Business owners discuss how they are surviving and thriving in remaining Bay Area Japantowns

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Wednesday, May 31, 2023
Business owners talk surviving and thriving in Bay Area Japantowns
There are three Japantowns recognized by the state of California. Here's how San Francisco and San Jose are surviving and thriving.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There are three Japantowns recognized by the state of California: San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. This AAPI Heritage Month, we're taking a closer look at the communities in the Bay Area and exploring their challenges. Not only during the pandemic but how they've adapted to survive and how they're looking to thrive in the future.

The notes of a flute and budding cherry blossoms signal not only springtime in San Francisco's Japantown but a rebirth after an unprecedented pandemic pause.

"It was a ghost town. Everything was shut down. For me, you know what immediately came to mind? Is that this is what it must've looked like during the war," Said Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, also known for short as JCCCNC.

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Today, the city's Japantown is the oldest and largest in the country. This past April, we saw more than 200,000 guests take to the streets as the Cherry Blossom Festival returned, along with throngs of shoppers. You could see the foot traffic return, even on a weekday afternoon.

But below the surface, there are still a number of challenges the small business owners of this community contend with to this day.

Diane Matsuda is an attorney with the nonprofit Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. Their group offered legal assistance to small businesses during the pandemic, along with other aid.

"One of the programs we first came up with was called GAMBARO. The word means in Japanese, to persevere. To keep going. It was a program where we purchased gift certificates from various small businesses in Japantown and we took those gift certificates and distributed after nonprofit organizations and emergency responders," Matsuda said.

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After the third-generation-owned Benkyodo mochi shop -- which had been in operation for 116 years -- closed last spring, SOKO Hardware is the only remaining multi-generational legacy business left in Japantown. Matsuda says owning the building helps, along with being outside the malls.

"Rents here are outrageous. If you were to rent a space in the Japan Center, it's not only the rent, because the cam charges the camp common area maintenance -- charges that can be just as equal to rent," Matsuda said.

Because of redevelopment, many businesses consolidated into the mall, which houses around 55 storefronts.

Linda Lum's love of her homewares and gifts shop Daikoukou by Shiki started nearly 30 years ago when she was an employee. As a mall tenant, Lum was at the mercy of management's opening plans.

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"We were closed for six months," she said.

In recent years, she has seen her share of turnover and changes. She points across the hall from her shop.

"That coffee shop has changed times three times already. I actually talked to a few of the owners, and they say the rent is too high," Lum said.

She herself is up for a lease renewal in a few weeks but isn't sure if she'll continue her labor of love.

"Working seven days a week, no vacation, I think I can find a better job with better pay," she said with a laugh before switching to a more serious tone. "It's kind of scary. I'm on the border of what to do."

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At the same time, however, Osaki sees a new crop of businesses springing up and how it's helping bring in a new demographic to the neighborhood.

"For years it was a lot of Japanese Americans who were down here, patronizing the businesses and we had tourists, but we didn't have people hanging out. There are these new places where you buy, like matcha drinks or boba or crepes and ice cream. You don't have to sit down. You can walk around. You can socialize with friends. All young people relatively new to Japantown, so I think that way Japantown is having a renaissance, which we've needed."

One of those businesses is Matcha Cafe Maiko, which started in Japan but was brought to San Francisco by Chris Chin in the spring of 2018.

"Japantown, we knew would be the right fit. I used to go to college right up the street and had fond memories of coming to Japantown," he says with a 1,000-watt smile on his face.

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His business, like the other 50+ storefronts, struggled during the COVID-19 shutdown.

"It was really difficult because, as you know, ice cream melts. We tried a lot of different things: we did curbside pickup, online ordering but delivery didn't really work out for us."

One saving grace was an effort by the JCCCNC to get people to congregate safely in the Peace Plaza outside.

"We started this thing called 'Picnic in the Plaza,' where people can order food from the different restaurant and then have it delivered and then they can eat in Japantown. I was actually really surprised to see how many people are coming out once the shelter-in-place is lifted," Osaki said.

The economic effects were very effective for Chin and his business.

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"That was amazing. That brought a lot of life back. It kind of felt like a happy place where everywhere else was really quiet," he said.

About an hour and 50 miles south, we visited with Jim Nagareda, former executive director of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. The Japantown community there was formed in 1900 when farming took hold. The museum now aims to educate the public about the history of this community.

"We're sitting in the recreation of a barrack," he said from the museum exhibit. "This with the furniture and everything is authentic from the camps."

There is even a soundtrack of a baby crying in the background, which brings the recreation to life.

History is what Arlene Tatsuno Damron, owner of family-run a Japanese American department store Nichi Bei Bussan, relies on and says keeps customers coming back.

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"We've been here since July 11, 1948. I get to teach here, I get to be a docent here, I get to share history, especially internment history -- because, shockingly, not a lot of people know about it."

She says that personal touch and historical context is something you can't get elsewhere else.

"You could go to the mall and see the same stores from mall to mall to mall and go online, but people will not talk to you. The human element and I think that's very important," Tatsuno Damron said.

I asked Nagareda how this Japantown differs from the other two remaining ones, San Francsico in particular.

"We're very fortunate. We don't have many corporate businesses, just the grocery store and the bank. Otherwise, it's all mom and pop stores. It's a slower pace. People are friendly. You could walk down the street and you say hi to people, and everyone's very friendly," he said.

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This is exhibited by the way numerous people approach him as we walk through the streets of the tiny neighborhood.

This community, doesn't have a central gathering place, like San Francisco's Peace Plaza. But small businesses have adapted in other creative ways.

"Directly behind us is Roy's coffee shop, which used to formerly be a gas station and was converted to a coffee shop. And now the third generation of the owners is operating it," Nagareda said.

He also gestures toward a number of murals, meant to act as beautification and a way to draw visitors to the area.

With no mega mall, rents aren't as steep in San Jose. Nagareda says occupancy is nearly 100% and nearly all of their businesses, with the exception of shop-owners who retired, managed to return post pandemic.

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Shuei-Do confectionary shop has been in operation since 1953. Tom and Judy Kumamaru took over the business when the previous owners retired in the 1980s.

"We're making green tea mochi: green tea on the outside, red bean on the inside," said Tom Kumamaru.

Every day, the couple painstakingly makes each signature mochi by hand, crafting up to 4,000 on holidays, such as Christmas Day and New Years.

Their business has become a family affair. Despite being closed for six weeks during the pandemic, which forced a reduction in operating hours, family helped them keep going.

"Melanie, one of our daughters, does Facebook and what's it called, Instagram? We never did that before. Now we take orders on email. We always took phone but now we do emails, so they're pretty efficient and helps us out too," said Tom, all while skillfully wrapping each mochi.

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The changes have been so efficient, the shop has kept their reduced hours. And judging by the lines and happy faces outside, it appears to be working.

Similar to San Francisco there is an emphasis on attracting a new generation to the historic district through scholarships and something called the NCI, or Nikkei Community Interns program.

"All three Japantowns have these interns over the summer. A lot of them are are college age, so they'll go off to college. And we hope that once they're done that they'll come back to the community and participate on whatever level could be just the volunteer, but we hope that they'll take leadership community leadership positions," Nagareda said.

Just one block away, an example of that very concept is at Zonky Plant Theory. Nhat Nguyen is the owner.

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"We grew up in this area, and we wanted to see it grow and be something special for the city of San Jose. We know it won't happen if if the right people aren't involved," Nguyen said.

In these communities -- both San Francisco and San Jose -- despite the challenges of the pandemic, they have stood tall and kept their heritage alive, all while welcoming in new energy and businesses with different backgrounds. They continue to innovate and look forward to building a brighter future.

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