Views from SF Japantown 2022

San Francisco Calif.- For 116 years now, Japantown has fought to preserve and advance its status as a hub for Japanese culture in San Francisco. 


Racism and rapidly changing economic and social pressures have been an ongoing struggle since its origin in 1906. Japantown now leverages help from the city, as a cultural district, and continues to persevere and advance its status as the heart of Japanese culture and a historical fixture in San Francisco.


San Francisco’s Japantown or also known as J-town, Little Osaka or Nihonmachi is a neighborhood and cultural district spanning from Geary north to California Street, and Steiner east to Gough Street.


According to the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy’s historic overview of Japantown, as a community and neighborhood Japantown has risen above some of America’s toughest natural disasters, and social and economic challenges in US History:from the great earthquake and fire of 1906, to racism and segregation, to the establishment of Japanese internment camps by Executive Order 9066, to displacement from eminent domain and gentrification from the late 1940’s through 60’s. 


Since 2020 there’s been a rise in hate crimes as documented on the Stop AAPI Hate website. 2020 also brought more economic chaos that came with the pandemic restrictions and a shift to e-commerce, as reported by International Trade Administration and U.S Census Bureau. 


Referencing reports from the Chronicle and SFGate, five years ago and times during the pandemic there were fears of Japantown closing altogether. However, in 2018 legislation for the SF Cultural Districts program was enacted that gave Japantown status as a cultural district earning it protections and funding to preserve and promote the arts, culture, aesthetic and economy of the neighborhood. 


Japantown today is still recovering from the economic fallout of the pandemic.The businesses in the Japan Center Mall were shut down for up to 6 months due to pandemic restrictions, and they were required to keep paying rent and other maintenance fees during this time.


Now the community is eager to see more people and tourists coming in and businesses thriving better than ever with new developments coming into the neighborhood.


“Days where there’s no events or it’s not the weekend. It’s so dead, might as well not open the store. But we’re paying rent anyways so might as well put in the effort” said William Jone, a cafe owner in the Japan Center West Mall. “There are businesses that have closed and not reopened. It’s just empty space. It’d be great if more businesses were encouraged to open in the area.”


“During the pandemic, I think around 15 businesses shut down and we had to switch our fundraisers to online which isn’t that great for a small community that has gotten a lot of its funding from in-person interactions,” said Elena Nielsen, membership coordinator at the Japantown Community Center.


This year also marked the end of the 115-year Benkyodo Mochi shop legacy in Japantown. And a 54-year-old SF Taiko Dojo has been forced to find a new space due to a 150% rent increase.  


As of lately there’s been a large increase in theft, primarily car break-ins in the area. 

SF Crime data reports show Japantown to be one of hotter spot for car break-ins between June and September with over 40 in the area each month.


And there is still unease among Asians in the area related to racism and xenophobia.


“Car break-ins here almost every day and reports of hate crimes are my biggest concerns. I still don’t feel that safe walking the street or to my car,” says Bar Manager, Tracy T.


According to the Japantown Task Force – one of the main forces in implementing the Japanese 

Cultural Heritage and Economic Stability Strategy – the biggest initiatives right now are the Peace Plaza Renovation project and Osaka Way and Buchanan Mall upgrade, both of which have already secured millions in funding.


Within the span of six blocks, Japantown hosts Japanese American historical sites, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, bars with karaoke, shops and monuments. It’s also home to the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival as well the Nihonmachi Street Fair. 


Japantown’s demographic has similar proportions to the city and county of San Francisco. According to 2020 census data, Japantown’s 4,150 residents are roughly 40% White, 30% Asian, 10% Hispanic, 7% African American and 8% of two or more races. 


According to Niche, the median price for a home in Japantown is $1,341,271, rent is $1857 a month and the median income per household is $113,146. 


At the time of writing, the city is giving incentives to fill vacancies in the area, like with the new landlord vacancy tax in effect. According to city records, the city’s Office of Treasurer & Tax Collector and Department of Building Inspection will enforce the measure.


On the horizon more businesses are being incentivized to come, the festivals have returned and new developments are arriving.


Japantown Task Force is developing the Koho creative hub and Japantenna pop-up. They’ve also already received funding from community organizations towards a night market and Asian Pacific-Islander outdoor film festival slated for 2023.


“Japantown is awesome! It’s a great location, especially for centrality. There’s a lot of shops and restaurants. And you can walk to the Fillmore and other cool spots nearby. It’s not too busy but there’s still a good amount going on,”  said Japantown resident, Mike F.