Efforts to support S.F.’s Japantown underway


San Francisco Japantown community leaders gathered May 27 for an online town hall meeting via the Zoom video chat application. Several organizations outlined their efforts to help Japantown through grants and programs designed to either aid small businesses and nonprofits, or attract customers to the ethnic enclave once shelter-in-place restrictions are relaxed.

“A lot of people were doing things independent of each other and so several of the groups in Japantown came together to try to organize a single campaign to find different ways where we can support the different members of our community,” Jon Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council, said.

Grace Horikiri, executive director of the Japantown Community Benefit District, reported on the status of businesses in Japantown’s commercial corridor. Horikiri, who had been checking in with Japantown’s merchants on a near-daily basis with Greg Viloria, the Japan Center Malls’ director of community affairs and marketing, said Japantown initially had 17 of 185 businesses remain open when the March 16 shelter-in-place orders closed all but essential businesses. Horikiri estimated that 49 businesses are currently open.

“Now with the whole reopening of restaurants in the coming months, we need to make sure that the restaurants are prepared to open, and that means putting together a resource or checklist of what is required,” Horikiri said.

Grants for Japantown
Steve Nakajo, executive director of the Japantown Task Force, shared how his organization developed a mini-grant for Japantown’s businesses. Using a $25,000 grant for the ongoing formation efforts of the Japantown Cultural Heritage District, Nakajo said his organization worked with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to create a series of mini-grants that will award a maximum of $1,000 per business based on criteria set by the city and the Task Force. The JTF subsequently announced 21 grantees June 3.

“Realizing that 25,000 can’t go far, our thinking was that we wanted to have some immediate relief,” Nakajo said. “We are trying to have the checks distributed out of our fiscal (sponsor) to the small merchants and business owners by hopefully the third week of June …”

Osaki shared how Japantown organizations plan to distribute funds through two campaigns entitled “The Heart of Japantown.” The San Francisco Japantown Foundation will channel its annual fundraising proceeds to aid Japantown amid the pandemic. Osaki said the organization has made an initial commitment of matching $100,000 under “The Heart of Japantown COVID-19 Community Fund.” The campaign is slated to run through the end of July.

In conjunction with the Japantown Foundation, the Benefit District also began collecting funds for “the Heart of Japantown Resiliency Fund,” hoping to also raise $500,000 to aid small businesses in the neighborhood. Melissa Bailey, the Benefit District’s administrative assistant, said the figure would pay for one full-time employee working a month at minimum wage for 185 businesses.

“We’re looking to fund payroll, rent and utility costs, as well as the purchasing of PPE supplies for small businesses to ensure required social distancing protocols once they reopen,” Bailey said.

Business Stimulus Efforts
Meanwhile, The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation announced it will present $600,000 to benefit both retail and nonprofit entities in the ethnic enclave. The funds, granted to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, will be used in two “separate, but integrated parts to support Japantown,” according to Diane Matsuda, representing the charitable foundation.

Paul Osaki, executive director of the center, said his organization will buy gift certificates from local businesses to distribute to nonprofit entities to use as they desire for fundraising. Osaki also plans to work with the Japantown Merchants Association to set up “Picnic in the Plaza,” an outdoor dining space on the Peace Plaza to supplement the limited dining space restaurants will have once they reopen for dine-in business.

Citing Yori Wada, one of the center’s founders, Paul Osaki said the center is mandated “‘to meet the most pressing needs of the Japanese American community,’ and certainly, this is one of those times.”

Although nonprofit organizations cannot directly give funds to for-profit entities, Paul Osaki said they will use the money to purchase “goods and services” from local retailers. The gift certificates will then be passed on to nonprofits or given to first responders and other essential workers as thanks.

“We’re going to commit about half a million dollars toward purchasing gift certificates from several businesses,” Osaki said. “We can’t help everyone, but what we want to do is give a significant amount to those we can support so that it makes a difference, it makes an impact, in helping them pay for rent or some of the other things that people have mentioned.”

For Picnic in the Plaza, the center and the Merchants Association would set up properly spaced out tables behind a sequestered section of the Japantown Peace Plaza to seat around 100 people.

Osaki added that visitors may eat in the space on weekends from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and that the center would provide cultural entertainment while they operate.

Osaki likened the plan to a food court. The free seating area would be overseen by wait staff — hired by the center — who will seat guests and disinfect eating areas. Matsuda said they hope to start the program in mid-June and have it run through at least the end of August. The seating area would also offer hand-washing stations and a bar selling sake, Japanese beer and Ito-En Tea.

“We want to keep people in Japantown, and hopefully there will be economic impact to the other retail business in Japantown,” Paul Osaki said.

Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, said the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department supports the outdoor eating space concept. Should the program succeed, Hashimoto said he hopes to expand up the street to serve some of the Buchanan Mall restaurants.

Hashimoto said the merchants association plans to bring back the “gara gara wheel,” an attraction the association discontinued approximately 12 years ago. Shoppers in Japantown would receive tickets for every $10 spent at participating merchants, and be able to spin a raffle wheel once for every $50 spent.

The wheel, named for the sound it makes when turning, is filled with marbles of different colors that denote which prize a spinner wins after each spin.

Peace Plaza Renovation
Jon Osaki, who is also a committee co-chair of the Japantown Task Force’s Peace Plaza Committee, said the $25 million renovation of the Peace Plaza may be slated as part of the city’s $438.5 million Health and Recovery Bond.

Once the city’s Board of Supervisors vote on the bond’s contents in June, the bond will go to San Francisco voters in November. Osaki said this bond could be a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to renovate the plaza.

Audience Participation
Attendees expressed concerns over whether businesses and the malls would be able to safely monitor its customers and minimize the dangers of spreading the coronavirus. Others asked how organizers would arrange for security for the Picnic in the Plaza plan. While the Japan Center Malls’ security would be kept abreast on the outdoor seating plans, some health concerns remained for even the organizers as they await clearer directives from the city’s Department of Public Health.

Attendees also shared how various organizations were continuing to operate amid the shelter-in-place rules.

“Different groups are starting to get back to at least some of their core functions, but it’s still very limited,” Jon Osaki said. “There is still not a lot going on and, frankly, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what people can do with the amount of space that they have available.”

Matsuda also spoke on behalf of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach as one of its attorneys. The nonprofit legal organization will offer legal help to small businesses, nonprofits and individuals in Japantown for any legal problems.

“It could be about any concerns that you have, whether they’re legal or maybe about a procedure that you’ve been asked to follow,” Matsuda said.

“I also want to just say that, during this shelter-in-place time, there are many reports of domestic violence and elder abuse, so if you have any concerns about any of your neighbors or somebody that you feel may be subject to this type of abuse, also feel free to give us a call.”

“I think there has been some remarkable innovative ideas that have popped up in a very short amount of time,” Jon Osaki said. “I can’t say enough about all the groups and individuals who have to really rally … to formulate responses to this crisis.”

For more information, visit https://www.theheartofjtown.org.

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