Kinmon Gakuen, also known as the Golden Gate Institute, celebrated 100 years of Japanese language and culture education recently in San Francisco’s Japantown. In a gathering of former students, teachers and administrators on Oct. 29, community members also helped to celebrate the historic milestone at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown.
“We are dedicated to continuing the efforts of our predecessors,” said Shigeru Kimura, the current board chair of Kinmon Gakuen, who described the event as one of the largest alumni gatherings ever.
Like dozens of schools of Japanese instruction across the state, institutions like these have been vital to reinforce language and culture for generations.
But it was not uncommon for children to have complained about spending a chunk of their leisure time in yet more school, however.
“I have to confess, as a young person growing up in San Francisco, attending Japanese school was not my preferred way to spend Saturday mornings,” Kinmon Gakuen alumni Emily Murase recalled in a letter published in the program booklet. “However, the Japanese language and cultural education I received opened up so many doors for me.”
“We surely complained about having to go to Nihongo Gakko (Japanese school),” Kinmon Gakuen alumni Grace Horikiri told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “But looking back now I am sincerely grateful to my parents for giving us the opportunity to go.”
Some who quit early have regretted giving up on it later in life. Yet for others, the experience presented many fond memories.
“At the time, like most of my classmates, we went because our parents wanted us to go,” said Horikiri, who attended the school from 1967 to 1977. “Also, back then, there were no afterschool programs, so really Kinmon served as not only an extension of learning, but for all of us kids to play and hang out in J-Town.”
“I vividly recall our calligraphy (shodo) lessons,” said Murase. “The finality of putting a large brush coated with jet black ink to the thinnest possible sheet of paper at once inspired fear of and awe for the art.”
“The fondest memories are the friendships that developed throughout those years,” said Horikiri, a graphic designer and president of the Nihonmachi Street Fair. “I am still in contact with many of my Kinmon Gakuen friends.”
Though not the first Japanese language school in the United States — a school founded in Seattle in 1902 bears that distinction — Kinmon is certainly one of the oldest.
According to a historical account provided by the school, a core group of the Japanese American Association gathered to establish a Japanese educational organization for their children on May 2, 1910. The next month, a meeting was held to establish an operating plan for Kinmon Gakuen.
On Jan. 18, 1911, the property at 2031 Bush St. was rented as a school building. The next month, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, an educational leader in Japan who became famous for his role with the League of Nations, recommended Masayoshi Kamata of Japan to be the first director of the school.
A grand opening ceremony was held on April 15, and classes officially began on April 17 with 12 kindergarteners, 12 preschoolers, and 21 other students.
The old structure was raised in 1925, and a dedication for the new building was held on April 11, 1926 with more than 1,000 in attendance, the history of the institution noted. The school merged with Kyowa Institute in 1935, and was closed because of the outbreak of World War II.
During the war, the Kinmon Gakuen property was occupied by the Booker T. Washington Center, and classes resumed next door in October of 1948 with 32 students. In May of 1952, the Booker T. Washington Center moved to Presidio Avenue, and Kinmon relocated to the main school building at 2031 Bush St.
Citizenship classes were started in 1952, and by February of 1954, there were 88 students enrolled at the school. Adult classes began in December of that year.
Some 176 students participated in the year-end ceremonies in June of 1960. That year, the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan visited the school.
Today, the school has 43 students, who gathered at the 100th anniversary to sing the school’s official song onstage. Fumiye Maeda and Kevin Shimizu led the group, and made short speeches in Japanese.
Perhaps amongst the most accomplished alumni of the school, Murase, the first Japanese American elected to the San Francisco Board of Education, spoke in both Japanese and English of the school’s impact on her.
“I had fabulous teachers,” said Murase, who presented a proclamation for the school on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee. “It enabled me to do many things in life.”
Murase attended the school from the first to third grade, until her family went to live in Japan for a year.
“I received my foundation at Kinmon,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I learned basic writing (hiragana, katakana, simple kanji).
“Fluency in Japanese changed my life,” Murase said. “I spent my junior year of college studying at Tsuda College in Tokyo. … I eventually earned a first class certification in Japanese from the Japanese Ministry of Education and, after receiving a master’s in international relations at UC San Diego, spent three years working at AT&T Japan and later landed a position in the first Clinton White House where I staffed U.S.-Japan trade negotiations.”
In addition to serving on the San Francisco School Board, Murase is the executive director of the city’s Department on the Status of Women, and in that capacity she often hosts visiting delegations, sometimes from Japan.
Other alumni, like Horikiri, also found the lessons learned at Kinmon to be useful later in life.
“Since my parents do not speak English fluently, having that strong knowledge of Nihongo has helped us not only communicate with them, but also serve as a translator for them especially during doctor’s appointments,” said Horikiri, whose mother Mutsuyo Horikiri served as principal of the school from 1981 to 1993.
“As we Nisei grew up we were required to attend Japanese school after our regular public school,” wrote Stanley Kanzaki in a reminiscence of his time at the school. “I wasn’t too keen on going but it had some future advantages.”
Kanzaki, who traveled across country from New York to attend the 100th anniversary celebration, attended the school from 1937 to 1941. He noted that the school was a historical backdrop in the wartime incarceration of the Japanese American community.
“As a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unjust E.O. 9066,” he stated, “the entire Japantown population were forcibly ordered to appear in front of Kinmon Gakuen on Bush Street to get on the buses for the first step of the illegal incarceration of Japanese Americans into concentration camps.”
Eighty-nine-year-old Mitsuko Kawashiri, of Novato, Calif., was among the oldest alumni in attendance. She attended the school for one year before leaving for Japan at the age of 8.
Teaching the Language
Some former teachers and principals were on hand to recall their time at the Golden Gate Institute.
“We were able to educate many students,” said Sakiko Kanamori, 87, a former teacher and principal who taught from 1960 to 1974.
The school presented Kanamori, the fifth director of the school, and Mutsuyo Horikiri, the 10th director, with plaques of appreciation.
“Children of many different backgrounds were able to study together,” added Mamiko Uchida, another former teacher who started teaching second grade 10 years ago. “It was a wonderful place to be a teacher.”
Foreign Minister’s Commendation
Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata, who presented Kinmon Gakuen with the Foreign Minister’s Commendation on behalf of the government of Japan, reflected upon the beginnings of the school.
“At the time of Kinmon Gakuen’s establishment in 1911, the Japanese immigration to the United States was reaching its peak,” said Inomata. “So, too, was the anti-Japanese sentiment.”
Inomata added that its opening “must have been looked at as a guiding light of hope.”
According to Inomata, some 5,000 graduates have passed through Kinmon Gakuen’s doors, as the institution “continued to play an important role in transmitting language.”
Hiroshi Haruki, the president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, said the Japanese business community appreciates Kinmon Gakuen because it helps to foster better U.S.-Japan relations.
While recalling its past, the Golden Gate Institute also cherished its historic milestone, and the many who have passed through its doors.
“I look around and see many illustrious alumni, and I’m happy that we were able to accomplish so much,” said current Kinmon Gakuen Principal Shizu Mihara, in closing the celebration.
For more information about Kinmon Gakuen, call (415) 567-4383 or visit www.kinmongakuen.org.