San Francisco’s Japantown was formed after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire and occupies an area of the Filmore district that is roughly within the confines of California Street to the north, O’Farrell Street to the south, Fillmore to the west and Laguna to the east.
San Francisco Japantown History
Japantown is also known as Nihonmachi.
Most Japanese immigrants entered the United States through San Francisco and many settled either south of Market Street or in the Chinatown area. With the 1906 earthquake and the rapid expansion of Los Angeles many Japanese migrated to what is now known as Little Tokyo and Los Angeles remains the most populous Japanese settlement in California today.
Many former residents of San Francisco chose not to return after the World War II related forced internment of Japanese Americans — some even second or third generation Americans — from 1942–45. About one-third of the internees followed the encouragement of the War Relocation Authority and resettled in the East and Midwest.
Japantown was also negatively impacted by redevelopment in the 1950’s with the widening of Geary Boulevard and the destruction of dozens of Victorians to make room for both the boulevard and the Japan Center Mall.
Japan Center Mall
The design for the Webster Bridge was inspired by traditional Japanese pedestrian walkways. In addition to providing a safe passage over the traffic on Geary Boulevard, the arched bridge has views of Japan Center and San Francisco’s Western Addition.
The Japan Center — with its Peace Plaza and five-story Pagoda is the dominate architectural structure in JapanTown.
Fairly nondescript on the outside but filled with delightful restaurants and shops, stairways and open courtyards, the Japan Center Mall is a concentrated expression of Japanese culture in the middle of San Francisco.
The AMC Kabuki 8 Theater — home to the annual San Francisco Asian American Film Festival and San Francisco’s first multiplex— is at the western most end of the Japan Center Mall and the Kabuki Springs and Spa is at the other end, just a block from the Filmore Auditorium on the other side of Geary Boulevard.
The Miyako Hotel at Post and Laguna has a picturesque Japanese garden. There are also two public garages in Japan Center with discounted, validated parking—a major advantage in any San Francisco neighborhood.
Ruth Asawa designed the twin origami-style fountain in the middle of the one block open air mall that visually extends Peace Plaza north on Buchanan Street toward Pacific Heights. Additional artwork by Ruth Asawa in San Francisco can be seen in the Japanese Tea Garden and the Ruth Asawa Fountain on the Grand Hyatt Hotel at Union Square.
Visit our Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival page for pictures and information about this spring event in Japantown. I also have a page of photographs of the Anime costume portion of the Festival.
A Nihonmachi Street Fair is held in Japantown during August to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander communities in San Francisco. The festival typically includes an Obon Festival — sometimes referred to as Bon Festival, Festival of Lanterns, the Festival of Souls, or the Festival of Ancestors — a Buddhist celebration in Japan. In San Francisco you will see Kimono clad dancers perform traditional Obon dances in addition to local Asain art, food fest and more.