S.F. Japantown library boasts largest Japanese language collection in Bay Area

Susanne Sakai. photo by Tomo HIrai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Susanne Sakai. photo by Tomo HIrai/Nichi Bei Weekly

On the outer edge of San Francisco’s Japantown, the unassuming Western Addition Branch of the San Francisco Public Library houses one of the largest collections of Japanese books on the Pacific Coast.

Susanne Sakai, the collection’s librarian at the Western Addition Branch, said that the library has a collection of 26,621 Japanese language books and media within its collection, about 80 percent of which is located in the branch, which is located at 1550 Scott St. between Geary and Post streets.

The collection is the largest of its kind in the San Francisco Bay Area, and features the latest in Japanese literature. Library members can borrow Japanese-language books, CDs and DVDs. The collection takes up about 30 to 40 percent of the branch’s shelves, which serve about 4,000 visitors a week.

While there are other similar collections, such as the Japanese collection in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Little Tokyo Branch, Sakai, a Southern California native who became the collection’s librarian last March, said the collection is the largest and oldest collection in Northern California.

Creating the Collection
The collection owes much of its start to Hiroshi Kashiwagi, the Western Addition’s former branch manager. Kashiwagi spent nearly two decades helping the collection grow throughout his career as a librarian in the city’s public library system.

“I met an assistant city librarian at San Francisco State when my child was going to demonstration (teacher) school there,” he said. The librarian told Kashiwagi of a new Japanese language collection being started at the library, and asked him if he would be interested in managing it.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi. photo by Tomo Hirai

Hiroshi Kashiwagi. photo by Tomo Hirai

Kashiwagi, a Nisei, had earned his undergraduate degree in Japanese at the University of California, Los Angeles and obtained his master’s in library sciences from UC Berkeley after learning of the library’s new position.

“I started in the literature department at the Main Library where I selected books in the Japanese language,” Kashiwagi said. “It was later transferred to the Western Addition Branch to be more accessible to the Japanese American community.” According to Kashiwagi, the collection had 10 books when he started, but it grew to around 4,000 books by the time he left the branch to return to the Main Library in 1970.

When he started in 1966, Kashiwagi said the main trouble he had was purchasing new books. “In 1966, we were getting the books by ship; it was very slow-going,” he said. Acquiring new books became easier once Kinokuniya Bookstore opened in Japantown around the same time the collection was moved to the Western Addition in 1968, Kashiwagi said.

“Even after I left, I’d spend a few hours a week on the collection,” he said. The former librarian, now a distinguished poet, actor and playwright, continued to help make selections and catalogue for the collection until he retired from the library in 1987.

Kashiwagi said the collection’s success was not due to him alone. “There was a librarian, Sonoe Jitodai. For quite a few years, she was responsible for the growth of the collection along with the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library led by Yuko Franklin,” he said.

The collection was never short of patrons, Kashiwagi said. “There were all sorts of people from Japan coming in. Women whose husbands worked in Japanese companies, Shin-Issei war brides, Kibei readers,” he said. “We had people come in from out of town by taking the Greyhound bus because other libraries don’t have a collection.”

Popular Reads
People today still come from all over the region to borrow from the collection.

“We get people from not only San Francisco and the Peninsula, but as far as San Jose and the East Bay,” Sakai said. “You’ll see families from out of town come out to San Francisco’s Japantown for a day trip on weekends.” Sakai said the library allows patrons to check out up to 50 items at a time. While rare, some patrons borrow the maximum number of books allowed in a single visit.

The collection caters to community needs and tends to purchase popular fiction. Sakai said new books are popular. “The newest items are always checked out,” she said. “People put holds on them. Some books have a wait list.” Sakai said a shelf in the library is dedicated to new arrivals, and a binder is updated every month to introduce patrons to new acquisitions.

Sakai acquires books for the collection at the Western Addition and the smaller collections of Japanese-language children’s books at the other branches in the city. The collection primarily focuses on popular fiction, along with other popular titles in health, self-help and graphic novels.

“Adult manga and cookbooks are always out,” she said. “We also have a Japanese mother’s group that comes in, so they check out a lot from the children’s collection.”

Kashiwagi said he also focused on popular reading during his tenure, and typically acquired books mentioned in catalogues, literary magazines and winners of literary awards. Sakai does much the same today to keep the collection fresh. She chooses books by hearing community input, reading Japanese literary magazines and researching popular titles on the Web. While there is a lag in acquiring books, she says people are surprised by how up to date the collection is.

“I had a patron who had just come back from a trip to Japan tell me, ‘If I knew you were going to collect it, we shouldn’t have bought this book!’” she said.

Filling the Shelves
The San Francisco Public Library system budgeted some $52,600 to the Japanese collection this year, of which 80 percent is spent on the Western Addition’s collection, Sakai said. She said funding for new books is adequate and allows her to buy the books she needs for the collection. During the last fiscal year, the library added some 1,400 books to the collection, Sakai said.

The library also gets some books through donations. “Donated books come in all the time,” Sakai said. “What we place on the shelves are limited depending on what’s donated, but it does save us from spending money.”

In the past, Kashiwagi said the Japanese collection never suffered much from lack of funding, either. He said the Friends of the Library hosted book sales that helped supplement funds for the collection. “And when they did cut funds, the collection didn’t suffer, they always cut back on personnel!” he said with a chuckle.

The branch also has a number of books related to the Japanese American experience, as well as the African American experience.

Multicultural Programing
Sakai said the library also hosts numerous programs affiliated with the Japanese and Japanese American community throughout the year. Most recently, the San Francisco Forest Choir, a Nikkei women’s choir, performed at the library Dec. 21.

“We offer a number of programs for the Japanese American community,” Sakai said. The library hosts cultural presentations throughout the year. She said she hopes to continue bringing more programs to the library, such as Kashiwagi’s book reading that the Nichi Bei Foundation organized last November.

Kashiwagi said his goal with the collection was to provide Japanese language books that would interest readers. “I hope that it continues. It’s quite a unique collection. It was the only collection of its kind at one time on the West Coast,” he said.

If Sakai can help it, Kashiwagi’s hopes will be fulfilled. “I want to expand the collection and carry everything that everyone wants,” she said.

For more information about the Japanese language collection, call (415) 355-5727.

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