Kinokuniya Bookstore, Paper Tree, Uoki Sakai]

·        Reinforcement of the physical identity” and “a well-defined framework for improving the physical environment – Japantown’s unique physical identity based in its architecture, landscaping and public art identifies it as of historical as well as contemporary interest, and should be the object of preservation-oriented capital project improvements and maintenance.  [e.g., see data sheets: Buchanan Mall, 1830 Sutter Street (Nihonmachi Little Friends), Peace Plaza, 1881 Bush Street (Kokoro Assisted Living)]

·        Strategies to engage children, youth, families and adults – Maintaining and improving community-based social services, i.e., the different direct-service, non-profit, community-based agencies which address the needs of the Japanese American and Japanese-speaking communities, is one way of continuing the outreach to residents and former residents of the neighborhood.  The ability to participate in and take advantage of the various social services available enhances the Japanese American community’s historical and emotional tie to the neighborhood.  That participation is also enhanced by the opportunities available for transmission of both traditional and contemporary culture in Japantown, whether directly through classes and training that take place in the neighborhood or performances and demonstrations that occur in the neighborhood’s public venues.  Creating a mentorship program to promote the transmission of culture and development of venues that support both traditional and contemporary visual and performing arts (display and performance venues, workshop spaces, etc.) could add vitality to the transition of culture. [e.g., see data sheets: Golden Gate Optimists Club, Japanese Community and Cultural Center, Japanese Community Youth Council, Japantown Art and Media, Hokka Nichibei Kai, Kimochi, Inc., S.F. Bonsai Society].  Developing new events/venues that focus on contemporary culture invite the interest and participation of the next generation and expose them to Japantown and all its available resources [e.g., see data sheets: Anime Parade, Import Car Show, S.F. Asian American Film Festival].


When presented with the information which became available through the cultural preservation report process, the youth of Boy Scout Troop 29, sponsored by the San Francisco Buddhist Church, who represent the third generation of Scouting in Japantown, expressed in their comments not only their own attachment to the Japantown that they know as theirs, but regret for the loss of the vitality that had existed for their parents, as well as a desire for there to be more activities to engage them and their friends, i.e., “more reasons to come to Japantown”.  Their parents expressed not only a nostalgia for the resources available to them in their own youth, but also an appreciation for those resources still remaining and a desire to have a Japantown through which to transmit their cultural heritage to their children and their children’s children.



[1] BMS Design Group, et al. Concepts for the Japantown Community Plan, Japantown Planning, Preservation and Development Task Force.  2000: 58