RABBIT RAMBLINGS: The dilemma of defining and preserving a fragmented community


San Francisco’s Japantown photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

I took some time off to recharge my batteries, to use an old cliché, and now I’m back. In that interval, our nation has gone through such turbulence it is hard to think clearly about the state of politics, the economy, and the future. Well, daily life goes on and we all have to try to deal with everything with, I hope, common sense and by muddling through.

I am concerned with the question, “What makes Japantown, Japantown?” This was the question posed to the community at a meeting held on July 31 to discuss potential changes to the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan. I come to this subject quite late since I have not been a San Franciscan for very long. At my age, I feel like a relic of old history, having lived through many, many changes that Japanese Americans have had to endure. I think that questions of identity are still large factors in our psyches, and even the meaning of community is not very clear. Some of us like to get mochi and manju at Benkyodo, and pick up San Jose Tofu at the grocery store, but a love of Japanese food and going to the Cherry Blossom Festival or occasional forays into J-Town do not constitute membership in a vibrant community.

San Francisco’s Japantown. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

For many reasons, outlined in Tomo Hirai’s excellent write-up about the proceedings of the meeting, (“Better Neighborhood Plan fields community input before revision draft,” Aug 11-17, 2011) the fragmentation of the Japanese American community was inevitable due to outside forces. And San Francisco real estate has appreciated to unaffordable heights for so many residents. In the past, we ethnic communities were often pushed into our ghettos and so we formed our own communities based on old country ties, friendships, a sense of security in an alien land, and for a little economic security.

These communities were often colorful, bustling hubs of activity. Now, we have the choice of living just about anywhere, and we also can choose not to be very closely associated with things Japanese. So, it is an individual choice on our part and some choose to be identified as Japanese Americans, others part of the time, and some not at all. So many of the new generations can be cosmopolitan citizens of the world, in so many ways. Access to good educations and job opportunities are so much greater now.

The common history of living in San Francisco’s Japantown or some other such communities and having gone through the camp experience is no longer a glue that holds us together because those that experienced those times are dying off. The upheavals of urban renewal and being driven out of the neighborhood or choosing to live in other parts of the city, or the country, for that matter, all were inevitable factors in dispersing us.

The new immigrants from Japan, especially the young folk, are quite different from those of us who grew up in America. They do not share our common history, and so they have little understanding of the history that formed us. I am generalizing, of course, but it would seem unlikely that they would have a feeling for this section of town that we old timers have. When I see a flyer for the specials at a local grocery store, I am amazed at the different kinds of foods advertised, like “shiroi mitsu karinto,” “marukin baumkuchen” and “akagi garigari kun ice bar,” etc. These are foodstuffs that are new to me. This is the “Natsu No Umai Mono Ichi!,” a summer sale of tasty stuff from Japan.

And I share the feeling that we don’t want to have the area preserved as a sort of museum of the past, but how do we hold on to a real sense of community? I think that these issues deserve a lot of discussion, about how to save some history, and still having this district play a vital role in our lives.


Chizu Omori is the co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She writes from San Francisco, and can be reached by e-mail at chizuomori@earthlink.net. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.



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