SF Japantown losing 105-year-old landmark Sakai market

Fishmonger Kitaichi Sakai founded Uoki K. Sakai Co. market in a city that was just rebuilding after the devastating 1906 earthquake.

For more than 105 years, the grocery survived — from the Sakai family’s internment during World War II to the migration of Japanese-Americans to the suburbs. But this year, the realities of running a family business, coupled with the economic aftershocks of this year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, led to the closure of this pillar of Japantown.

The Sakai market will close its Post Street doors at 5 p.m. Saturday, according to a sign handwritten in English and Japanese that was taped near the front door earlier this month.

“We’re losing a landmark,” Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, said of the specialty food shop that packs aisles with sake, natto, nori, takenoko and daikon.

The loss of the market is the latest blow to a Japanese community that has fought to preserve the neighborhood’s character despite redevelopment and as businesses have left the hands of Japanese.

The City’s Japantown is just one of three remaining Japanese neighborhoods in California, according to Preserving California’s Japantowns, a state-funded project to document Japanese-American history.

“It’s still strong,” Hashimoto said. “We still have our community constituents who want to preserve it.”

Hashimoto said he hopes another Japanese business will move into the market’s space.

Though third-generation grocery owner Robert Sakai declined to be interviewed, an employee said the store was closing in part because Sakai planned to retire and the fourth generation of the family did not want to take over the business.

“Basically, if you have a family business, you have two options: sell it or close it down,” said Aaron Bratt, 40, who has worked in the store since graduating from high school in 1989.

Bratt said the Sakai family was planning to keep the building and would probably lease the storefront to another business.

Business has been tougher since the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster that hit Japan in March, Bratt said, because Japanese food became more expensive.

Kayo Kurata, who grew up in San Francisco but now lives on the Peninsula, said her family had been coming to the market “since before the war.”

“It’s sad. I was surprised,” said Kurata.

Lori Wakil, 50, of the Sunset district stopped by Thursday to pick up ingredients for ozoni, a traditional New Year’s Japanese soup.

“It’s changed over the years, but this is one thing that kept this neighborhood Japanese,” Wakil said.

It was sad for Bratt as well. His mother is Japanese, he said, and he has been coming to the store since he was a baby.

“To me, it’s like losing a family member,” Bratt said. “I think it’s really going to hit me when I come by here next time and just see an empty storefront.”



Population shift

Japanese-Americans have been leaving The City during the past three decades.
2010: 10,121
2000: 11,410
1990: 12,047
Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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