50 Years Ago, CANE Sounded The Alarm About Saving Japantown And The Need for Affordable Housing

By: John Ota. Posted August 12, 2023

50 years ago, CANE, the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction, addressed at least two matters that remain urgent, on-going issues today: saving Nihonmachi (Japantown) and the need for more affordable housing.

CANE poster by Wes Senzaki, artist and CANE member.

Saving Japantown

In recent years, many have raised concerns regarding the demise of the 43 Japantowns that once existed in California and the need to preserve the three or four remaining Japantowns, but little attention has been paid to past efforts to preserve these historic communities.

One such effort, CANE, formed in San Francisco in 1973.

One of CANE’s two principles was “Stop the destruction and dispersal of the Japanese community and keep Nihonmachi a residential and small business community.”

CANE pointed out that Nihonmachi was not just the physical center of the Japanese American community, but also “the concentrated expression of Japanese American history,” and that “racial injustice takes the form of denying us the right to maintain the communities we built up, of forcing us out.”

CANE not only talked about preserving and protecting Japantown, it also took action to accomplish this, including supporting the construction of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center,  the Kimochi Home, assisted living residence, and the Nihonmachi Terrace housing project in Japantown.

Several years after CANE dissolved, former CANE members were also part of the successful effort to retain the Japantown YWCA building, which had been built by Issei women, as a childcare center, thus preserving an historic building and a vital community institution.

Destruction of Japantowns

California’s 43 Japantowns suddenly vanished in 1942 due to the government’s mass incarceration of all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

Some Japantowns were reestablished when the mass incarceration ended after 1945, but none fully recovered as many people did not return to their pre-war locales due to post-War anti-Japanese violence, government orders to Japanese Americans to disperse and not congregate after incarceration, and for other reasons.

Starting from scratch, Japanese Americans were struggling to reestablish their lives, homes, and communities after the war when, from the 1950s on in in San Francisco and other cities, they were once again forced by the government to leave their homes – this time in the name of “redevelopment.”

Along with Japanese Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color, especially those in city centers, all around the country were evicted and their communities destroyed to make way for freeways, corporate projects, and new housing well beyond the means of the former residents.

Fed up with governmental forced relocation and assimilation in 1942 and again during redevelopment, Japanese Americans and other residents organized to resist evictions and to save Nihonmachi.

Japantown Is Our Right

Around the same time that CANE was founded in early 1973 in San Francisco, the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) formed in Los Angeles with similar aims.

Today, it is widely accepted that it we must preserve and protect the last remaining Japantowns,but CANE may have been the first to assert our right to have Japantowns — these concentrated expressions of our history, places where we can come together to learn, celebrate and pass on our history, culture and traditions, organize to build economic, political and institutional power to fight racism, defend and extend our rights and interests, and the rights and interests of all.

CANE also pointed out that the mass incarceration of 1942 made it even more urgent to preserve Japantowns as a means for the community to recover from that momentous intergenerational trauma.

Wes Sennzaki working on CANE mural. Photo: J-Town Collective.

Affordable Housing

Today, the unhoused or homeless, who were estimated at over 582,000 nationwide in 2022, are one of the most urgent social crises we face.

The number of unhoused persons continues to rise despite the vast and increasng wealth in this nation.

Undeniably, one of the major reasons for this crisis is the lack of affordable housing.

CANE and other contemporary groups pointed out the need for more affordable housing, especially for the thousands being evicted by the Redevelopment Agency.

CANE attended hearings, organized community meetings, held sit-ins, and led demonstrations and other actions in opposition to evictions and in support of affordable housing and small business space.

CANE also worked together with churches and community organizations to get affordable housing for the community: Nihonmachi Terrrace, the Japanese American Religious Federation (JARF) housing project.

CANE picket line at Post & Buchanan Streets in Japantown. Photo: J-Town Collective.

Fighting Spirit

50 years ago, many doubted whether Japanese Americans, especially everyday working folks, would stand together, and join with neighbors of other races, to openly protest evictions, fight to save Japantown and agitate for affordable housing.

With its sit-ins, picket lines, and other mass actions involving multiple generations of not just Japanese Americans but many races, CANE proved the skeptics wrong.

CANE’s fighting spirit, grassroots foundation, and multi-racial, intergenerational make-up helped give rise to similar organizations in the 1970s, such as LTPRO in Los Angeles and Nihonmachi Outreach Committee in San Jose, as well as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR), founded  in 1980 and progressive Nikkei organizations today.

CANE group photo on Buchanan St. after a rally. Photo: Copyright Richard N. Wada, All Rights Reserved.

A 50 year celebration of CANE will take place on August 19, 2 pm at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center, 1840 Sutter St., San Francisco. Those planning to attend should RSVP by email to CANE50@gmail.com.

Author’s Bio: John Ota, who lives in  Alameda, CA, is a former member of CANE and NCRR.

Featured Image:

CANE members and supporters on Sutter St. March Dobashi’s garage can be seen across the street. Photo: Boku Kodama.

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