A view of Japantown from the Hotel Kabuki looking west. Geary Boulevard and the Peace Pagoda are on the left; the Japan Center Malls and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas are in the middle; Post Street is on the right. (San Francisco Japantown Foundation)
The redrawn boundaries for San Francisco's 11 supervisorial districts. Japantown is in District 5.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — While representatives of Little Tokyo fought to keep their neighborhood in Los Angeles’ 9th Council District, a similar scenario played out in San Francisco’s Japantown, but with very different results.

Japantown is currently located in District 5, and community advocates were able to keep it there by becoming involved in the redistricting process.

San Francisco is divided into supervisorial districts; being both a city and a county, it has a Board of Supervisors but no City Council. The current 5th District is a diverse collection of neighborhoods; it includes Haight Ashbury of 1960s counterculture fame, pricey Lower Pacific Heights, and the Western Addition, a predominantly African American neighborhood once known for its jazz clubs.

Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors and the Elections Commission each appointed three members to the Redistricting Task Force, whose mandate was to evenly distribute the population among the 11 districts based on the results of the 2010 Census. Public meetings were held throughout the city.

In an online petition circulated in March, nihonmachi ROOTS, a youth-oriented community organization, outlined Japantown’s redistricting issues:

“On a preliminary proposed map released by the San Francisco Redistricting Task Force, Japantown was placed in District 2, which includes the Marina and Pacific Heights. Japantown community advocates were initially concerned that removing Japantown from District 5 would separate Japantown from its historical ties with the Fillmore and Western Addition, and would also diminish the voice of the Japantown community amongst the concerns of existing interests within District 2.

JCYC's Chibi-Chan Preschool is located on Pine Street, outside Japantown's commercial corridor.

“Thanks to input from members of the Japantown community at a recent public Redistricting Task Force meeting, the proposed northern boundary of District 5 was moved further north to Pine Street, thus keeping most of Japantown in District 5.  Unfortunately, the new border still excludes prominent Japantown community institutions, including the Japanese Community Youth Council (JCYC) building.

“Concerned members of District 5 are pushing for the adoption of a map reflecting the needs of District 5’s communities, which further modifies the Redistricting Task Force’s proposed map by also including in District 5 all of Japantown, Westside Courts Public Housing, Hamilton Recreation Center, Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, Chibi-Chan Preschool and the Western Addition Public Library …

“JCYC provides programs for the youth and future leaders of the Japantown community. Given the importance of JCYC to Japantown’s future, it is all the more important that we keep this valuable institution included in District 5 with the rest of Japantown. Retaining additional community institutions and resources …  gives the residents of District 5 a greater ability to control local resources and serve the needs of their community.”

The group called on concerned individuals to make their voices heard by signing and sharing the petition; contacting the Redistricting Task Force by phone, email, Twitter and Facebook; and attending a task force meeting.

Dividing Lines

For the general public, the best-known part of Japantown is the Japan Center, bounded by Geary Boulevard on the south, Laguna Street on the east, Post Street on the north, and Fillmore Street on the west. It consists of three malls, the Peace Plaza, the Hotel Kabuki, and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. More shops and restaurants can be found on the north side of Post Street and in the Buchanan Mall, which extends from Post to Sutter. Attractions on Sutter Street include Hotel Tomo and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

A view of Japantown from Geary Boulevard in 2005. The AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres have since become the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. (Photo by Christopher Beland)

For the Japanese American community, many significant institutions are outside the commercial corridor — to the east, Hinode Tower and Kimochi Home on Sutter Street; to the north, Kokoro Assisted Living and Konko Church of San Francisco on Bush Street and Buddhist Church of San Francisco and Japanese Community Youth Council on Pine Street; to the west, the Western Addition Branch Library on Scott Street; to the south, the Buchanan YMCA on Buchanan Street and Rosa Parks Elementary School on O’Farrell Street.

In a commentary published in January in The Nichi Bei Weekly, Hiroshi Fukuda, board president of Konko Church of San Francisco, discussed Japantown’s borders:  “J-Town does not start north of Geary Boulevard; it starts from Ellis Street, where Rosa Parks Elementary School and the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program are located. Many Nikkei live south of Geary. It extends north to at least Pine Street.”

Fukuda also argued against a proposal to include Japantown in District 2 with Geary as the southern border. “Our ‘community of interest’ historically is with the African American community and certainly not with the communities in Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, Marina and Sea Cliff … Placing the border at Geary Boulevard will split J-Town in half and dilute the Japantown community influence at the Board of Supervisors.

“There are many other Asians, i.e. Koreans and Chinese, who live in the same J-Town area and will have their political influence equally diluted by drawing the District 5 northern border at Geary Boulevard.”

