Sakura — cherry blossom — is symbolic of life’s ephemeral nature. The trees bloomed on schedule this April in Japantown, their delicate display brightening the blocks from Fillmore to Laguna, Geary and Sutter streets.
“We hear the negative things about a community. Why not highlight the good things?” said Grace Horikiri on the subject of her neighborhood’s hopeful bounce-back from the pandemic year.
Horikiri is executive director of the Japantown Community Benefit District. Working with the Office of Workforce and Economic Development, in essence, it’s her job to bolster business and keep Japantown safe and welcoming. But in a year that brought the pandemic, followed with uncertainty around reopening, vaccine availability, virus variants and an outbreak of anti-Asian hate crimes, Japantown’s steady reawakening has told a different story and Horikiri’s role as a community leader has played a central role.
“She’s the one who walked the beat, who checked on us, to see what we needed and informed us of the latest developments from The City,” said Paper Tree’s Linda Tomoko Mihara, an origami artist who runs her family’s 53-year-old decorative paper business.
“Japantown is like a city within a city,” said Horikiri. “There’s a shopping mall, a pre-school, a church, grocery stores.” Though even before the pandemic, some of Japantown’s longstanding residents and businesses struggled to keep up with 21st century San Francisco.
“I know the community,” said Horikiri, who previously worked directing the Nihonmachi Street Fair. “Many of the folks have become my aunties and uncles, they are the elders of the kids I grew up with,” she said. “Although my family didn’t live in Japantown, we had Japanese school back then, Japanese community youth council, and after-school programs. We have long ties here. Japantown was our hangout.”
Since COVID came to the neighborhood and to the rest of the world, “Some merchants have had to rethink how they conduct business,” said Horikiri. She noted Soko Hardware, nearly 100 years old, and sweet shop Benkyodo, also over 100 years old, as family businesses that have successfully made the leap into the modern age.
“Linda is tech savvy,” she said, speaking to Mihara’s ability to temporarily transition Paper Tree into a largely online business that includes classes and innovative displays enabling window shoppers to scan a code and shop virtually.
“As a business owner, you have to think about what you can do,” said Mihara. Horikiri is also attuned to social media presence: Introduced by a mutual friend on Instagram I kept noticing her Japantown posts — that is when she wasn’t posting cute dog pictures. For those Japantown merchants who are less adept with technology, Horikiri is there to help.
“You need to step in and go one on one. They may not have the time to learn but, if someone shows them and explains it,” said Horikiri, the traditional merchants are more amenable to change.
“All the restaurants between Post and Sutter utilized the shared spaces program and opened outdoor dining last year,” she said. “It helped with foot traffic coming into Japantown.”
Mihara agreed. “We’ve been seeing a steady increase in foot traffic since the opening of outdoor dining on Buchanan.The weekend has been almost at a normal level of business for us.”
Early in the pandemic, Japantown had its own community COVID testing site, owing to the neighborhood’s sheer number of senior living facilities. The area’s elder population has also meant residents were on the “higher end of receiving vaccinations,” said Horikiri, referring to city data. But she’s still pushing for accessible vaccinations for Japantown’s workers and immediate neighbors as people return to Japantown for mochi, manga and dining, indoors and out.
“We want to help the folks who work in Japantown, and those right across the street in Saint Francis Coop, not just the Japanese, Japanese American or Korean Americans who live in Japantown,” she said.
On previous occasions when this column visited Japantown, we spoke to atomic bomb survivor Jack Dairiki and with neighborhood historian, preservationist and legal advocate, Karen Kai. Horikiri is the latest in a long line of San Franciscans to serve the Japanese American community established by immigrants in the early 20th century.
“Being born and raised in San Francisco, there’s a lot of things you take for granted,” said Horikiri. “During COVID, I’ve been grateful our city has such diversity. The sharing of culture is what makes it special here. It’s what San Francisco is all about.”
Horikiri values the shared information from The City’s other merchant corridors, neighborhoods and cultural districts.
“We haven’t seen the same kind of incidents as in Chinatown and Visitation Valley,” she said of preempting hate crimes. “But we can’t wait for it to happen, we have to be proactive and have preventive measures in place.”
Japantown’s safety committee has successfully advocated for community ambassadors, senior escorts and at least two San Francisco Police Department foot patrol officers, including one who speaks Japanese. It’s also one of the neighborhood’s on the SF Safe City Camera program, which places high-definition security and surveillance technology on blocks deemed to be high traffic and high-risk.
“Surveillance is a word we like to avoid,” said Horikiri, when asked if there was pushback on the installation of cameras. “They’re really more of a deterrent and in the event of a crime, it can help piece it together.”
On New Year’s Day, a vandal destroyed the cherry blossom trees in front of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. (The incident was captured on camera, though there was no arrest made). A crowdfunding campaign has since covered the cost of replacing the trees, and the cherry blossoms will bloom again next spring.
“This year the Cherry Blossom Festival went virtual. In 2022, we will bring back all the festivals and cultural events,” said Horikiri.
“Although COVID has had a huge impact both economically and how we live and work, it’s brought some good things,” she said. “It’s brought the community together to work together and support Japantown to have a future.”
“Japantown could not have survived without Grace’s help,” said Paper Tree’s Mihara. “We relied on her so much. She’s the one that made it happen. She did it. She gets all the credit.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.