Japantowns

San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles are the only three remaining Japantowns in the mainland US. There used to be dozens of them up and down California, but they've disappeared due to the passage of time, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, urban renewal, and assimilation. There are some places with locally significant businesses -- two or three Japanese grocery stores in San Mateo, and up and down the East Bay, and a dusty strip on Western Avenue in Gardena, to name two. But to find a dense, thriving, Japanse American business district is rather special. Each has its own character.

I've visted LA's Little Tokyo several times, and have visited San Jose to deliver newspapers and attend church bazaars, but my main experience is with San Francisco's Japantown, thanks to regular NJAHS events and my research and walking tours.

San Francisco's Japantown has been at its current location, near Post and Buchanan Streets in the Western Addition, for almost 100 years. Before 1906, Japanese immigrants lived mostly in Chinatown and the alleys south of Market between Fifth and Seventh Streets. Both these neighborhoods burned in the earthquake and fire. Given all the changes wrought on the Western Addition by Redevelopment in the 1960s and '70s, the district that remains most physically intact is South Park, which was home to a small but thriving assortment of Japanese hotels from 1906 to 1933. They moved back to Japantown when the steamships from Japan shifted from Piers 30-32 further north, and immigration restrictions cut traffic back and forth to Japan (South Park is ideally suited two blocks from the waterfront and two blocks from the old SP Depot). Several of the old hotels still stand today, and two are owned by low-cost housing cooperatives, so continue in some semblance of their old uses.

After the earthquake, the Western Addition was (along with the Mission), one of the few districts still standing. The old Victorian dwellings were cut up into apartments and hotels; many owners added storefronts in the former front yards. For several years, mansions served as department stores, and churches and synagogues doubled as courthouses. As businesses moved back downtown and residents of means moved west to the Richmond District, Japanese Americans found this densely built, mixed-use, mixed-race neighborhood ideal for establishing a rich and vibrant community. By 1940, on the eve of WWII, nearly every business within a block of Post and Buchanan was Japanese American.

During WWII, 5000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interened from San Francisco (a total of 120,000 across the western states, 2/3 of whom were US-born citizens). The Western Addition became home to tens of thousands of African Americans who came from the South to work in wartime industries. After WWII the Japanese were able to reestablish themselves to a limited degree. The churches operated hostels in their gyms and basements for struggling elders and returning families until 1951. No sooner had the Japanese Americans gotten back on their feet, and the African Americans settled in, than the city proposed to tear down their "blighted" neighborhood and build it back up with apartment towers and shopping malls. With more than a decade of delay, blight became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as homeowners were reluctant to invest in repairs. I've talked to people who said it was rather funky and run-down, but other people say many of the houses were in good shape and well-tended. There is probably truth in both assertions.

Much more can be said (and better than I've said it). But other sections of this website cry out to be uploaded, so I will pause this narrative and update it as time permits. If I can't find a comparable site I will add some more topics and maps and photos, maybe a draft walking tour. Meanwhile, check out the links below and let me know if you have any questions.

Meanwhile, here's a sample of the maps I've been making of Japantown and the Western Addition, based on old Sanborn maps and business directories. This shops just the four blocks at the center of Japantown, in 1940 and today. Green shading is residential, pink is commercial, red with bold type indicates Japanese American businesses. Sample: 4 blocks. (PDF, 900 mb).

A Few Japantown Links:

One place to read about the history of San Francisco's Japantown in the Winter 2000 and Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly magazine of the National Japanese American Historical Society. (Portions of these issues are available on their website). As my own website evolves I will flesh out some of the history here.

The Museum of San Francisco website has some great newspaper clippings, particularly from WWII era.
KQED's video on the Fillmore District is an excellent telling of Western Addition history. It's rebroadcast fairly often in San Francisco.

www.sfjapantown100.org has information on San Francisco's centennial celebration occuring throughout 2006.

Japantown Task Force is working to sustain Japantown through the next hundred years. They have documented existing cultural resources (from manju bakeries and groceries to churches to Animee parades); worked with the city for safer crosswalks, encouraged dialogue between Japanese and Korean merchants, fought Starbucks (and won!) and moved mountains. In 2005 they created the book San Francisco's Japantown, published by Arcadia Books, which is a great overview of the past 100+ years through family photos. jtowntaskforce.org

Nichi Bei Times: http://www.nichibeitimes.com. One of two daily newspapers still published in Japantown (along with the Hokkubei Mainichi).
San Francisco Japantown Guide: http://www.japantown.ws/top.html. Nice site.

Origins of my Obsession:

I come at Japantown history from the perspective of a white guy with a sansai (3rd genration) Japanese American girlfriend. Shiz came into the local JA community only a decade ago herself, having been involved with raising her kids in the suburbs and working in the commercial advertising world then social work for many years. So at first the main connection to the community was her mother's New Year's feasts, and occasional trips to the Buddhist Church.

