Leaders to discuss community revitalization on Sept. 18, in SF’s J-Town

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San Francisco’s Japantown, as with numerous Nikkei communities, has faced more than a few challenges in recent years. The 2006 purchase of the Kintetsu and Miyako malls by Beverly Hills-based 3D Investments and the closure of the beloved Japantown Bowl a few years prior, are just two events that have caused a community outcry.

These events, as well as other adversities the community has faced over the decades, including redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese descent in American concentration camps during World War II, may come into play on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 2 p.m., when stakeholders will gather at the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) to participate in the “Revitalization of Communities” panel discussion.

The panelists include: Robert Hamaguchi, executive director of the Japantown Task Force Inc.; Ken Kaji, retired architect and social planner and Jill Shiraki, project manager for Preserving California’s Japantowns. Ben Hamamoto, Nikkei Heritage editor, will moderate the discussion.

Rosalyn Tonai, the executive director of NJAHS, said in an e-mail that the nonprofit is “involved in the BNP process and strongly believes in a community guided process to preserve and revitalize” Japantown.

“It is our responsibility to help inform the public of the lessons learned from the past and to help create a shared win-win vision for the future,” she added.

As with Tonai, Shiraki would like to see “less divided interests, more unification among community stakeholders. There then might be more movement to work toward reclaiming and supporting what’s there.”

Tonai believes that a collaboration of “good planning efforts” that are “based in tested and proven theory” is important for San Francisco’s Japantown. She also sees the need for assistance for small businesses, as well as “a nonprofit consortium based on mutual support and cooperation.”

Tonai concedes that there are multiple obstacles that deter such revitalization efforts. Among them: a lack of “available land buildings to own or develop” as well as “professional expertise in community economic development.” Some of the other challenges might be more complicated, both to define and overcome. Tonai cited “historic schisms based [on] past political divisions,” a “deep distrust of government and outsider intervention” and a “camp mentality,” which she described as “negativity, a sense of powerlessness, and a victim-based mindset.”

Those deterred by these obstacles, however, need only look at the Historical Society for inspiration. Tonai pointed to the Historical Society’s ability to “direct some $4.58 million” toward the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Historic Learning Center, through developing “a shared vision.”

Doing so was not easy, however, Tonai said.

Another challenge that community leaders face is encouraging other residents, merchants and nonprofits to participate in the draft of the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP), which is perceived to provide a 20-year vision for San Francisco’s Japantown, said Hamaguchi. He added that it is important for the younger generations, including Sansei, to speak up.

Having worked on the BNP in multiple capacities for years, Hamaguchi commended nihonmachiROOTS, a group of young leaders, for having raised awareness of the BNP process through participating in community meetings, and even creating “The BNP Made Simple: A summary of the draft of the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan.”

Hamaguchi encouraged people to participate in the various BNP subcommittee meetings, as well as the panel discussion. He said he looks forward to updating community members on the progress being made. He noted that funds that have been added to the San Francisco’ Planning Department’s budget, and added that those involved in the process are pursuing additional monies from other foundations.

Having written extensively about Japantown issues, including the BNP and beyond, Hamamoto acknowledged their complex nature. He hopes the event will provide participants with a “better understanding of the issues,” and ultimately, take ownership of the revitalization efforts.

NJAHS’ free panel discussion, “Revitalization of Communities,” will be held on Saturday, Sept. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. at 1684 Post St., in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, call (415) 921-5007 or visit www.njahs.org.

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