Walking tour of S.F.’s J-Town delves into ‘Harlem of the West’

An iPad shows a World War II-era newspaper article with the headline, "US AT WAR! Paratroops land in Philippines!" A person holds the iPad while standing in front of Kinmon Gakuen in San Francisco's Japantown.

TRIP THROUGH HISTORY ­— The California Migration Museum app leads visitors to key Japantown landmarks, such as Kinmon Gakuen. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei News

A new audio tour tells the history of San Francisco’s Japantown, focusing on the resettlement period after the war, when Japanese Americans returned to find Black Americans had moved into their former homes.

The California Migration Museum unveiled its fourth and latest walking tour in San Francisco Oct. 5, “Japantown: Returning to the ‘Harlem of the West.’” The 45-minute tour, downloaded through the museum’s app on Android or Apple devices, focuses on Daisy Satoda’s memories of returning to the city after World War II as a Nisei teenager. Gabrielle Santas, curator at the California Migration Museum, said she found Satoda through her writing in “Making Home From War,” an anthology edited by Brian Komei Dempster that focused on Japanese American resettlement after World War II.

“Daisy Satoda wrote a series of memoirs, truly really beautifully written, and had these vivid, evocative details of what it actually felt like and sounded like and smelled like to come off the ferry boat and find herself in the city,” Santas said.

Santas contacted the Satoda family and learned that 96-year-old Satoda was still living in Japantown. Her eldest daughter Caroline Satoda, however, said her mother was not comfortable doing an interview due to her age. She instead became the family’s spokesperson and relayed questions and answers between Santas and her family. In helping Santas collect information from her mother and aunt, she was also then recruited to play her mother as the narrator for her portion of the tour.

“My mom was humbled, humbled and surprised that people were interested in her story or her memories of living in Japantown after the war,” Satoda told the Nichi Bei News.

The tour starts in front of Stuart Hall High School, across the street from the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. There are displays in front of the church that talk about the history of Japanese Americans in the neighborhood. The tour takes people to Daisy Satoda’s old home on Austin Street, an alley behind the church. Her old home, though now remodeled, remains and the app projects a photo of the Satoda family onto the smart device.

As the tour continues to the core of Japantown’s commercial district, the story shifts to include the Black community that once thrived in the neighborhood during and after the war.
Katy Long, founder and director of the California Migration Museum, said she wanted to focus the tour on the resettlement of Japanese

Americans, as well as how they returned to their old homes to find the community had drastically changed with the wartime migration of Black people looking to escape the Jim Crow South, who ended up working in San Francisco’s shipyards.

“We wanted to see these two stories intertwine, what happens at the end, when Japanese start returning, because there was a lot of anxiety at that moment about, ‘Was this going to be problematic?’ A lot of people saying, ‘Well, maybe the Japanese Americans shouldn’t return, maybe this is going to cause problems,’ and actually, it didn’t,” Long said. “The jazz movement kind of flourished in this very little United Nations, a lot of people from different cultures, and it really gets interrupted more by city-led redevelopment coming in and kind of smashing that to pieces.”

Part of the proof that Japanese Americans and Black Americans got along is captured in a wedding photo. Lewis Watts, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found the photo while collecting images from that era of Japantown’s history, and published it in “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era” with Elizabeth Pepin Silva.

“Everyone asks, ‘What happened when the Japanese came back?’” Watts told the Nichi Bei News. “And there’s a picture, … this Japanese wedding, and the wedding party is all African American, so that picture answered a whole bunch of questions.”

Long, who had worked on immigration and refugee stories through BBC Radio, The Guardian and The Washington Post, is an immigrant herself to San Francisco from the United Kingdom. She started the virtual California Migration Museum during the “darkest days of the pandemic” when the skies were blotted out with smoke from the 2020 wildfires.

“I had worked on migration and refugee issues for over a decade and had a background in history and public storytelling, and so wanted to start creating something that was sort of an on the ground project,” she said.

Her organization has published similar tours for Chinatown, the Castro and the Mission District in San Francisco. She noted the Japantown tour was funded in part through grants from the California State Library and California Humanities. She said the next tour will take place in Los Angeles. Each tour covers specific moments in history, however, she recognized recurring themes about the immigration experience.

“The challenge has been, how do we make it something which speaks to those universals, which I think so many people in the Bay Area are. One-in-three of us are immigrants and even more are the children of immigrants. How do we make it something that speaks to that experience, at the same time as recognizing that each of those histories is complex and messy and different and have all these other bits that are important to tell faithfully to the story of that community, or those people, in … 45 minutes. And recognizing that, that’s always going to be a challenge.”

To download the free tour search for the “CalMigration” app on Google Play or the Apple App Store. The tour takes 45 minutes and requires walking down the hill from Octavia and Pine Streets to Sutter and Buchanan Streets for a total of around half a mile.

One response to “Walking tour of S.F.’s J-Town delves into ‘Harlem of the West’”

  1. Mits Mori Avatar
    Mits Mori

    I remember before the WWII I use to see Chanbara movies at the Kinmon hall back in the early 40’s .

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