Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Wrong With San Francisco Japantown?

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.


  1. That friend was me wasn't it?? Sorry to give you bad reputation about your favorite spot..... but, YOU ARE RIGHT!!!!
    I don't know what, but something is not right in Japantown. One of my friend mentioned that Japantown doesn't have good energy.....
    Yeah, if there are good izakaya, good okonomiyaki, cheap spirited away kind of bathhouse, yatai,,,,,,it would be GREAT spot for me to go......but sadly, it's not like that at all.....

  2. Wow great post. This is "Doug" from Japan: Life and Religion and you could describe Seattle's International District the same way. They renovated it a few years back but it lack vitality and just has too much crime. We have Kinokuniya there and it feels like the only genuinely Japanese
    thing left besides a couple old worn down restaraunts. Most of the Japanese American population has moved elsewhere and prospered so other
    immigrant groups have moved in but something's still missing. The attempts
    to revive the Japanese-ness there seem artificial or half-hearted. Guess we're not the only ones. :-/

  3. Seikov, it was indeed you. No need to apologize, you just articulated what I was feeling but didn't know it yet.

    Doug, based on your comments, it would seem that part of this phenomenon has to do with the Japanese diaspora becoming integrated into its adopted culture and so no longer needing such a separate community. It would be interesting to see how this has played out in other countries where there are Japantowns, like the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Brazil, etc.

  4. Yeah, I think you hit it on the head. There just isn't the same need for an ethnic community there once was, so it becomes a little out-moded. I bet other immigrant communities eventually become the same way given a few generations. :)

  5. i think a keyword you mention is "vitality." and i think they have to look to what the young people are doing in Japan for inspiration. The "J-town" in Manhattan (though it isn't really a "J-town" but more a spot in East Village where there happen to be a higher density of Japanese restaurants, supermarkets and such) may be tiny, but my friend from Japan who lives in SF said she felt so much more at home when visiting that neighborhood.

    The addition of the new design store to SF J-town featuring japanese design is a start. but they seriously need to look at the rest of the interiors of the mall and inject some contemporary Japan lifestyle to attract more Japanese expats. Granted the target isn't for immigrants from another country, but for the -hyphenated American culture, we also need to have a mix of the current immigrant culture to understand a bit more of the dicotomy of our identities rather than re-living antiquated Times Magazine travel features.