Just a decade after World War II, Japanese Americans in San Francisco faced another mass removal. In the name of urban renewal, the city of San Francisco demolished 60 blocks of the Western Addition, decimating the Black and Japanese American population who called the area their home.
Scarred by the wartime incarceration, along with language barriers and a myriad of other issues, the Japanese American community did not have a concerted effort to speak out against redevelopment until only four blocks of the ethnic enclave remained. However, in 1973, a group of Sansei activists joined frustrated Nisei residents and business owners to start the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction.
Five decades later, CANE’s former members held a reunion at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California Aug. 19. The event, two years in planning, allowed former members to catch up with each other, and also gave younger generations an opportunity to learn about the group’s history and to help plan for San Francisco Japantown’s future.
“It started out as just having a reunion, because we’ve had reunions, like the last one we had was the 30th,” Joyce Nakamura, CANE 50th Anniversary Committee member and program emcee, told the Nichi Bei News. “But for this event, we decided we wanted to make it a public event, because we’re old and we figured this is the last time we’re going to have an event.”
As part of the celebration, Nakamura said organizers started to collect and document their history. The event featured display boards chronicling CANE’s more than decade-long work in the community and screened a portion of a forthcoming documentary on the organization by Boku Kodama. Nakamura added that a book on the organization is also forthcoming.
Fighting back and empowering the community
Although the organization ultimately did not prevent a single eviction, the grassroots efforts to fight back fundamentally changed how the city went about redeveloping the ethnic enclave, and gave voice to a previously silenced Japanese American community. Kodama, one of CANE’s early members, said they were instrumental in securing alternative housing for those displaced.
“There was an organization called the Nihonmachi Community Development Corporation, NCDC, and they had already been working with the redevelopment agency to renovate the four blocks, but it only accounted for the people who owned the property and people who had the money. Those who didn’t have the money were still unrepresented. So that’s where CANE’s focus was,” Kodama told the Nichi Bei News.
The city of San Francisco formally reflected on redevelopment’s impact on Japantown and the Western Addition in 2017, stripping former Redevelopment Agency head Justin Herman’s name from the Embarcadero Plaza. In 2019, the Planning Department admitted the adverse effects of redevelopment, and the city’s Housing Element approved this year lists repairing the harms of racial and ethnic discrimination against American Indians, Black people and other people of color as one of its goals.
The two-and-a-half-hour program featured an entourage of speakers who were allotted two minutes each to offer a toast, but instead gave five to 10 minute speeches. Featuring both CANE and other community members, the speakers reflected on CANE’s impact on the community, the city and themselves.
The program opened with a performance by Jiten Daiko and featured a spoken word performance by AK Black with Francis Wong on the saxophone. Attendees also sang “We Are the Children” by Chris Kando Iijima and Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and “Profits Enslave the World,” a song written by Chris Bautista with lyrics adapted from a poem of the same name by Philip Vera Cruz.
“Our theme celebrates Sansei activism, which began in the mid-‘60s, early ‘70s. We’re a product of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us participated in the Third World Strikes on campuses and won demands for ethnic studies,” Mickey Imura, one of the founding members of CANE, said. “We celebrate the birth of Sansei activism that was part of the Asian American consciousness movement that gave rise to organizations like CANE, Kimochi, JCYC, NLO (now APILO) and (Nihonmachi) Little Friends. And progressive Asian American art organizations like JAM (Japantown Art & Media Workshop) and the Kearny Street workshop. We recognize this activism that we share with the Issei and Nisei, who we learned so much from and inspired us. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Yonsei and Gosei, who continue this legacy today.”
Community members such as artist Rich Tokeshi and NLF Executive Director Cathy Inamasu recalled how they got to know the grassroots organization and worked with them, while others such as John Tsukahara and Suzy Jones offered remembrances of their parents who were pillars within the organization.
Jones recalled her mother Helen Jones’ work with CANE. She said her African American single mother, who was also a playwright, historian and activist, stood together with the Japantown community to resist together.
“While us kids were just running around, having fun, our parents were organizing, they were protesting. They were courageously standing up for our community, for our culture, for our legacy, for each other,” Jones said. “It was not uncommon for me to be on a playdate and have someone say, ‘Hey, is that your mom on the news chained to that building?’ I would just respond by saying ‘Yep, that’s my mom.’”
