The state of San Francisco Japantown’s businesses

BEACON OF HOPE — The Japantown Task Force, along with other  Japantown organizations and businesses raised funds to light the Peace Plaza and Buchanan Mall to attract more customers during the holidays.  photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

BEACON OF HOPE — The Japantown Task Force, along with other Japantown organizations and businesses raised funds to light the Peace Plaza and Buchanan Mall to attract more customers during the holidays.
photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

At the dawn of its 110th year, San Francisco’s Japantown currently faces challenges in maintaining its identity as a regional hub of Japanese and Japanese American culture. About five decades since the Japan Center was built, many of the neighborhood’s longtime business owners have come of retirement age. As these businesses close, the neighborhood faces questions on how it should promote itself and preserve its legacy.

Maintaining Legacy Businesses

In November of 2015, San Francisco voters passed Measure J, establishing the “Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund.” The fund, aimed at helping longtime businesses in San Francisco stay in the city in the face of rapid gentrification — especially in the Mission and South of Market areas of the city — would offer money to both businesses and their landlords to encourage longtime businesses that have “contributed to the neighborhood’s history and/or the identity of a particular neighborhood or community,” to stay open in their historic location. Owners may sell their business, but the new owners must continue operating under the same name and provide the same services that made the store unique. Landlords, in exchange for the grant, must extend leases that are at least 10 years long to tenants.

In Japantown, rents have steadily gone up, and merchants expect them to continue to rise. Shin-Issei Takeshi Onishi, owner of Japan Video in the Japan Center West Mall, said his lease ensures that his rent is stable for the next two years , but he wasn’t too hopeful for anything beyond that. “At best, it’ll stay the same, but more likely it’s going to go up,” he said.

Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that rents are a concern for Japantown. He said that a certain business may close, in part due to a rent increase. “It is my understanding that a non-Japanese has made an inquiry on the space,” he added. “We may soon lose all of our Japanese-owned business to gentrification and this community should be really concerned.”

Hashimoto said he supported the fund, saying it serves as a tool for preserving the remaining Japantown legacy businesses, but said the merchants must ask for assistance. He noted that “it is the Asian culture to not ask for help when they are struggling.”

Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, said the measure was inspired by his organization’s efforts to recognize legacy bars and restaurants. SF Heritage initially focused on preserving the city’s historic architecture, but it recognized the need to preserve the businesses themselves, such as in the case of the Gold Dust Lounge in downtown San Francisco. In a similar battle, Marcus Books of San Francisco was evicted from its longtime location on Fillmore Street, despite considerable community support and an expedited historic landmarking of its building.

Buhler said Measure J is an important new tool to help negotiate against the evictions, but he admitted that the grant might not provide enough assistance in the parts of the city where rents are soaring. He did, however, say Japantown may benefit.

“Japantown is not facing the same catastrophic rent increases as the Mission and SOMA, so it might be more effective here,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Soko Hardware and Benkyodo, the last two pre-war family-owned Japanese American businesses in Japantown, declined to comment to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Linda Mihara said she is interested in taking advantage of the grant for her family’s business, Paper Tree, which is located on Buchanan Mall.  Mihara is a Sansei and runs the store with her sister, Vicky Mihara Avery. “We could use the money for fixtures, redoing our Website design, get a new point-of-sale system,” she said. While her family owns the building they are located in, she imagines it is much more difficult for those who rent.

Onishi said he liked the idea of the grant, but wasn’t sure he would be able to take advantage of it. At age 68, he is wary of entering a 10-year lease. He also noted that his business has changed over the years. Originally a video rental store, he expressed doubts on the future of selling physical media when he must compete against the Internet.

While the Miharas will continue their parents’ store, Robert Sakai, also a Sansei, closed the Uoki K. Sakai market in 2011. Sakai said the grant would be helpful to those who choose to take part in it, but he personally would not have relied on it.

“I just reached a point in time that it made sense. Personally, I like to go my own way,” he said. “A lot of the problems with maintaining legacy businesses really have to do with generational changes.”

Sakai said recent generations of Japanese Americans have better opportunities for education and employment offering them better paying and more stable income than a small business. With his children not interested in taking over, he chose to close the store on his own terms.

Sakai also said he did not consider selling his store so its namesake could continue. “When you sell a business … then your name is run by somebody else,” he said. “Fortunately, we were economically secure enough that it wasn’t necessary. A lot of people sell their businesses because that good will funds their retirement.”

