HomeAsian AmericansSan Francisco's Japantown braces for change to historic Osaka Way

San Francisco’s Japantown braces for change to historic Osaka Way

by Lawrence Watanabe

In the next few years, the historic Osaka Way in San Francisco’s Japantown could look a bit different.

As San Francisco continues to evolve, some cultural landmarks inevitably face the possibility of unforeseen changes. The Buchanan Mall Pedestrian Street, located between Post and Sutter streets in Japantown, currently faces the contrasting balance between futuristic change and maintaining historically significant areas.

San Francisco entered a sister city partnership with Osaka, Japan in 1957, one that would run until 2018, when, according to The Guardian, Osaka stepped out due to San Francisco’s acceptance of a statue memorializing World War 2 “comfort women.” In 2007, Buchanan Mall was renamed Osaka Way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the relationship; today, the area is referred to by both names.

The Buchanan Mall is set to undergo renovations within the next year. The street features two fountains, resembling origami flowers, designed by famed Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa in 1976. They are connected by cobblestone flooring resembling the flow of a river, and lined on either side by several local businesses.

Current renovation plans are centered around a desire to “enhance accessibility of the Mall for seniors and people with disabilities and limited mobility,” “rehabilitate the Ruth Asawa fountains that are iconic to the mall,” and “support the business community by embellishing the sense of cultural authenticity and enhancing the commercial edges of the mall,” according to San Francisco Public Works and San Francisco Planning

While no finalized renovation plans have been released, some people are bracing for the possibility of significant change to Osaka Way, especially as it relates to a potential removal or alteration to the original cobblestone flooring.

“Stripping the original design of its features will make a laughingstock out of [San Francisco],” said Masako Takahashi, president of the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation. Takahashi noted that a renovation that focused on restoring the work of Asawa and fellow Japanese American artist Rai Okamoto, rather than changing anything about the original mall, would be an opportunity to have “something unique [for the whole City to be proud of].”

“I argue that the garden be proclaimed The Ruth Asawa Garden,” said Takahashi. “Viewed as the garden design it was always meant to be, the cobblestones are an integral, inseparable part of the two fountains and their [surroundings].”

Takahashi also noted that “there is plenty of flat surface to walk on each side of the river design, more room than when the street was open to cars.”

“It’s very important that places [like Japantown] maintain a sense of character,” remarked Aya Newman.

A lifelong Bay Area resident of Japanese descent, Newman grew up frequenting Japantown with their parents as a means of “connecting and feeling educated about [their] Japanese heritage.” They additionally noted that Buchanan Mall “is a part of the ‘feel’ of Japantown,” and that “where the fountains are, the cobblestone river creates a different feeling from paved sidewalk… something natural, like pebbles in a koi pond.” Newman said that even if the city decides to repave the road, the preservation of the original cobblestone would be important.

“Accommodating in a way that allows people of older generations to get around and appreciate the beauty…[the city needs] to keep the cobblestone in some way, even if only a small piece of it, in a way that doesn’t limit mobility,” they said.

Kit Lee, a student who described visiting Japantown several times throughout their life, views the neighborhood as a piece of childhood nostalgia. Having been to a few of the businesses around Osaka Way (they singled out Hinodeya Ramen and Forest Bookstore), they described a basic familiarity with the area.

“I understand the need to change from cobblestone to something more accessible,” they said, “but there is a lot of value in the originality of it.”

As someone who is not of Japanese descent, Lee described the significance of considering culture while maintaining and renovating hubs like Japantown.

“It’s pretty important for cultural and identity reasons… people are attached to places like that. As someone who is also Asian, I would want [to keep a sense of unique character] for my own culture… the city needs to remember that,” Lee said. 

While the city currently aims to begin construction sometime in 2025, the Japantown Task Force has held open house meetings throughout the entire design process, allowing community members to provide feedback on popular ideas, as well as giving an outlet for new ideas. The third and final of these is set to take place at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California on Tuesday, February 6 at 5:30 PM. According to its Eventbrite page, it will be based on the “final conceptual design” of the project. Admission is free, and it will be a final chance to provide feedback, both in person and virtually through Zoom.

The website says that designers have “[integrated] valuable community feedback from previous iterations [of the Open House].” The event will be a great opportunity for the community to unite and help to ensure that renovations in Osaka Way are true to what they want.

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