San Francisco celebrates 50th anniversary of Japan Center Peace Plaza

Rising up in the San Francisco skyline, the Japantown Peace Pagoda has become one of the city's landmarks. On Wednesday, the city will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Japan Center Peace Plaza, which dramatically changed the landscape and character of Japantown.

The pagoda was a gift from Osaka, Japan, San Francisco's sister city back in 1968.

"It's a real symbol of peace," said Rosalyn Tonai, the Executive Director of the National Japanese American Historic Society, "The original designer was an Osaka Professor Yoshio Taniguchi and he really envisioned a very new modern, postmodern approach to Japantown and to bring the two cities together. Osaka and San Francisco." 

On March 28, 1968,  the Peace Plaza officially opened along with the Japan Cultural and Trade Center which housed the Japanese consulate, the first Datsun/Nissan dealership in the U.S., and many Japanese restaurants and businesses. 

The Japan Center was designed by Nisei, second-generation, Japanese American architect Minoru Yamasaki, who was also the designer of the New York World Trade Center. 

Old photos show the opening ceremony with no pagoda, which was still under construction at the time. 

"It was a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind in the United States and it was to introduce the United States to Japanese culture," said Richard Hashimoto, President of the Japantown Merchants' Association.

George Yamasaki was an attorney for the Tokioka family that helped develop the Japan Center.

"There were shops, there was a hotel, there were residences," said Yamasaki.

The city's redevelopment project created a Japanese cultural and commercial center, but it also came at a cost for families in more than 2,000 residences and businesses that were razed.

Hashimoto says preserving the businesses that survived is important now. 

"Japantown was 36 blocks large and after Urban Renewal it shrunk down to 9 blocks that we have now," said Hashimoto.

The Japantown Merchants' Association, the East and West Japan Center Malls and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department will honor the fiftieth anniversary of the Japan Center Peace Plaza on Wednesday March 28th.

"It is very important to celebrate our cultural history and our parks. Parks are about place, they connect the past to the present to the future, " said Phil Ginsburg, General Manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

The Plaza has served as a site for festivals and a gathering place. 

"I come here with family or sometimes I just come alone here to sit," said Ellina Talian, a San Francisco resident.

Young people also gravitate to the plaza, drawn to Japanese culture with modern anime, cosplay, and kendama competitions.

"I just think it's a really cool spot to be in," said Spencer Kranz, a kendama fan who was practicing with his friend under the pagoda, "I  think it, like, connects me more to the culture." 

"It's a fun place to be and...cause it's called the peace pagoda, it's kind of peaceful but you kind of get this cool vibe when you're here," said Asher Thomson, another kendama fan.

Community members and Japantown merchants hope they can maintain the Peace Plaza and Japan Center for future generations.  

"It needs upgrading and renovating so we're going through that right could take billions of dollars, " said Hashimoto, who adds that there are ongoing efforts to raise funding to preserve the Japan Peace Plaza.

"It's peace in the sense of world peace, of inner peace, of peace of all kinds," said Yamasaki. 

The 50th Anniversary ceremony on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. will be the first event to kick off what the city says will be a year-long celebration.