Draft of San Francisco Japantown History Mural unveiled

JAPANTOWN NOTABLES — The San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League unveiled its draft of the Japantown History Mural May 11. While the presented draft features 12 figures from throughout the ethnic enclave’s 117-year history, the final draft will remove Ruth Asawa, whose family declined to officially approve her image in the mural, and incorporate additional changes based on community feedback. courtesy of Mission Art 415

JAPANTOWN NOTABLES — The San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League unveiled its draft of the Japantown History Mural May 11. While the presented draft features 12 figures from throughout the ethnic enclave’s 117-year history, the final draft will remove Ruth Asawa, whose family declined to officially approve her image in the mural, and incorporate additional changes based on community feedback. courtesy of Mission Art 415

After a year at the drawing board, the San Francisco Japanese American Citizens League returned to the Japantown community with a draft of the proposed Japantown History Mural May 11 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. This was the eighth community meeting the project organizers have held, as they collect feedback to adjust the project’s designs and plans following years of development.

Since the selection of 10 historic notables in January of 2023, Judy Hamaguchi, president of the JACL chapter, said she and the project team have been working on the mural’s draft. The 10 sets of notables, including two couples, feature community leaders spanning the more than a century history of San Francisco’s Japantown, starting with Kyutaro and Yona Abiko, Issei leaders in San Francisco’s Japantown, to Jeff Adachi, the late San Francisco public defender. The biggest challenge Hamaguchi said she faced was convincing the notables’s families to agree to have their loved one depicted on the wall facing Geary Boulevard outside the Peace Plaza in the ethnic enclave.

“It took us one year to get there, plus it took me eight months to chase down the last two portraits,” she said.

The process, which now has entered its third year, saw Wes “Marks” Wong — Rigel “Crayone” Juratovac’s assistant — depart from the project because, as Hamaguchi described it, “he got tired of waiting.”

And while the project eventually tentatively secured permission from all 10 families, Ruth Asawa’s family declined to officially approve just three days before the meeting due to copyright issues.

“We have a copyright policy and board review process that requires certain criteria be met prior to allowing use of images of Ruth Asawa and/or her artwork by other organizations and/or artists. We never formally approved the use of Asawa’s image for the planned mural because those criteria were not met. We wish everyone involved the best for a successful project,” Henry Weverka, president of Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc., said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News. He did not elaborate on what exactly those criteria are.

Hamaguchi said the mural team is now working on either adjusting the layout or replacing Asawa with another community member. The mural’s design may be further impacted by a change in the recently started Peace Plaza Renovation project, which floated the idea of expanding the number of stairwells from one to two from the Geary Boulevard side of the plaza. Beverly Ng, deputy director of policy and public affairs at San Francisco Recreation and Parks, said the city will keep the JACL informed of their plans. However, since the mural project has not formally been adopted by the city through its Arts Commission and Recreation and Park Commission, there have been no formal discussion on the logistics of the changes yet.

Meanwhile, several families of the notables to be depicted on the mural also expressed their support for the project. Following the meeting, the JACL hosted a dinner for supporters, including the families of those to be depicted on the mural. Mutsuko Adachi, Jeff Adachi’s widow, told the Nichi Bei News her late husband would have been “incredibly honored” to be remembered alongside amazing people.

“I know, it must have been an incredible task to pick 10 people out of all the amazing people that could have been on this mural. I think it’s a pretty good representation,” she said.

The mural currently proposes to feature Kyutaro and Yona Abiko, Archbishop Nitten Ishida, Jimbo Edwards, Yori Wada, Clifford Uyeda, Sox Kitashima, Henri and Tomoye Takahashi, Janice Mirikitani and Jeff Adachi.

A number of Abiko family members also attended the dinner, including Yona Abiko, great granddaughter of Yona Abiko who helped found the Japanese YWCA. She said it was thrilling to have her great grandmother recognized with the mural.

“She’s always been such a big part of my life. It’s a very big topic of conversation within my family and I went to Japan somewhat inspired by her as well,” she said. “Her name (becoming) a little more recognized in the community is very exciting and she deserves it. She did a lot for Japantown and for San Francisco.”

During the meeting, however, some continued to criticize the mural’s 10-notables structure. A contingent of Japantown community members have expressed their opposition to the mural on the grounds of condensing Japantown’s 117-year history down to 10 people. Over the years, to address criticisms, organizers elected to add cultural elements and hold the seven prior public meetings to listen to community feedback as they worked with a panel of community advisers to select the 10 finalists.

Emily Murase, a San Francisco JACL board member, acknowledged some community members might feel uncomfortable with the proposed mural’s format because it breaks cultural norms among Japanese Americans, but stressed the notables should be remembered lest future generations will forget.

