Young Leaders Organize Peers to Discuss SF J-Town’s Future

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Youth Speak Out About SF's Japantown — nihonmachiROOTS event organizers Jason Osajima, Aya Ino and Haruka Roudebush. photo by Beth Hillman/Nichi Bei Weekly

On March 27, a group of youth and young adults gathered for a day of discussion about ways they can play an active role in shaping the future of San Francisco’s Japantown. Frustrated by the current draft of Japantown’s Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP), which will inform the future of its development for decades to come, a group of young adult volunteers organized the daylong workshop as part of their ongoing work to engage their peers in charting the future of one of only three remaining Japantowns in the country.

“We’re going to inherit Japantown and a plan that affects the next 40 years of its development,” said Jason Osajima, 24, one of the event organizers. “ It’s important for us to take ownership of the future of Japantown, not just to enjoy it now, but to take responsibility for its future and have an active role in shaping it.”

The Japantown Community Engagement Workshop took place at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, and was organized by nihonmachiROOTS, an all-volunteer group of young Nikkei leaders, ranging in age from 19 to 30, who are focused on ensuring a strong future for San Francisco’s Japantown, specifically through the creation of an effective Plan.

This plan, currently being redrafted by the Planning Department of the City of San Francisco in consultation with members of the Japantown community, outlines the construction, development and business activities that will shape Japantown for the next several decades. Some members of the community are concerned that the plan, which would allow the Japan Center to be demolished and redeveloped to include a condominium complex, would adversely impact the income of local merchants and Japantown’s sense of community.

The initial BNP was not endorsed, creating a second chance for the community to get involved. “Young people weren’t very well informed about the Plan in general,” said Haruka Roudebush, 26, another of the event’s organizers. “But those of us involved saw it was important to have a voice in the plan. Since it was not endorsed, we saw it was the perfect opportunity to spread awareness to people we can actually reach — our peers.”

The day’s activities consisted of a series of group discussions about the  BNP and a walking tour of Japantown, during which they met with local merchants to learn about their concerns for the future. Another goal of the day was to develop new leaders, increase their network and spread awareness of the Plan and the work of nihonmachiROOTS.

Osajima said he hoped the day’s events would instill a sense of commitment to controlling the future of the community. “The main issue is ‘Who owns Japantown?’ Technically, it’s the people who own the land and buildings,” Osajima said. “But for our discussion, it’s important to think about the community — the people who take classes at [the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California] for odori, the people who play taiko here, the senior citizens at Kimochi.”

The day’s discussions also included a basic education about the contents of the BNP, and brainstorming about what specifically participants would like to see changed. Roudebush said he believes the current draft of the Plan doesn’t reflect the opinions of the community, and hopes that the new draft will explore the possibility of renovating — rather than demolishing and rebuilding — the Japan Center. He said his main concern is the welfare of longtime business owners, He  also said he hopes to create a future that would allow for Japanese Americans to return to San Francisco’s Japantown as residents, which would be difficult if the new housing is not affordable.

Following World War II — and the effects of the mass incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in American concentration camps during the war — San Francisco’s Western Addition was designated as a redevelopment area in 1948.

San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency launched a program that entailed the demolition of 27 blocks, including much of Japantown. Nikkei were evicted again from their community during both the 1960s and 1970s during two separate phases.

Many community members have expressed concerns about their future, and that of Japantown, in light of the BNP.

Aya Ino, another of the event’s organizers, also hopes for a future where Japanese Americans not only shop and dine in Japantown, but also live there. Ino lived in San Francisco’s Japantown with her family for her entire life, but two years ago they moved to Richmond. “We know people are working to improve their lives, but we want to create a strong community here,” Ino said.

“We want a collective voice for the future generations and we want to have as much of a say as possible in the Plan,” Ino added. “Older generations are making all the decisions, but we have to live through them.”

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