Korean Americans are part of Japantown’s “community of interest” as many Korean-owned businesses are located there. San Francisco does not have a Koreatown.

Geary was once a regular street, but during the redevelopment period several buildings were razed and Geary was transformed into an eight-lane expressway, becoming what some have described as a physical and psychological barrier between Japantown and the Western Addition.

Supervisor Eric Mar, who represents District 1 (Richmond District), told The Rafu Shimpo in February, “I support keeping Japantown whole and supporting the historic relationship with the Fillmore and Western Addition. But in the event that the task force pulls Japantown out of District 5, I urged the community leaders to consider the ‘communities of interest’ with the Richmond District, the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the city, and the connection of transit users and working families that travel up and down Geary Boulevard daily.

“Many older J-Town families pushed out of the area by the displacement of the camps and redevelopment moved to the Richmond, and now there are many JA families spread throughout the Richmond.”

Teaming Up

Ultimately, Japantown and the Western Addition stayed in District 5. Karen Kai and her husband, Bob Rusky, both lawyers, were actively involved in the redistricting meetings and were happy with the results, which were finalized in April.

“The Redistricting Task Force was very responsive to the community needs, and I think the fact that the African American and the Japanese American community really teamed up … really made a difference,” Kai remarked. “We pinpointed certain community resources that we felt needed to be together in … District 5 because of its progressive nature and its historic ties for Japantown and the African American community in the Western Addition.

“And we got all of the key sites that we were looking for, JCYC and its Chibi-Chan Preschool. We had to go to California Street in order to capture JCYC because it’s on the north side of Pine Street, so you have to go up one block. We were also able to get the Booker T. Washington Center, which has long-time historic ties with Japantown.”

Attorneys and Japantown advocates Karen Kai and Bob Rusky. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Kai explained that when Japanese Americans were interned, the Booker T. Washington Center served as caretaker of Kinmon Gakuen, a Japanese language school that still operates today. “They also made it possible for there to be housing when people returned … They were one of the temporary shelters … And they worked for many years with the Japanese American community before moving way out to Presidio (Avenue) on the western edge.

“They had actually been in a more conservative supervisorial district for the last 10 years and found that really made a difference to their plans and their efforts to serve the community, so we teamed up with them as well.”

An advisor to the Rosa Parks Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program’s Parent Teacher Community Council, Kai noted that JBBP moved from a school in the Sunset District to Rosa Parks in order to be part of Japantown, “so keeping north and south of Geary together was very important.”

The new District 5 will be basically the same as the old one, she said. “Because of population shifts, we kind of had to give up some of the area to the north of Japantown just because one of the goals is also to keep the population of the different supervisorial districts fairly even. Districts 1 and 2 were very low because they have hard boundaries. They have the Pacific Ocean and the (San Francisco) Bay and Golden Gate Park. They couldn’t have population growth in those areas … so trying to keep their population up while keeping Japantown and the Fillmore together was a challenge.

“So there are a few edges that were trimmed away and put into 1 or 2, but by and large I think we did a good job and the task force did a good job of keeping the Japantown community together. “

Kai was aware of what happened in Los Angeles, where Little Tokyo was unable to remain in the 9th District and Koreatown was split between different districts. “San Francisco probably has its own rough-and-tumble because we do have the Mission neighborhood, for example — it’s so big they couldn’t keep it all in one district. So where do you draw the lines? How do you make sure there are enough people that you don’t isolate a portion of one community? … I think the task force was very mindful of communities and that made a big difference.”

Richard Wada of the Japanese American Democratic Club agreed with that assessment. “I think the final map does reflect the best interests of Japantown and the Western Addition. This was the result of the Japanese American and African American communities working together to convince the redistricting committee that important community institutions like the S.F. Buddhist Church, Chibi-Chan, the Booker T. Washington Center, the Westside public housing complex and others should be included in District 5 and not District 1 or District 2. The redistricting committee was sensitive to the request made by Japanese American and African American communities.”

Jon Osaki is executive director of the JCYC, whose Pine Street locations are surrounded by residences and businesses that are not considered part of Japantown. “I think from the community perspective, it was a good opportunity to discuss and acknowledge what we collectively consider to be a part of Japantown,” he reflected.  “Although many would like to define it within a small contiguous area of blocks, this process made some folks rethink what makes up our neighborhood.

“As far as the redistricting process, although many were concerned about the initial lines, the task force was very responsive to the community and JCYC was pleased with the eventual outcome.”

This map, created by the San Francisco Planning Department, shows some of the major properties in Japantown.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu speaks as the Grand Parade makes its way down Post Street in Japantown during the 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)



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