“Japanese people don’t like to lift up individuals, we understand that. But we are doing this because we are telling our history of Japantown. If we don’t tell the history, somebody else is going to do that,” she said. “I understand that we are violating some very basic Japanese norms about who we recognize. And we understand that nobody is an island unto themselves, but if we don’t show who Yori Wada is, if we don’t show who Sox Kitashima is, people are going to forget. The next generation is not going to know who these people are.”

With the release of the mural’s draft design, the community also commented on various issues project leaders must address moving forward. Some noted the Japanese YWCA building should be more prominently featured and moved next to Yona Abiko, one of its founders. Another comment noted a number of issues with the artistic takes on historic photos, including the collage combination of Uoki K. Sakai company’s photo with Benkyodo. Mickey Imura, a former member of Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction, took issue with one image in particular with the mural.

“That (image) has nothing to do with CANE, it doesn’t portray a CANE logo or any member of CANE. It’s actually a photo of two activists from Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization, so I don’t know why that’s in there,” he said.

Hamaguchi told the Nichi Bei News, she had been working to find a better photo to represent CANE, but was unable to secure it in time.

“I went to the Ono family, because there was a lot of insistence that Guy (Ono) should be on the mural, … I said, there’s a photograph on this mural, and I don’t know who this is. Please ask your family. If you can find a photograph of CANE in action, with Guy’s face in it, they sent me nothing,’” Hamaguchi said. “So we’re kind of left with this. And so we knew that was going to be a problem.”

Hamaguchi later added she is now working with Boku Kodama, another former CANE member, to secure a better photo.

Still, the project moves forward.While Wong has dropped out, Hamaguchi said Crayone, a noted grafitti artist, is committed to staying on board as the master artist along with his agent Lisa Brewer of Mission Art 415. The project also recently recruited Brenden Oshima and Derrick Higa, Japanese American artists and proprietors of 3 Pillars in Japantown.

Higa said he was “extremely excited” about joining the team.

“I think a mural in Japantown, … that’s definitely something that is needed,” he told the Nichi Bei News. “I’ve seen so many murals in a bunch of different places and seen how it brings people together, and it’s a conversation piece and so now you’re creating a discourse around Japanese American history, Japantown specifically, and to be part of something like that is just — I couldn’t have imagined something like that. And I’m working with Crayone, who’s been doing art for decades at this point, to be able to work with him. I mean, these aren’t opportunities that come very easily, and so to be able to work with him, work on some thing that’s for Japantown, work on something that just shows the history of Japantown, I couldn’t see anything better than that.”

According to Hamaguchi, the project had initial funding from the estates of Yo Hironaka, Greg Marutani and Frank Minami. Initially estimated to cost around $250,000, the cost has since gone up to around $300,000. Hamaguchi added that Brewer, Crayone’s agent and owner of Mission Art 415, will contact additional potential donors once the project goes through the city commission after the next two planned meetings.

Project leaders plan to hold two more meetings in the coming weeks. The next meeting will be held May 30 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the JCCCNC conference room at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. A 10th meeting will be held June 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the JACL Headquarters, located at 1765 Sutter St. in Japantown. To RSVP, visit https://www.sfjacl.org. For more information, e-mail sfjacl@yahoo.com.

One response to “Draft of San Francisco Japantown History Mural unveiled”

  1. Joyce Nakamura Avatar
    Joyce Nakamura

    During the Q&A session moderated by Emily Murase, SF JACL Board member, I stated that there were many voices raising the point that 10 notable figures cannot represent 117 years of Japantown history at the last public meeting held in January 2023. I went on to say that these voices suggested there be no notables and just have a History Mural which is the main intent of the Mural design. I then asked the question”What did the SF JACL Board think about this feedback from the public to not have the notables and to focus on the history of Japantown for the mural design?”

    Ms. Murase, nor any other member of the SF JACL Board answered my question directly. Ms. Murase just made a comment about the process of nomination and selection of the 10 notables. She then cut me off from further comment.

    If I had been able to comment I was planning to say this:
    “It seems from this design that the history of Japantown is being represented mainly by these 10 individuals whose big heads are larger than life. The history context is minimal or non-existent. I think at least the notables could have been depicted in the context of history rather than a big head that doesn’t convey any history.”

    So I am not opposed to these individuals being on the Mural, I am opposed to them being larger than life and therefore REPRESENTING the history of Japantown. The “cultural elements” referred to in this article are just that…design elements. The designs around the big heads of the notables do not give context nor tell a history of Japantown. The message of the current mural design is a Japantown history based on individual achievements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *