I go to the Japantown in San Francisco often. It's my lifeline to things Japanese, and I like to browse the magazines and books at Kinokuniya. But after a Japanese friend of mine called it "depressing" I can't help but feel the same way. She's right. Despite how crowded it gets on weekends, the place still feels uninspired and bland, and if I eat there I always leave dissatisfied. What's going on? Why is it like this?
It wasn't always like this. San Francisco's Japantown is the oldest in the country and first sprang up when Japanese Americans, displaced by the fire after the 1906 earthquake, relocated to the Western Addition, which was spared destruction thanks to the fire break of wide Van Ness Ave. The area around Geary and Fillmore was a vibrant community until Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into concentration camps during World War 2. After the war, many returned, and in 1968 what was a rundown part of the area was reborn as the Japan Center, essentially a mall for Japanese culture. The courtyard across the street from the pagoda was completed in the mid-'70s.
So what happened? I'd say the first mistake was moving everything into an enclosed space. I'm sure everyone had good intentions but this mallification of culture is kind of creepy. Not to mention that it's always hot and gross inside the Japan Center.
But the major force behind what's wrong with Japantown is that it's ceased to be relevant to Japanese people. Japanese people don't live in the area en masse anymore, so to continue to be attractive to Japanese people the place must exist as a destination spot. But aside from the book store and grocery store, which provide necessary goods, the rest of the "town" is superfluous.
What keeps the place going are tourists and weekend shoppers, who mostly come for the restaurants. Now, I might be setting myself up for a fall here, but I just don't like eating in restaurants where the ethnicity of the cooks doesn't match what's on the menu. And in Japantown, it seems like a lot of the restaurants are run by Chinese and Korean people. (Actually, this is true all over San Francisco.) If the food was good I wouldn't complain, but it's not. It's terrible.
I guess the issue here is Japanese people aren't opening restaurants in Japantown. If you want good Japanese food you have to look hard, often outside of the city. San Mateo has a lot of good places, as does the South Bay. Like LA's Chinatown, the original people have moved out to be replaced by a new group.
As a comparison to San Francisco's Japantown, I'd like to offer Sawtelle, a strip of Japanese shops and restaurants in West Los Angeles. Also known as Little Osaka, Sawtelle has a lot of the same things as SF's Japantown, with a distinct difference. It also has Japanese people. The food is good, the shops modern and relevant. There's even a Giant Robot store. Two, actually.
I'm not asking for some kind of ethnic purity. That would be ludicrous. But I am asking for vitality. Getting scowled at when I ask for water doesn't cut it. The New People store, for all its faults, is a step in the right direction, as is the new Daiso discount store. Why did Sweet Breams, a gourmet taiyaki shop, open in San Mateo and not SF Japantown? Why do we have to drive all the way to Sunnyvale to go to an izakaya? Why is the best restaurant in Japantown, Doobu, not Japanese but a Korean restaurant? The Japan center needs to encourage new business and bring in new excitement. The Miyako mall (not the main mall but the other one) is dying, with lots of store fronts just sitting empty. But the fact that the Japantown website is basically just a glorified ad for the parking lot says a lot.
San Francisco Japantown is one of only three official Japantowns left in the US (the others are Little Tokyo in LA, and San Jose, both of which are also dying). If SF Japantown doesn't make itself attractive to new Japanese business people, it's just going to get worse. Browsing for magazines is fine, but based on how lively Sawtelle is, it could be a whole lot more.