AN OUTDOOR URBAN GALLERY: The San Jose Japantown mural


“San Jose Taiko” by Curt Fukuda & Lissa Jones, photo by Barbara Hiura

“San Jose Taiko” by Curt Fukuda & Lissa Jones, photo by Barbara Hiura
“San Jose Taiko” by Curt Fukuda & Lissa Jones, photo by Barbara Hiura

SAN JOSE — Described as an “urban gallery,” the artistry, color, and vision of designer/artist Tamiko Rast and a number of local artists shines through the 60 uniquely crafted panels reflecting images of San Jose’s Japantown, both past and present. After two years, the mural project, which is fixed to the city’s Corporation Yard fence stretching one full block on Jackson Street between Sixth and Seventh streets, and halfway down Sixth Street, was unveiled on July 14, amid the community’s Bon Odori. Some 100 people attended the dedication.

The panels covered the unsightly wire-mesh fence and cars parked within the San Jose Corporation Yard and showcase a public art piece built on community consensus, a strong working relationship with the city and Rast’s youthful artistic vision.

“This was truly a labor of love,” remarked Rast, of Rasteroids Design, whose creativity inspired the Japantown Mural Project and helped navigate it through city politics, community interests and the coordination of artists. “It was amazing to see all these interest groups, Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, the Japantown Neighborhood Association, Japantown Business Association, and the office of Cultural Affairs, all coming together. Everyone had a part in it.”

Rewarding Experience
For Rast, the project differed greatly from what she initially expected it to be. “It grew from six artists to 50 in a matter of a month and I am just so proud for all the artists who provided their artwork on such short notice,” she commented. “They were very inspired and they submitted some incredible pieces that are here. It was pretty amazing how everyone pulled together to make this happen.”

The pieces “range from photographs to sculpture to paintings of many color palettes, textures and subjects, so I created a background that would ‘tie’ all the pieces together,” Rast said, referring to the blue background and red knotted cord, that unifies the artwork.

“I think one of the most rewarding things about this is I got to meet so many talented people whose work needs to stay up for a very long time. I hope the site isn’t developed anytime soon,” she quipped. “These people are truly talented. San Jose is pretty underrepresented … artistically and I wanted to give San Francisco and the upper Bay Area a run for their money.”

A Celebration
“We’re gathered to celebrate this mural, and to hear the stories woven together by extraordinary artist/designer Tamiko Rast and the Rast family,” Jerrold Hiura, one of the artists and sponsors, noted. “She put in untold hours on this project and has woven together … views of Japantown spread over 60 panels which showcase their own personal look from an artistic point of view of what Japantown means to them here and now, but also has reference to Heinlenville, the old Chinatown. Chinatown predated the Japantown that exists today in the same location.

“It’s like stepping through a looking glass to see what Tamiko and her friends have given to us as a gift to the community,” Hiura continued.

He invited all of the attendees to take a stroll and appreciate the local talent among the artists.

While there aren’t any specific plans to preserve the panels, if they are “still in decent condition when the site is developed, it is likely that the panels will be donated to nonprofit organizations within the neighborhood,” Rast told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The panels, made of a poly-vinyl material, have a limited lifespan of two to three years with exposure to the elements.

 “Stained Glass” by Tamiko Rast. photo by Barbara Hiura
“Stained Glass” by Tamiko Rast. photo by Barbara Hiura

The Mural: Historical Perspective
“Isn’t this great!” exclaimed Barbara Goldstein, director of the Public Arts Program for the City of San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs. “We see that arts and culture is at the heart of San Jose and how San Jose is going to grow in the future.”

From an outsider’s perspective, this project might not look “complicated,” she stated.

Goldstein added that complexities arise “especially when it comes to any public art piece. What is important in the community is building consensus … with a lot of different voices in the community.”

The Public Arts Program approved and supported the project.

The project began with ideas surrounding community histories, photographs, and stories, Goldstein recalled. “And it slowly morphed into something that I think is actually a lot more exciting and better, which is an urban gallery with artists who have a connection to Japantown and have something to say about Japantown.”

Goldstein praised Rast, who incorporated numerous diverse ideas. She also responded to community concerns and served as the project’s mediator. “As small as it is in budget and size, it is one of the most complicated projects that we’ve done here in the eight years I’ve been in office,” she added.

Lynn Rogers, the senior program officer for the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the project cost $30,000; the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose donated $5,000 of that, and the city “public art funds” funded the remaining amount.

Japantown: A Special Place
San Jose City Councilmember Sam Liccardo described Rast’s effort as being “truly representative of Japantown and the community spirit.”

He hopes, however, that the Corporation Yard will be developed and it will add space for performing arts and businesses. “It’s going to be beautiful,” he remarked. “But, we’re going to preserve these beautiful murals as well, which we will continue to celebrate.”

While there were plans years ago to develop the space, they have since been put on hold, following the economic crisis.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) mentioned that public art pieces can present numerous concerns, especially when the artist is not a part of the community, or lacks an understanding of it. “Sometimes, we think an expert is somebody from some place else. And when we’ve seen this beautiful work, we realize that it’s the richness within us, within our own community that is most special and that we will enjoy the most,” she remarked.

The Real Nihonmachi
Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), another visible presence in Japantown, spoke about the importance of preservation. He applauded San Jose Japantown’s efforts, claiming that its ethnic enclave is “the only real Nihonmachi,” no matter what San Francisco might think. He explained that, “not only does San Jose J-Town have the history and heritage, but they also have residential and commercial business as well as important religious institutions. Those are the places of community that bring people together.”

A “real Nihonmachi,” Honda said, has “an element of commitment to Japantown … and that’s what the next generation brings.

“It is fitting to have the opening of this art show and a reason for being here with the Obon festival. There’s got to be things that bring people to J-Town who want to walk around and be a part of it,” he continued.

“We have become an enclave … that reflects America, but we want to still retain that Nihonmachi flavor,” he added. Much like the Japanese American community today, San Jose’s Japantown is diverse, and includes influences from the Chinese, Filipino, Ethiopian and African American cultures.

Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata was pleased to attend the unveiling. He described the mural as “a wonderful way to liven up the scenery here and also illustrate the aspects of culture and community of Japantown. This brings together the talents of many artists and community members to produce a gift for all of San Jose to enjoy.”

John B. Vasconcellos Jr., former member of the California State Senate and Assembly, helped to seed the Japantown historical preservation movement. “I helped get funding for Japantown restoration some 15 years ago and I’m proud of that,” he quipped. “I hope the mural will inspire Japantown for generations to come.”

Hiura concluded the dedication ceremony with future plans in the offing. “There’s plenty of fence space left, so there will be several more rounds of mural projects,” he surmised.

Each panel has a QR code, which smart phones can read. These codes go directly to the Japantown Mural Project Website and describe the panel, provide information on the artist who created the piece, biographical information as well as the inspiration behind the rendering, all while one is viewing the artwork.

For more information, visit the Japantown Mural Project Website,

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