In the midst of the global pandemic, waiting game continues for Bay Area J-Towns

Two historic ethnic enclaves in the Greater Bay Area are among the communities that began May having learned that they must endure another month of shelter-in-place amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Since temporarily shuttering most businesses March 17, only a few essential businesses, mostly restaurants, continue to operate in San Francisco and San Jose’s Japantowns as most of their businesses and nonprofits remain closed.

SHUTTERED AND ADAPTING BUSINESSES ­— San Francisco Japantown businesses such as the Hotel Buchanan (L) have boarded up their windows and doors since temporarily closing in light of the shelter-in-place orders. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly,

Business Owners Attempt to Hang On
“There’s no one walking around. It’s dead,” Ricky Okamura, co-owner of Benkyodo Co. in San Francisco’s Japantown, told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone. The 100-plus-year-old confectioner temporarily closed after the shelter-in-place orders were issued.

Although the business could have continued to operate as an “essential business,” Okamura said he decided to close because there were no customers. With local residents instructed to stay home except to buy essentials and the city’s tourism industry tanked by the pandemic, San Francisco’s Japantown is seeing only a fraction of its regular foot traffic.
What normally would have been a busy month with the annual cherry blossom festival, only 30 or so businesses among the more than 250 were listed as “open” in the daily updates published by the Japan Center Malls.

Likewise, in San Jose’s Japantown, only about two dozen businesses are listed as “open” by the Japantown Business Association among the more than 120 entities. The neighborhood would have hosted its annual Nikkei Matsuri April 26.

San Jose Japantown’s Santo Market (C) has adapted its business by only accpeting grocery orders through their take-out window.
photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

“I think we just have to bear it for now,” Shiro Kubota, owner of Gombei in San Jose’s Japantown, told the Nichi Bei Weekly in Japanese. “I’m sure it’s even more difficult for people who need to pay rent.”

Kubota, who once owned several restaurants along with Gombei, said he was shuttering his eponymous Kubota restaurant and focusing on Gombei for now. Citing his advanced age and that he was lucky enough to find a buyer for Kubota, the restaurateur said he did not think it would be worthwhile to keep both of his Japantown locations. Even still, he said Gombei only saw about a quarter of the customers it normally would.

“Everyone in Japantown is doing their best to support each other,” Kubota said. “We need to hang in there and stay healthy.”

Still, some business owners have already fallen victim to the stalled economy. The Japantown Business Association, on its Facebook page, posted April 27 that longtime mainstay Banana Crepe in San Jose would permanently close May 2. According to NBC Bay Area, Martie Suzuki, the business’ owner, had been looking to sell the shave ice and crepe shop, but the pandemic dried up any potential buyers.

Community members gathered to drive by the business to say farewell to Suzuki on his last day. Suzuki did not respond to inquiries at press time.
Still others have managed to stay busy during the pandemic. Okamura noted that, while San Francisco’s Japantown remains relatively deserted, there are lines out the door for Nijiya Market.

Similarly, Mark Santo, owner of Santo Market in San Jose, said customers continue to shop for basic groceries even after he closed the store’s interior to customers. He now takes orders from a side window in the building. “It was that or shut completely because we were not going to interact with the general public,” Santo said.

Nonprofits Continue to Operate
The two Japantowns also are home to a number of nonprofits serving the region’s Japanese American community. While senior service organizations Kimochi, Inc. and Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service remain open to provide services, especially their meal programs for seniors, their in-person programs and events have been canceled. Both organizations have converted their congregate lunch programs to be pick-up only and have bolstered their in-home delivery services. Although remaining active, these organizations still feel the fiscal impact of the shelter-in-place orders.

Steve Ishii, executive director of Kimochi, said many of his organization’s fundraisers were social, including the annual basketball and golf tournaments. The teriyaki burger booth at the recently-canceled cherry blossom festival accounted for what would have been 20 percent of the organization’s annual fundraising.

Jennifer Masuda, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai,had canceled the organization’s golf tournament and postponed its annual Nihonmachi Run. Meanwhile, Masuda said she had closed her organization’s senior center, which normally generates revenue through rental fees and programs.
The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco may lose 95 percent of its income,said Paul Osaki, its executive director. The organization generates its revenue through program fees, memberships, rental fees and fundraisers, which all have suffered since the pandemic closed the center.

Yu-Ai Kai volunteer Darrell Asing (R) delivers meals for the San Jose Japantown nonprofit, with mask and gloves.
photo by June Tanaka/Nichi Bei Weekly

“A community center involves people interacting with people. And so when that can’t happen, it changes everything for us,” Osaki said. While Osaki said his community center can’t fundamentally function with the social distancing rules in place, the organization has attempted to instill a sense of community over social media during its closure.

“We always knew that at some point we would have to tap into this virtual Japanese American community and that we would need to really start focusing on coming up with different programs and activities,” Osaki said of the increasingly spread out Japanese

American community in the region. “In some way (the pandemic has) just given us a test case, to see what we can do and how best to outreach to our members and program participants.”

Cathy Inamasu, executive director of neighboring Nihonmachi Little Friends, said her teachers at the preschool are doing their best to work with children remotely.

“(The staff have) been trying to support each other too, especially working with the kids, especially the little ones on Zoom. It’s a totally different type of work with the kids. At this age, this young age, they really need to be touching and doing things and it’s a little more difficult doing it virtually,” Inamasu said.

