Friday, February 24, 2006

Japantown and hyphenated Americanism

The consensus is that Japantown must be saved/preserved at all costs. But this is yet another unexamined issue here in Progressive Land. Why should preserving ethnic enclaves be a priority in a country that prides itself on the integration/assimilation of immigrants?

Last year Japantown successfully rebuffed Starbucks for not being Japanese enough, even though there are more than 500 Starbucks stores in Japan itself. The latest crisis involves the impending sale of large chunks of real estate in Japantown, once again threatening the "cultural significance" of the neighborhood. Mayor Newsom himself sent a letter to the present property owners: "Any future owner should be put on notice that the City will require the preservation of the cultural significance of Japantown. The importance of perserving San Francisco's Japantown is even more significant given that only three Japantowns remain in the United States." And the mayor told a neighborhood meeting, "I don't want to be the mayor of San Franicsco who let Japantown fall apart." (SF Chronicle, Feb. 22, 2006)

So what exactly is the "cultural significance" of Japantown/Japantowns? The mayor doesn't tell us, and neither does anyone else involved, including of course D5 Supervisor Mirkarimi. The unexamined assumption is that Japantown is Good and must be preserved, which is questionable, given the country's history of assimilating immigrants. Why should government work to preserve unassimilated ethnic groups? Of course there's a political motivation for both the mayor and Supervisor Mirkarimi: People in Japantown vote, and they could politically influence those in SF of Asian ethnic origin, which is more than 30% of the city's population. And, just as important, there is the economic factor. Like Chinatown, though on a lesser scale, Japantown is a tourist destination, with its Japanese restaurants and its special events, like the Cherry Blossom Festival.

What kind of neighborhood demographically is everyone trying to preserve? When you look at the numbers put out by the Japantown Task Force itself, you find that white people comprise the largest population group in the neighborhood at 44%, with black people coming in second at 17%. It turns out that people of actual Japanese descent comprise only 10% of the neighborhood's population.

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