In 1996 Shiz started editing Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly magazine of the National Japanese American Historical Society. So we started to attend all sorts of events --tributes, festivals, film screenings, funerals, concerts, etc. and met many wonderful people. After the paper came out I'd load up my car and help deliver it down the Peninsula and San Jose, which gave me a new perspective on grocery store geography. A few years ago I started mapping Japanese American neighborhoods and leading walking tours. Obviously it's a different perpsective than from someone who grew up in the neighborhood but I do my best to tell people's stories as well as put it in context of city politics and architectural change.

What got me started mapping Japantowns was a visit to Stockton, Shiz's dad's hometown. Shiz had told me about visiting her grandparents' hotel in the '50s and '60s; it was a bit of a skid row by then, sort of like San Francisco's Sixth Street, but her grandmother took good care of her guests. In the late 1960s the Crosstown Freeway tore out the commercial core of Japantown/Manilatown Shiz said there wasn't much left anymore. How little I realized! I expected to see something of the old urban fabric amidst the new, as in San Francisco, but Stockton's old district has ben almost completely erased. A new Day's Inn stands on the site of the old family hotel. Big civic buildings and parking lots sprawl outward from downtown, and there are still a lot of vacant blocks. Somewhere nearby is a block or two of surviving Manilatown, which Filipino-American activists are fighting to save, but the city is intent on tearing it down even as you read this, replacing it with Pizza Huts and gas stations to create a better "Gateway to Stockton" (as if erasing all traces of the past and ethnic heritage will make Stockton appear in tourist guidebooks).

What's a geographer to do? I don't know that it's the most rational decision, but I decided to map out what had been destroyed. What were the buildings like? How many businesses were there? How dense were they? How did these ethnic communities fit into the cities around them? I started mapping San Francisco's Japantown (it was closer to home) but have gone on to map Stockton and LA's Little Tokyo. I have another dozen cities and towns on my "wish list."

A natural starting point was old Sanborn Insurance maps, available on microfilm at many libraries, which show every building and include some general notes on use (dwellings, stores, saloons, hotels). Also, San Francisco's Japanese American History Archives has a set of maps showing the locations of JA businesses all over the city in 1900, 1910, 1940, 1950, 1970, and 1990. (produced in 1990 by Japantown Arts and Media (JAM) Workshop. JAM/JAHA used old JA business directories (sort of like the Yellow Pages) to list specific businesses. The only drawback with how they did the maps was that you had to look from the number on the map to the list of businesses in the margins to read what it was. And go back and forth to determine what was next door to that business.

For my maps, I started with Sanborn maps, which show every building, and scaled them so I could list the businesses right on the buildings. So you can see whether businesses were spread out (as in Stockton) or solid (as in LA or San Francisco). If spread out, are they separated by other, non-JA stores? Or by dwellings, or factories? Sometimes you'll find a parallel resource, such as an African American business directory from 1959, or another obscessed historian willing to share notes.

Ideally, the maps will serve as a framework on which to arrange people's recollections, stories, and photographs. "Book learnin' is no substitute for stories of people who grew up in the neighborhood, or who shaped history. But time is wasting! The really informative old timers are passing away,* whereas the maps and directories will be in libraries years from now. The time to gather stories and memories is now .

*Map Memory
Nelson Nagai of Stockton's Japanese American Citizen's league brought my draft Stockton maps to a JACL picnic several years ago. He said a lot of old guys sat around and talked story over the maps; "This family's store -- what ever happened to them?" "Oh, they relocated to Chicago..." Nelson asked: So you guys never wondered about those guys until now? They've been gone 50 years!" "No," they replied, "I forgot about them until I saw their name again on the map." One family came by his table with their elderly father/grandfather, who had been afflicted with Alzheimer's for several years. On seeing the maps, he pointed to a spot on the map and said: "We used to live HERE." And the so-and-sos lived across the street, and these other families lived around the corner. And for a few minutes he was quite lucid, in a way he hadn't been for a long time. His family was amazed. Of course, nobody thought to write down what he said...

But it does hint that we store our memories in different places; that geographic memory is a different kind of data than, say, what happened yesterday or what's that fellow's name. (Or at least is stored in a different filing cabinet). Whether as young children, young adults, parents, or older (well-seasoned) folks; whether negotiating a busy downtown or leafy suburb, by foot, by bike, in a car, for a paper route or to buy groceries and go to church... we construct a view of the world, or a web of relationships, in our heads, and refine it with practice. If you're a crazy historian, you might wander around with a construction of how things used to be, overlaid on how things are, and what happened on such and such a date on this spot; and if the wind is just right you can see everything sort of melded together. It's a weird, wooly feeling. There are also things that happened in places you know well (today) that you haven't a clue about. Then one day you learn about them; someone tells their story, and your world shifts again. Maps are the framework I use to organize all those stories; for others it's old photos, or just stories plain and simple.

Whether my maps help you revisit your childhood or appreciate how big and diverse the Japanese American community was, or take a look at your own community with new eyes, I hope you enjoy them.

Ben Pease