Dale Minami, one of the founding attorneys of the Asian Law Caucus, recalled CANE’s impact as well, as he started working on redevelopment issues in 1972. While the first case he worked on succeeded in part thanks to being assigned to a friendly judge who granted a Shin-Issei restaurant owner a 60-day moratorium to move out when the city asked for 30 days. Minami said CANE’s work starting in 1973 fundamentally changed how the city conducted evictions as the group came out “in force” to protest evictions in the community.
“The Redevelopment Agency understood that they could not just simply do anything they wanted in Nihonmachi, because it was a force to be reckoned with. There was a resistance, and they were assertive about it,” Minami said. “I think what they left was a legacy. And it’s a legacy that, of course, we should commemorate now, but we should also use to inspire us, because we did not have our families go to prisons during World War II to get lifted and banished out of their homes, … to sit back and let them do it to us again.”
“We went to the Planning Commission meeting and Saichi Kawahara got up and started speaking, and the guy who was the head of the Planning Commission, … he was really mean, right? So when Saichi started talking, he would go, ‘Oh there’s another, just get on to the next one,’ and it really kind of intimidated Saichi.
“Then afterwards, we thought about that, and thought, ‘that wasn’t right.’ So we go into next month, to the Planning Commission meeting, and this time, when he told him to shut up, Saichi just screamed and yelled at him, right? That shut him up. So it sort of changed the direction of where CANE was going, that we had to be more aggressive in terms of trying to get the point across.”
To fellow founder Kitty Kitagawa Mah, CANE’s impact also helped break the Nisei’s silence.
“At first it was unbelievable, because Nisei never used to say very much. I mean, they were incarcerated for goodness sake. To fight off the redevelopment agency who was such a daunting force, it must have been very difficult for them. But once they did, I think that was so inspiring, because they really got out of their comfort zone,” she said. “I mean, can you imagine your grandmother going to a demonstration carrying a picket sign? I mean, it’s almost unfathomable. So it felt really great.”
Fellow founding member Imura, a Shin-Issei who grew up in New York, said he was an activist within the anti-war movement and also became involved with CANE. He noted that CANE helped organize the first Tule Lake Pilgrimage, which continues today, and many of its members went on to other causes including the Redress Movement.
“CANE started out in ‘73 mainly as an anti-RDA, anti-eviction organization, but I was even surprised that we lasted until 1984. That’s 11 years. And in 1980, CANE, in the late ‘70s when the redevelopment issue was winding down, CANE started to get involved with pilgrimages.”
Fighting for the Future
While the event itself was an opportunity to learn or reminisce about CANE’s legacy 50 years on, Kodama and others also expressed plans for the future in the form of a Sansei Legacy Trust Fund. With the financial backing of the CANE 50th anniversary committee and fiscally sponsored by the Japanese Community Youth Council, the fund hopes to collect money to help renovate the Kinmon Gakuen building into a community performing arts center. Looking back to how the Issei and Nisei bestowed the Japanese YWCA and YMCA, along with the JCCCNC to the Japantown community, Kodama said they hoped to develop the fund so that Sansei can further preserve the Japantown community. On top of the fund, Kodama said they hope to work with other community organizations to establish a community land trust as well as seek reparations from the city for the monetary losses the community suffered as a result of redevelopment.
“What I’m discovering is that there’s a number of different organizations that are talking about affordable housing and land trusts, but nobody seems to be getting together, because I think if we do it all together as a collaboration, we’re gonna have a hell of a lot easier time doing it,” Kodama told the Nichi Bei News. “The city has already acknowledged that redevelopment was a bust, that it was really a bad thing for Nihonmachi and Western Addition. What they haven’t done is actually said, ‘OK, we will pay you reparations to right the wrongs that we did.’
“So one of the things I think with the Sansei Legacy Trust Fund is to be a part of that collaboration in order to try to get the city and the state to start putting up some money for affordable housing, affordable retail space and the ability for people in the community to own the land, because obviously owning the land is what allows you to control your community.”
For more information on CANE and its legacy, visit https://cane50.org. For information on the documentary film, visit https://ganbarodoc.org. And for more information on the Sansei Legacy Project, visit https://sanseilegacy.org.
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Aug. 31-Sept. 13, 2023 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Looking Back And To The Future: CANE celebrates 50th anniversary” reported that a Shin-Issei restaurant owner was “granted a a 60-day moratorium to move out when the city asked for 30 days,” according to attorney Dale Minami. Minami later corrected himself, saying she was granted six months.
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.