Akiko Kinoshita sold Fujiya Shiseido on Post Street and retired Dec. 31. Kinoshita operated the business, started in 1967 by Christopher Hirose, some 35 years and now plans to move back to Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan.

The new owner, Zhihui Liu, owner of Natural Wonder Face & Body on Clement Street in San Francisco, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that she knew the location had been in business for a long time, and said she did not want to see it close. Liu said once she is situated, she hopes to renovate the store and continue operating under Fujiya’s name.

A Road Less Traveled
While Fujiya was initially started to serve Japanese-speaking customers, with fewer Japanese newcomers coming to Japantown, that business model no longer worked. Kinoshita noted that octogenarians were common among her regulars.

“The (younger generations) can get Shiseido products from the department stores now, instead of us,” she said. “Times have changed. People from Mountain View, Sacramento, all over, used to come shop (in Japantown).” Kinoshita said in the past, her customers would come to San Francisco to eat some Japanese food, shop for groceries and other goods as well as stop in for cosmetics, but foot traffic has since gone down, especially following the closure of Uoki Sakai next door.

While Japantown attracts crowds during the weekends, Sakai said Post Street fails to draw in traffic from Van Ness Avenue and Fillmore Street. “Some of it has to do with buildings that are blank — no store fronts — others have to do with traffic flow, but we just can’t seem to tap into those two cross-corridors,” he said. “The more people you get to drive by or walk by, the better. Every person that walks by your store is a potential customer. To me that’s always been the biggest problem.”

Sakai said one of the biggest tragedies associated with the ‘60s era redevelopment of Japantown was the conversion of Geary Boulevard into an expressway. “Before that thing went in, Geary wasn’t a barrier,” he said. “We had a lot of people coming across. Once they put that up, people stopped coming up from that side.”

“This used to be a living and working community,” Mihara said. Facing competition from online sales, she said Japantown excels in its restaurants, but not as much gifts and other goods. “The traditional family businesses have gone out. People don’t live and work here anymore.”

Encouraging Vitality
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the creation of a Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District Dec. 8. The NCD, a set of zoning laws specifically tailored for Japantown’s commercial sector, is a recommendation within the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy and addresses various concerns the community had about new developments in Japantown, most notably noise controls for businesses. The new zoning also worked to reduce the conditional use permitting requirements for certain businesses to reduce the burden of opening a new businesses in Japantown.

Sakai said he had joined the planning process for the commercial district, as well as the JCHESS, about nine years ago and brings his experience running a business in the neighborhood. He said easing the requirements for conditional use approval was the best thing to come out of the new zoning codes. “The city has this … process of approval which I accept is necessary, but I tell them it’s hard enough to run a small business,” he said. “You do everything. You’re a small business so you don’t have enough volume and profits to have middle management. The more difficult it is to start a business, the more people you’re going to discourage who conceivably would be quite successful here.”

Japantown merchants also noted a lack of communication among them. Gregory Wood, owner of Forest Books in Buchanan Mall, said Japantown’s merchants lack synergy. “The merchants in the East Mall don’t talk with the West Mall, and the malls don’t talk to (the Buchanan Mall),” he said. Several other merchants agreed with his sentiment.

Hashimoto said the newer and older merchants in the neighborhood are disconnected. “Simply put, there is no synergy between the new merchants and long-standing merchants anymore,” he said. “What’s really frustrating to the Japantown Merchants Association, is these new merchants refuse to join the association but reap the benefits of our programs.”

In recent years, several new merchants joined or pledged to join, but did so while trying to gain conditional use approval for doing business in Japantown. Daiso Japan pledged it would join the association after running into trouble over permits to expand its location in the Japan Center East Mall in 2012. The Pearl Spa, a women-only spa slated to open in April of 2016, in seeking a conditional use permit in early 2015, pledged it would join the association and participate in community activities. Most recently, The Face Shop, joined the association ahead of its conditional use authorization hearing to be held soon by the Planning Commission.

Meanwhile, the Japantown Task Force worked to improve traffic and communication in Japantown. The organization put up holiday lights on the Peace Plaza and the Buchanan Mall through donations from the surrounding residents and businesses. Alice Kawahatsu, board president of the task force, said the lighting was a success in not only attracting visitors and getting presence on social media, but also in helping to connect various merchants together.

“The light up helped us realize we can come together,” she said. The project served as a proof of concept, showing the task force could bring people together to raise funds and create a project.

Doing business in San Francisco’s Japantown is difficult, merchants can at least agree on that. As new businesses come and old businesses go, the ethnic enclave must work to define and preserve its identity the best it can.

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