Apr 30, 2024 - News

SF Japantown kicks off Peace Plaza renovation project

Photo of the Japantown Peace Pagoda against a blue sky

The Japantown Peace Pagoda and Peace Plaza in 2018. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

San Francisco's project to renovate Japantown Peace Plaza is officially underway as the city shores up preservation efforts for what officials say is one of three remaining Japantowns in the U.S.

Why it matters: Japantown, like San Francisco's Chinatown, struggled to survive the pandemic.

  • The project aims to bolster structural protections and culturally significant features in the plaza, which has served as a central hub for the local Japanese community since it was built in the 1960s.

What they're saying: "San Francisco is the heart of Asian America," Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who helped secure funding for the project, said at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday. "And no community represents that better than Japantown."

  • Mayor London Breed said the project will ensure the Peace Plaza — expected to reopen in early 2026 — remains a central gathering point for future generations.

State of play: The renovation will waterproof the 32,000-square-foot plaza to prevent water leakage to the Japan Center Garage underneath and reconstruct the building with new elements, such as seating, lighting and plants.

  • Boulders, plaques, bonsai trees and monuments will also be salvaged and reinstalled, and the Peace Pagoda — gifted by San Francisco's Japanese sister city Osaka in 1968 — will get a structural upgrade.
  • The project's goals include enlarging the plaza's performance stage.
  • The Japan Center Malls will remain open during the renovation.

The big picture: San Francisco's Japantown is the oldest in the U.S., according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). It dates to 1906, when the Japanese community began moving to the Western Addition neighborhood following the earthquake.

  • Despite facing racism and housing discrimination, the community persisted through World War II — when the U.S. imprisoned people of Japanese descent in internment camps — and the city's urban renewal projects, which razed half of Japantown and displaced over 1,500 residents, per ACHP.
  • Japantown became the city's first designated cultural district in 2013 and is home to popular celebrations like the Nihonmachi Street Fair and Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
  • The two other Japantowns are in San José and Los Angeles.

Worthy of your time: A San Francisco Chronicle project shows the longstanding effects of the World War II exile of Japantown — the number of Japanese people living in the core part of Japantown fell from over 1,300 in 1940 to 730 in 1950.

  • Ancestry also released a new collection of historical records last week honoring the over 125,000 Japanese people who were unjustly imprisoned. A partnership with the Irei Project, the collection covers family histories, names, birthdates and incarceration locations.
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