In San Jose, Wisa Uemura, executive director of San Jose Taiko, said the organization has lost about $50,000 in revenue to date. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly that figure could double as the organization tries to survive the summer. The organization has moved its classes online, but its concerts and performances have all been canceled like many performance groups.

“Essentially, we’re being told by our booking managers, and entire touring presenting field, that that model is in danger,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jim Nagareda contemplated how the Japanese American Museum of San Jose would reopen after shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

“I think we’re kind of waiting also to hear what the directives will be from the county,” said Nagareda, the organization’s executive director. “I think for sure, we’ll have hand sanitizers and things like that, but we don’t know if, like all the volunteers have to wear face masks or gloves. … I feel like when we first open that we will not have docents, because we want to protect them from that contact, since most of them are elderly.”

Looking Toward Reopening
Though not permanently closed, many businesses, such as Nagareda’s co-owned Nikkei Traditions, face considerable challenges even if the state and counties permit them to reopen.

“We think that we’re only going to be open a few days a week, and maybe not even the full day until everything kind of works its way out,” he said.

“We think that people are still going to be scared for a while to go out shopping and things like that. So, we assume that even after we open …, it’s going to be slow for another month or two.”

Nagareda also said he’s worried about rent. “Luckily, our landlord was very generous, and he offered to charge us half rent through this month,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll extend that one more month, but we still have to pay that. … There still are expenses that we have to meet, and it’s going to take us easily a year … probably two years to recuperate.”

Nagareda, along with other business owners, said their suppliers have been impacted by the economic shutdown. He noted he carries product from other independent vendors, such as Brandt Fuse’s Sumo Fish, whom he cannot accept new inventory from while the store is closed.

Some businesses have moved their products and services online. Linda Mihara, owner of Paper Tree in San Francisco, said she had to layoff her retail staff, and is now working with one other salaried employee to fill online orders three days a week. She said the upshot in online orders for origami has prevented her from going into the red. Jeannette Rapaido of The Get Down in San Jose said her dance studio’s transition to online classes has gone “surprisingly pretty well.” She said she and the other instructors have tried to stay positive, knowing that “what we do kind of helps bring up spirit for people that are staying at home.”

Although most businesses understood the importance of adhering to the shelter-in-place orders, some wished for the orders to be lifted soon. “It’s a lot slower, because we don’t have any tourists,” said Phil Ashizawa, owner of Soko Hardware in San Francisco, which has remained open.

Revitalizing the economy, however, may not be as simple as lifting the orders. Okamura said he is debating whether to keep his diner counter closed.

Others, such as Smiley Kai of Ukulele Source in San Jose, are doubtful of the demand for their products in the coming months. “I realized it’s been a hardship on a lot of people and ‘ukulele isn’t something that you absolutely have to have,” he said.

The Road to Recovery
Professor Martha Olney, an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley, said the post shelter-in-place economy will depend on whether businesses are able to implement social distancing rules until the majority of Americans can get vaccinated from the virus. Although some have compared the economic fallout from the pandemic to rival the 2008 Great Recession and the 1930s Great Depression, Olney cautioned the economy’s recovery from the pandemic will be based on entirely different factors.

“So the difference is going to be that, usually when we’re talking about a recovery, we talk about whether goods are necessities or not, how does the pattern of demand re-arise in each of those kinds of industries? Now we’re gonna be talking about ‘is this an industry in which social distancing is feasible, impossible, feasible but difficult.’ And that’s really going to determine the pattern of recovery.”

Olney expects certain industries, including the restaurant and tourism industries, to continue to face hardship even after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

Japantown Asks for Help
Aside from new online venues to garner sales or donors, both businesses and nonprofits in the two Japantowns have applied to various grants and loans made available because of the pandemic. Ishii said his organization pursued donations for hand sanitizers and masks for his employees.

Although most of the 16 entities Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed said they had attempted to apply for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loan, which would provide businesses a loan that would later be forgiven if the bulk of the funds are used for payroll, only three said they had received it from their banks. While Inamasu and Ashizawa declined to say how much they received, Osaki said the community center secured $140,000 through the program. Representatives from both Japantowns said several businesses and nonprofits did receive the PPP loans aside from what the Nichi Bei Weekly could independently confirm.

Meanwhile, many of the other business owners and nonprofit heads said they were still hoping to hear back from their banks on the second round of funding. They expressed their frustration with the handling of the fund, which initially awarded millions to larger entities such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Harvard University.

“It’s been very very frustrating. I’m sure a lot of other people are experiencing the same thing and it’s been very stressful and nerve wracking because I think for a lot of … small businesses are relying, and hoping that they will be granted these funds… to keep their doors open,” Masuda of Yu-Ai Kai said. “From a personal point of view, I think it’s sad. I get upset when I do see these million-dollar companies getting funds when it’s really nonprofits, small business owners, who could really benefit.

These businesses aren’t asking for millions of dollars. They’re asking for, maybe $100,000. And it could be spread around and create a greater impact.”

Ultimately, San Francisco and San Jose’s Japantowns must continue to bear the impacts of the pandemic for the months to come. Acknowledging the neighborhoods’ older community members, business owners expressed their wishes for the communities to remain safe until things go back to “normal.”

“It’s going to be really different, I mean people talk about a new normal. Well, I’m hoping this is not going to be a new normal,” Osaki said. “Once we figured this out, and we have a vaccine, (I hope) that things will go back to what it used to be like and people won’t mind being in large events or confined in rooms, taking classes or coming in contact with with people, or giving hugs and being able to laugh without having a mask over your mouth.”

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