S.F. J-Town mural team narrows down nominees for depiction amid criticisms

As the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League works to further its plans for a mural commemorating the history of the city’s Japantown, community members gathered for the fourth installment in a series of meetings. The latest community meeting, focusing on the selection process of notable figures from the ethnic enclave to be depicted on the wall, attracted concerns over bias and transparency.

Attendees of the November and December community meetings discussed the San Francisco JACL’s plan to donate a mural featuring several notable figures from the ethnic enclave’s 117-year history in the city to be painted on a wall facing Geary Boulevard outside the Peace Plaza. Following the chapter’s call for nominations in early December that remained open through the month, the selection committee announced during the Jan. 12 meeting which of the 27 nominees from the original 70 would remain under consideration.

The selection committee, headed by Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation and editor-in-chief of Nichi Bei News, and Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society, discussed and named the 27 semi-finalists at the end of the meeting. The four-person committee also includes San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Professor Emeritus Ben Kobashigawa and Darcy Nishi, a Sacramento native and Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai performer.

Kobashigawa said the 27 nominees represent those “who established or built Japantown, and who made significant contributions to its continuation,” or “ha(ve) advanced diverse stories through education, the arts and culture. Or, … a person who has played a leadership role in social justice and civil rights issues.” Additionally, the selection committee stipulated a nominee must no longer be living to be considered.

The process, however, came under fire when multiple attendees questioned whether it was transparent. They also criticized the nomination list for not being comprehensive. Patty Wada, Northern California/Western Nevada/Pacific regional director of the National JACL, said the mural might become “divisive and hurtful.”

“This becomes really political, and it’s — a lot of times — who you know,” Wada said.

Wada said a conflict of interest could exist if Taguma and Tonai prefer their own nominations over others. Taguma said that while he had nominated several people, others had also nominated many of the same.

Kobashigawa, meanwhile, asked attendees to trust the selection committee’s professional qualifications. He stressed Tonai’s leadership of the historical society and Taguma’s access to newspaper records as institutional knowledge, along with his own academic expertise in immigration period history. “I didn’t nominate anybody, but there’s still a question of bias, … because I know some of these people more than others,” Kobashigawa said. “That’s going to be true for any selection committee. So I think background may be more important, and some element of trust and fairness.”

Emily Murase, a board member of the JACL chapter, noted that the system is imperfect. Despite organizers having issued calls for nominations, she said some names are missing because people did not nominate them in the first place. While Murase said the selection committee would move forward with the pool of 70 names community members submitted during the nomination period, she said the JACL chapter may open up a second round of nominations to collect additional names for future projects.

Mary Ishisaki, speaking as a member of the JACL chapter, questioned why the organization’s membership was not notified about the plan and requested to see a detailed budget. The San Francisco JACL chapter board voted to dedicate $100,000 to pay for the project in June of 2022, using funds from the estates of Yo Hironaka, Frank Minami and Greg Marutani. Chapter President Judy Hamaguchi estimated in December the total cost may be around $250,000. Murase said board meetings are open for chapter members to attend, but admitted the chapter could do a better job notifying its membership about them.

She added that the chapter had posted about the mural on Facebook and other venues while the Japantown Task Force disseminated the information to their mailing list.

The selection committee will hear further public comment and narrow down the list of candidates to eight or so people at the Jan. 30 meeting. The JACL chapter board will then vote on the final slate. In addition to posting additional details on the discussions about the nominations, Hamaguchi said the chapter will publish its project proposal and budget, along with the list of 27 semi-finalists on their Website at www.sfjacl.org Friday, Jan. 20.

The San Francisco JACL will hold a meeting Jan 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown to discuss the nomination finalists. For more information, e-mail sfjacl@yahoo.com or visit https://www.sfjacl.org.

 

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Semifinal list of notables

The committee forwarded this list for the San Francisco JACL board’s consideration. They will reduce it to a smaller number (8 or so) by the end of the Jan. 30 meeting.
Kyutaro Abiko — newspaper publisher and labor contractor, colony builder and community leader
Yona Abiko — Chief fundraiser for Japanese YWCA; Started Nisei Kengakudan program to educate Nisei in Japan; female publisher of Nichi Bei Shimbun
Shichinosuke Asano — Issei who led efforts for postwar relief to Japan; founder of postwar Nichi Bei Times which helped to reconnect community after war
George Togasaki — Nisei Rotary International leader, and Japanese American school representation champion
Archbishop Nitten Ishida — Issei founding president of Japanese American Religious Federation who led the establishment of Hinode Tower/Nihonmachi Terrace
Hisako Hibi — Issei painter and printmaker
Yoshiye Togasaki — Issei doctor, medical philanthropist, humanitarian
James Wakasa — Issei SF restaurateur; LGBTQ; murdered in Topaz concentration camp
Jimbo Edwards — Black philanthropist / jazz club owner
Edison Uno — Outspoken Nisei civil rights advocate
Clifford Uyeda — Nisei community and human rights activist; former National JACL president
Ruth Asawa — Pioneering Nisei sculptor, artist/educator
James Hirabayashi — Nisei founding dean of the San Francisco State University College of Ethnic Studies
Hiroshi Kashiwagi — Nisei poet, playwright, memoirist, actor and activist
Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima — Nisei activist with National Coalition of Redress & Reparations
Toshi Koba — Long-time Nisei staff member at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center
Janice Mirikitani — Sansei leader of Glide Foundation; poet laureate of San Francisco
Kathleen “Kay” and Takeo Okamoto — Realtor at T. Okamoto & Co. and Nisei community organization leaders
Michi Onuma — Nisei community advocate and journalist
Wayne Osaki — Nisei architect and philanthropist
Thomatra Scott — Black leader bridging Japantown and Western Addition
Yori Wada — Nisei executive director of the Buchanan YMCA who built bridges with the Black community; first Asian American University of California regent
Helen Cooke Jones — Black woman leader active in J-Town, Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions (CANE)
Wes Senzaki — Sansei artist, core member of Japantown Art & Media; active with CANE, social justice movements
Tomoye and Henri Takahashi — Nisei major community philanthropists
Jeff Adachi — Sansei San Francisco Public Defender and Chol Soo Lee defense activist; supported Asian American arts through the Asian American Arts Foundation
Robert Hamaguchi — Sansei former executive director of Japantown Task Force

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