THE HEART OF KANJI: (Nihon Machi Hyaku Jyu Nen) 110th year of San Francisco’s Japantown


Nihon Machi Hyaku Jyu Nen. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu
Nihon Machi Hyaku Jyu Nen. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

日 (ni, hi, nichi) means sun or day. This character is from the shape of the sun. 本 (hon, moto) means origin or book. This character is from the shape of a tree and its roots. Together, this character is Nihon or Japan. 町 (machi) means town. This character indicates two parts. The left side is a rice field and the right side is the drip that overflows from a cup. Together, a large field is divided into many smaller fields by lines. It is also divided by many streets. 百 (hyaku) means 100. This character represents a shape of a nose that breathes in air many times. 十 (ju, ten) means the number 10. This character represents 10 sticks tied up with a string. 年 (nen, toshi) means year. This character indicates two parts. The top is the shape of a rice plant and the bottom is a person bending and cutting the plant and harvesting rice. It takes one year to complete the cycle.

In 2016, we will celebrate the 110th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown. I would like to express my wholehearted congratulations on San Francisco Japantown’s 110th birthday. Forty-five years ago, I left Japan and arrived in San Francisco’s Japantown on Dec. 1, 1971. Since I arrived here, Japantown has changed so much. Back then, the Konko Church of San Francisco had not yet been built. The 1909 Bush St. site was just flat dirt ground. Many other stores and businesses also had not yet been built. Around that time, many of the old buildings between Post and Bush streets were torn down or moved to another location. Many people in the community had to find a new place to live and many could not stay in Japantown.

I personally witnessed the building of the Konko Church on Laguna Street. Many details and hard work and effort went into completing this building. I can just imagine all the work it took many people to build the buildings that now stand proudly in our San Francisco’s Japantown. Although many of these people responsible for the creation of these buildings and establishments have passed on, their legacy remains. Their sweat and tears and stories are passed on to future generations.

In 1973, I was transferred to the Konko Mission of Waipahu in Hawai‘i. Then in 1980, I moved to Sacramento, Calif. Two years passed and in 1982, I returned to San Francisco.

Since then, I have been living in Japantown for more than 30 years. It’s hard to imagine that Japantown was once more than 30 blocks. Currently, Japantown consists of four or five blocks. I do not know what will happen in the future. One hundred years from now, what will Japantown look like? Will the Cherry blossom festival and parade still be what it is today? My hope is that we will be able to keep the rich Japanese culture for this community and country in the future. At 240 years old, America is still a relatively a young country compared to other countries. Therefore, American people still have an opportunity to learn and share world cultures with others. Since I came from Japan, I feel strongly that I have an obligation to share Japanese culture with local people. I try to teach Japanese calligraphy (shodo) and mixed martial arts. As a minister of the Konko religion, I also try to share the spirit of Japan and teach people about spirituality with people who live in this country. Many of the people that I come in contact with are very much interested in Japanese culture, history and art.

A few weeks ago, San Francisco’s Japantown held a ceremony called “Light up Japantown.” It was started by the Japantown Task Force to bring hope and peace to our community and to light up Japantown this holiday season. On that evening, some of the lights on the Peace Plaza did not turn on. Only the blue lights in the Pagoda and the lit up trees illuminated the area. The ceremony might have been cancelled. However, we still held the event, peacefully and joyfully surrounded by the beautifully lit blue light of the Peace Pagoda and the wonderful prayers, songs, dance and music from the clergy and performers. We also were honored to have Board of Supervisors President London Breed speak about how proud she was to have grown up in this neighborhood. We realized that evening that it is each one of us who brings the light to Japantown and our community. The light of each of our community members and leaders is going to bring continued sharing of our culture and our history, and that is what will keep Japantown alive. As we celebrate the 110th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown, let us continue handing down this special spirit and light to our future generations. Let us continue to pray for San Francisco’s Japantown and work harmoniously together so that this community can thrive and grow now and always.

Rev. Masato Kawahatsu is a minister at the Konko Church of San Francisco and Konko Center of South San Francisco, who teaches shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and martial arts. He also gives spiritual counseling and is the author of “An Eternal Journey.” He can be reached at or (415) 517-5563. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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