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Bridging the generational gap in Japantown

Suite J-Town
Suite J-Town gallery and performance space

On Post Street in San Francisco’s Japantown, there’s a building that doesn’t look like its neighbors. It’s modern, and covered in chrome and glass. Inside, Japanese pop music pumps through speakers.

The New People building is dedicated to Japanese pop culture -- street fashion like the frilly “Lolita” style, or manga and anime, Japanese comics and animated cartoons. But just up the street lives the older, slower Japantown -- where it’s more about bonsai and taiko than robots and platform boots.

“I see it as two worlds,” says Linda Mihara, “You’ve got the modern Japan and the traditional Japan.”

Mihara runs Paper Tree, an origami shop that’s been in her family, and in Japantown, since 1974. Racks upon racks of colorful paper hang in the store. Meticulously crafted origami animals are displayed, including a two-foot-long dragon whose every scale is a separate fold.

Mihara believes younger generations of Japanese-Americans have different interests than when she was growing up in the '60s.

“There’s a lot of focus on manga and anime, and not so much the traditions,” she says. “But I had a great understanding of my Japanese heritage. There aren’t too many Japanese Americans I think can say that.“

Having grown up in Japantown, Mihara is aware she might be the exception rather than the rule. Still, that doesn’t change what she feels is important for young people.

“If you’re born and raised here then you have a great chance of really having more exposure to Japan, I think, than anywhere else,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to still focus on those crafts - things like flower arranging, bonsai, and those traditional aspects of Japan.”

The Next Generation

The problem: Young Japanese-Americans are bored.

Tiffany Fujii is a 21-year-old Japanese-American who grew up with some of those traditions.

“I would go as a kid wearing a kimono … to tea ceremonies,” she says. “I kind of want to get into it but, I don’t want to go and be like, ‘Ugh, so sleepy.’”

Nowadays Fujii has traded in the kimono for costumes based on her favorite anime characters, like Sakura from the show "Cardcaptors." While playing an episode in her bedroom, she recalls how she reacted seeing the show for the first time.

“I really liked magical girls. And I watched and was like, ‘This is so cool! I want to be this girl!’”

At the annual Japantown Cherry Blossom Festival, usually a site for celebrating traditional arts and crafts, Fujii took part in Sakura 360, an initiative to highlight contemporary Japanese culture.

“There were definitely some Nintendo characters, or maybe like a Dragon Ball or something costume,” she says. “But I just feel like I belong there, you know?”

Fujii loves Japanese pop culture, but doesn’t feel connected to the traditions. And for tradition to survive, young people have to pick up the torch. In today’s Japantown, it’s kind of a race against time.

Many Japanese don’t live in Japantown anymore. Seniors are in nursing homes, or have already passed away. And the demolition of Japan Center - the cultural and commercial heart of Japantown - has been looming over the community for years.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Japanese-Americans have faced adversity. The original Japantown was leveled in the quake of 1906. Thousands of Japanese were forced to leave homes and businesses for internment camps during World War II. And, were displaced again in the '60s, when the city wanted to redevelop the area to make room for the current version of Japantown.

Celebrating the Past, Looking to the Future

“This is where Asian America began: San Francisco. And it’s easy for people to forget this is the first Japantown,” says Brenda Wong Aoki, an Asian-American artist and community organizer. She and her partner, Mark Izu, wanted to do something to address these issues in Japantown.

“I feel very strongly about it not dying, but I couldn’t see anything being done,” says Aoki. “It just seemed like everybody was waiting for the wrecking balls. Finally, it was like: ‘I guess we’ll do something.’”

Aoki and Izu created “Suite J-Town”, a space in Japan Center for community-made artwork and performances. The project is a way to celebrate and bring together community, remember history, and spread awareness about the center’s possible demolition. To do this, both the old and the young need to get involved.

Marissa Bergman is 24, and just one of many young people working with Suite J-Town.

“So much of what we might lose are all the small merchants, the tiny places, and it would be really tragic if that one kind of link that’s there -- that’s even gone,” she says.

Bergman says that before getting involved with Suite J-Town, she never had the chance to know her Japanese heritage. But through the project, she and other young people have met with Japanese American seniors, leaders, activists, and artists. They have immersed themselves in the community, and have become what the project calls “J-Tells” -- a new generation to carry on the legacy.

“Everyone was working together,” explains Bergman. “It felt like we were being mentored, and receiving a transmission of their experience.”

Together the J-Tells and community members wrote calligraphy, made origami, and collected cherry blossoms and old photos of families from Japantown. Each item became a part of a circular installation -- a mandala -- laid out on Suite J-Town’s floor.

“We wanted to connect everyone, and invite everyone to see themselves as part of this bigger community,” Bergman says. “And it’s this feeling where something is aligning. Something is more in balance now than when I wasn’t in connection with my roots.”

Although Bergman has found her sense of belonging with traditional culture, other young people like Tiffany Fujii are still having trouble finding the motivation:

“I know if I don’t do it, and people in my generation don’t, it’s just going to be gone in history forever. You can read books but it’s not exactly the same. I wish someone would just learn it … but I don’t want to do it."

Collaborative efforts like Suite J-Town and Sakura 360 can help young people rekindle a connection with the past. But it’s unclear whether that connection can catch up or catch on in the modern world.

Crosscurrents San Francisco