S.F.’s Japantown shows support for Black lives through art and education

A new Nikkei community group formed to support the Black Lives Matter movement held an event June 20 in San Francisco’s Japantown in celebration of Juneteenth.

Tsuru for Solidarity joined the Japantown for Justice event to fold giant cranes in support of Black Lives Matter. photo by David Toshiyuki

Organized by a group of young Japanese Americans and supporters calling themselves Japantown for Justice, the event focused on education and arts and proclaimed Nikkei allyship with the Black community just south of the ethnic enclave in the Fillmore District.

“So in our work, we want to make sure we’re uplifting the demands of Black leaders,” Yuka Walton, one of the group’s head organizers, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Walton said Japantown for Justice is focusing on three goals in solidarity with African Americans: to defund the police, to invest in Black communities and to call for President Donald Trump’s resignation. She said Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla., which was held June 20, was an “atrocious act” she considered “a form of racial terrorism.”

As San Francisco Mayor London Breed had declared her intent to scale back the police’s role in the city, Walton said Japantown for Justice’s role may focus more on the second demand to invest in Black communities. “We have a Black community right next door to us, and we want to make sure that we’re connecting our larger community to the demands that they’re having in terms of investing in their educational programming and investing in their arts and cultural centers, investing in programs that support individual’s health and well-being.”

Walton said the group of 15 or so organizers originally intended to host a protest in solidarity with Black people. However, the group ultimately created an arts-focused, family-friendly educational event after discussing their plans with Shakirah Simley, director of the Office of Racial Equity for the City and County of San Francisco. The program invited attendees to paint a banner proclaiming Japantown’s support for its neighboring Fillmore District, and also invited attendees to create Black Lives Matter posters to take home, along with a Juneteenth Zine.

Japantown for Justice event participants painted banners supporting the Fillmore District.
photos by David Toshiyuki

Juneteenth — a commemoration of the end of slavery following the end of the Civil War held June 19 each year — came to national prominence this year in light of the ongoing protests against police brutality across the nation. According to the Bay City News, San Francisco City Supervisors Shamann Walton and Dean Preston are also considering commemorating the date as a city holiday.

According to Miya Sommers, another organizer of the event, the program aimed to reach the ethnic enclave’s visitors who otherwise may not have been engaged with Juneteenth activities or the movement for Black lives.

“So we’re hoping to use art as the medium to get people to start thinking about these questions, and really connect them both with the history of Japantown and the history of the Fillmore,” Sommers said. “Education is just such a key point to getting people to talk about this, that’s why we chose our first event to be educational, knowing that it’s a responsibility for non-Black people to be educating other non-Black people around issues around anti-Blackness and violence.”

Eryn Kimura, a local artist, served as the event’s emcee. Kimura presented stories promoting the art projects the program highlighted, including a short historical introduction to both Juneteenth and the redevelopment of the Western Addition, which began in the 1950s. The process bisected the Japantown and Fillmore neighborhoods with the Geary Boulevard thoroughfare. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency forced Black and Japanese American merchants and residents out of the communities, promising — to no avail — that they could return after the project was finished.

CALLING TO RECONNECT ­— Eryn Kimura emcees the Japantown for Justice event. photo by David Toshiyuki

Kimura said she joined the organizing effort to seek a more inclusive Japantown.

“This is a very diverse community, but are we inclusive?” Kimura told the Nichi Bei Weekly. Having grown up in Japantown, she said she wants to see a more pronounced demonstration of solidarity from Japantown for their Black neighbors.

Walton said the group helped the African American Art & Culture Complex re-paint a Black Lives Matter mural on Fulton Street the day before. She stressed that her group hopes to be more than a performative ally to the Black community by remaining invested in their relationship in the future.

Walton noted the organizers in the Fillmore are also young like the Japantown for Justice organizers and said they hope to continue working together.

“I think that both of our communities have been focusing on issues within our own communities, but we can also prioritize this relationship that’s building between our two communities,” she said. “We’re not here to just have relationships for a day or a week, we’re long term leaders for both of our communities. We plan on being leaders for several more decades. So we’re really looking forward to prioritizing this relationship between our two communities as we work and move forward.”

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