The San Francisco Japantown History Walk is a self-guided tour consisting of 16 interpretive signs along an approximately 10-block route through the heart of Japantown, providing visitors with a unique insight into the community’s fight hundred years of history and culture.
The History of Japantown San Francisco
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.
The War brought other unwanted changes to the neighborhood. The city, swollen with war workers needing shelter, was forced to permit the overcrowding of existing structures. The result was an accelerated deterioration of the area’s housing and commercial facilities which, in turn, created a seriously blighted area. This, however, qualified Japantown for postwar urban renewal assistance.
Early in 1960, San Francisco embarked on a pioneering program which included the razing of a five-acre, three-square-block section of Japantown – the area bounded by Geary, Post, Fillmore, and Laguna Streets-to make way for the Japan Center (originally known as the Japanese Cultural and Trade Center).
In the Fall of 1960, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency agreed to sell the three-square-block parcel to a single-purpose corporation Japan Center formed by a Japanese American group from Hawaii to create and develop the Japan Center.
Nearly eight years later, the project was completed thanks to the unified efforts of the developer and two outstanding Japanese business enterprises. One of the organizations – Kintetsu Enterprises Co. of America, a subsidiary of Kintetsu Corporation of Japan – is still the Center’s key anchor. Kintetsu owns and manages the deluxe Miyako Hotel, and the Kintetsu and Miyako Malls, both of which house shops and restaurants. Kintetsu also owns and manages the Best Western Miyako Inn which is located in Japantown one block north of the Center.
Other Japan Center owners include:
- Kinokuniya Book Stores of America, the largest Japanese bookstore chain in the U.S. and a subsidiary of the largest bookstore chain in Japan.
- Kinokuniya owns the Center’s Kinokuniya Building, a two-level shopping/dining mall, and the shop-lined Webster Street Bridge connecting the Kinokuniya Building with the Kintetsu Mall;
- American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (AMC). AMC owns the building at the west end of the Center which houses the Kabuki Cinema, Kabuki Springs and Spa, and Pasta Pomodoro restaurant.
- Union Bank of California. The bank owns the portion of the Center which houses its Japantown branch and retail space above the branch.
The Japan Center formally opened in March 1968 with much fanfare highlighted by the first annual Cherry Blossom Festival. With the Center’s opening, Japantown came into its own as an ethnic showcase in the cosmopolitan tradition of San Francisco.
The Blocks Adacent to The Japan Center
In a unique community renewal program inspired by the Japan Center, residents and merchants of the neighborhood worked with the Redevelopment Agency to plan and implement the renewal of the four square blocks immediately north of the Center bounded by Post, Webster, Bush, and Laguna Streets.
By the mid-1970s revitalization was well on its way and was evidenced in the new and rehabilitated homes, stores, restaurants, and businesses owned by people who had lived in the area for years, in the reconstructed churches and institutions, and in the cultural activities offered by the familiar community centers that have historically been located in Japantown. (*1)
In 1975, the Best Western Miyako Inn opened at Sutter and Buchanan Streets, one block from the Japan Center, and, in 1976, the Buchanan Mall leading to the Center’s main entrance from the north was completed. The block-long pedestrian mall-with its flowering plum and cherry trees and cobbled streets-resembles a mountain village and provides an interesting contrast to the formal structure of the Center.
Today’s Nihonmachi blends deeply-rooted traditions and values with the vitality of an attractive, modern environment. (*1) It is one of only three remaining Japantowns in the continental United States.
(1) San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Nihonmachi Community, 1976.