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San Francisco’s Japantown Fading

October 30, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ During World War II, Sam Seiki was among thousands of Japanese Americans forced from their homes in Japantown and into internment camps.

The evacuation dealt the bustling Japantown enclave a blow from which it never quite recovered.

``We got talked into a lot of things we didn’t want,″ said Seiki, 76. ``If the government said go, we went. ... We aren’t boisterous people so we didn’t dissent.″

Seiki isn’t sitting quietly anymore.

Today, Seiki is among those who have returned to Japantown and now support efforts to bring back more traditional Japanese institutions to revitalize the four-block area that at its height was an enterprising 30-block ghetto.

``It’s really a multigenerational, multicultural feeling we’re trying to promote,″ said Sandy Mori, who is on a task force organizing the effort.

While the Kintetsu and Miyako malls, the centerpiece of Japantown, are a sushi lover’s paradise dotted with Japanese-language bookstores and music shops, at least 22 businesses are Korean-owned, Mori said.

The annual Cherry Blossom Festival draws foot traffic every summer, but ``going out of business″ signs are not uncommon in family-owned shops. The shops often close when young, American-born children don’t want to take over, Mori said.

Japantown also has become less important as a cultural center as the population becomes more integrated. Among Asians marrying in the United States, the Japanese have the highest rate of outmarriage, with 60 percent marrying outside their race, according to federal researchers.

The forced internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans left many residents unable to reclaim their homes because discriminatory laws never allowed them to actually own them, forcing their American-born friends and children to act as surrogate buyers. Many of those homes were torn down in the post-war redevelopment boom of the 1960s and ’70s.

Psychologically, internment shattered the community, leaving many Japanese Americans wary of demonstrating any sense of cohesiveness and with a desire to assimilate. Many moved into other San Francisco neighborhoods or out of the city altogether.

``Clustering in the ethnic enclave made people seem un-American or suspicious,″ said Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

``This stigma echoed down to the third and fourth generation folks,″ Hirabayashi said. ``It’s difficult to quantify but something we have to factor into why going back to Japantown might not be a good idea.″

Dave Tatsuno, who owns San Jose’s Nichei Bei Busan general store opened by his father in San Francisco in 1902, said the evolving community is inevitable. Although his son married a woman from Japan, his three daughters all married non-Japanese men.

``Our family is changing. We’re living in America. It’s composed of not just Japanese _ it’s everyone,″ said Tatsuno, 86, who left Japantown in 1947 and decided to start fresh in San Jose after his toddler son died. ``That’s the way it is. The United States is international.″

The country’s Japanese also are increasingly American. According to the 1990 census, of all Asians living in the United States, nearly 70 percent of Japanese descent were born in this country, while 60 percent or more of members of other Asian groups living here were born in Asia.

Ethnic neighborhoods retain their character more if there is that influx, Mori said.

For Seiki, who has learned in America to stand up for his rights, there is no reason to live anywhere else but in Japantown.

``I was determined to stay here even after I came back. Things change but you have that feeling: This is home, I belong here.″

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