School’s in session in S.F.’s Japantown


BUILDING A FUTURE IS NOT CHILD’S PLAY — Nihonmachi Little Friends celebrated their new building’s opening May 19. At left is their new classroom. At right is the rooftop play area. photos by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

BUILDING A FUTURE IS NOT CHILD’S PLAY — Nihonmachi Little Friends celebrated their new building’s opening May 19. At left is their new classroom. At right is the rooftop play area. photos by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Following some five years of planning, fundraising and construction, Nihonmachi Little Friends opened its doors to its new Sutter Street building May 19 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by several dozen of those involved with the preschool.

Founded in 1975 to provide community-based Japanese bilingual and multicultural childcare, the preschool located in San Francisco’s Japantown plans to use its new building, formerly the school’s playground lot, as a replacement for the preschool classroom the organization currently rents from Kinmon Gakuen, which is located around the block on Bush Street. While the school had operated out of the historic Bush Street building since 1977, it was asked to vacate several years ago.

Cathy Inamasu, executive director of NLF, had been trying to find a suitable replacement, but could not find an existing location that would fit their needs.

“We wanted to stay in the area, but you need to have outdoor space for childcare programs to be licensed by the state,” Inamasu said. When the school could not find a suitable location, Inamasu said she began asking if a rooftop playground could be developed. “We looked at the playground lot and we asked, ‘hmm, how many children can we fit here?’”

Following a study of other rooftop playgrounds and a solicitation for proposals, NLF settled on a proposal by HKIT Architects of Oakland, Calif. to build an annex next to their current headquarters. The new location expands the program’s maximum capacity from 80 students to 91 and began holding classes May 22.

The new building’s construction was no easy feat, especially given the historic significance of the existing building. The Japanese YWCA was built in 1921 and designed by California’s first female architect, Julia Morgan. The former YWCA building was initially financed and built by Issei women, who were not allowed to own property and had the YWCA hold it “in trust.” Nihonmachi Little Friends moved into the building in 1985 as a tenant. When the YWCA tried to sell the building in 1996, the Soko Bukai, a consortium of San Francisco Japantown’s Christian churches, sued to keep the building within the Japanese American community. The settlement between the YWCA and Soko Bukai resulted in Nihonmachi Little Friends becoming the new stewards of the building in 2002.

Tad Sekino, senior architect at HKIT, said his firm, Nihonmachi Little Friends and the City of San Francisco spent a considerable amount of time working together to ensure the new building did not compromise the historic integrity of what is now the Issei Women’s Building, all while making the old historical building ADA accessible with the installation of an elevator bank in the new annex.

“This is a Julia Morgan building next door, so we had to be very careful about (not) damaging or designing to alter anything there,” he said. The new building’s design is simpler, so as not to overpower either the neighboring Issei Women’s Building or the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California next door. “To try to keep the two buildings from having their identity threatened, we made this building a lot more simple on the front facade. It now ties together both buildings,” Sekino said.

Inside, the walls are painted white and several parents and board members described the interior as “peaceful.” Kaz Naganuma, a graphic designer who is working with the school, commended the new building’s use of light colors in its interior.

“You don’t need anything gasa gasa, because the whole point is, the kids are the energy, they have the bright clothes, they have all the noise, all the things that kids are all about,” he said. Naganuma said he will meet with the staff to work on how to decorate the new classroom in the coming weeks.

While considerable planning, fundraising and time was required for the new building, members of the school’s leadership said the investment was well worth it.

“It’s an exciting idea that we can actually own our own property and have control,” Inamasu said. “It gives us permanence, and the board felt that this is a direction we should go because we want to be here for generations to come. It helps build the Japantown community because it brings families here; we really feel we are an integral part of the community.”

“Cathy put the idea on the table, and I think none of us had fathomed the thought, but as soon as people said it, it was very easy for all of us to jump on board and go with it,” said NLF board member Joyce Oishi. She said the preschool being able to complete the construction was “remarkable,” especially during a construction boom in San Francisco. She added that supporting the school was an easy choice, even if her children are already college age. “NLF is a very easy choice to invest time and talent because the recipient of everyone’s good will are those wonderful little kids.”

With the construction done, NLF now turns its focus to fundraising to pay off the construction loan. Inamasu said they have raised more than $2 million since launching the Plant a Seed Capital Campaign in early 2012, which aimed to raise $3.5 million. Many of the individual donations came from former students’ parents.

Board Chair Adrienne Shiozaki Woo said she has seen the program grow in the 20 years she has sat on the board of directors.

“It’s a community program. When your kids are in preschool, … connecting with other kids in the program, you become a family. You keep in touch even after you’re out of preschool,” she said. She said her son, who attended Little Friends in the early 1990s, still hangs out with a handful of friends from preschool.

Shiozaki Woo has been on the board since the mid-1990s, through the YWCA lawsuit and the first capital campaign to retire the mortgage in 2005. With the completion of the new annex, she said it might be time to pass on the reigns. “Maybe I’ll step off the board now and focus on the (capital) campaign,” she said. “All the handwork is done and ready for the next generation to step in; the program is in very good hands.”

Nihonmachi Little Friends plans to hold an open house for the public Saturday, July 8 from 1 to 3 p.m. The preschool will conduct tours of its new facilities and provide light refreshments. For more information, visit

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