The neighborhood that is now Japantown (Nihonmachi) is approximately one mile west of Union Square and is part of San Francisco’s Western Addition, a subdivision that came into being with the writing of the Van Ness Ordinance in 1855. The land then was sandy and barren, and accommodated primarily bobcats, rabbits, quail, and chaparral.In the 1870s, San Franciscans began to move to this area. They built homes in a variety of architectural styles with the Victorian influence predominating. Van Ness Avenue was the eastern boundary of the Western Addition and also the breakpoint of the fire caused by the great earthquake of 1906.
The Western Addition remained untouched by the fire and provided a haven for the bulk of San Francisco’s burned-out population. Tent villages were hastily erected in nearby parks to provide emergency accommodations for homeless families. Later these families crowded into small apartments which Western Addition homeowners had built into the attics, basements, and wings of their homes. Many property owners raised their houses and placed stores beneath them, and additional commercial buildings were constructed alongside homes. Thus began the mixed land use which later brought restaurants, theatres, saloons, and hotels to the area.
Arrival of the Japanese
The first Japanese arrived in San Francisco — or Soko as they called it — in the early 1860s. For the most part, they lived in Chinatown and in neighborhoods south of Market Street, including South Park and the area near what is now the San Francisco Shopping Centre. It was not until the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire drove many of them from their homes that they began moving to the Western Addition. As they settled here, they built churches and shrines and opened typically Japanese shops and restaurants. The neighborhood took on a very Japanese character and before long became a miniature Ginza known as Nihonmachi, or Japantown. It is here that the foundations of San Francisco’s Japanese American community took root.
With the advent of World War II, the Japanese Americans in San Francisco and in other West Coast communities suddenly were uprooted and interned in what was one of the great tragedies of the War — and a most regrettable episode in our country’s history.
Following the War, many of the original Japanese American residents returned to the city to pick up the threads of their lives. Today, nearly 12,000 Japanese Americans live in San Francisco and approximately 80,000 live in the greater Bay Area.