San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 6 — The Japanese

By Robert H. Willson

Kimono Clad Butterflies Scarce, But Wide-Awake Merchants Plentiful in Colony.

"Yes, please, I cannot come this week for window cleaning your house."

The negative yes was an old story to San Franciscans long before the tropical fruit merchant and the tropical song writer made it popular.

In Japanese rhetoric it is the affirmative of politeness. It is a form of speech that might well be employed more generally.

"Will you lend me a ten?" asks Smith.

"Yes, but I have no money," replies Jones.

There can be no hard feelings. Jones has granted the request.

It is going back into the history of the Japanese colony in San Francisco, however, to speak of the house-cleaning associations and the school boys who once flourished and kept many homes flourishing. The Japanese now are engaged . . .in mercantile enterprises, [farming] and in garden[ing]. [If] the lion and the lamb [had to live] together the old question of who is to do the housework will probably not have been solved.

The adult male Japanese population of the city has decreased within the past few years. There has been a high birth rate for the decade which maintains the total of population.

In Heart of City.

The Japanese colony has secured a firm footing in the very heart of San Francisco. Geary, Post and Sutter streeets, between Van Ness avenue and Fillmore street, have become a Japanese district. Stores and shops for the Japanese are in this district. Japanese stores for the American trade cling to Grant avenue and share in the business of Chinatown even to the extent of handling Chinese wares.

It is picturesque that the outsider looks for in a foreign land or a foreign colony. "Little Tokio"—you may have heard of it, and imagined some quaint locality of Oriental architecture, kimono clad butterflies and strange temples. But the Japanese have never built in San Francisco, and have sold kimonos to others in exchange for the drab costumes of "civilization."

Wallace Irwin, San Franciscan, who introduced the transplanted Japanese to the understanding and appreciation of the western world in a humorous way, a long time ago wrote a prophecy of what is happening:

"How the gods may be surprised
When Nippon grows 'civilized,'
When the spade of commerce threads
Railroads through your iris beds;
Vanish clogs, kimonos, fan,
Vanish beauty from Japan,
Vanish you, Oyucha San."

The Japanese race once stood as an example among races of the poetic, fanciful, picturesque and aesthetic, made a part of every day life and environment. These aspects are passing in Japan, as they are laid aside here, apparently with little regret. The practical side of life—business, commerce and political ambition—have taken a firm possession of the Japanese mind.

I asked Consul General Oyama if there were no feeling of reluctance or regret at this transition; no effort on the part of those who still hold the key to prevent the world from becoming all of one color—a drab old sphere of bricks and machinery.

"No," he said. "The nations of the world will go on progressing. We shall rebuild Tokio more as a modern city. Our architecture is not practical or safe in a big city. We must have reinforced concrete, and the staple designs of the modern engineer.

Adopt Customs.

"The Japanese have come to America because it is the land of opportunity. To take advantage of these opportunities it is necessary to fall into the customs and ways of the country. The Japanese are limited only by the restrictions which are placed about them. They would rapidly become in every other respect as citizens."

It is only inside the home and family that the Japanese succeed in preserving some of their pretty traditions. Have you ever seen in a Japanese store or home a blind god, or a god with one eye? Even the gods have to be disciplined. When some stroke of good fortune comes to the family, the blind god gets one eye. Then he sits patiently and awaits until he brings more good fortune, when he gets his second eye. It is a rather novel idea that one can make the gods be good to him.

There is a striking resemblance in the play songs of the Japanese children and the lullaby songs of the Japanese mothers to those we are familiar with. Almost every child has made his wish with the first star of the evening—"star light, star bright." This is what the Japanese children sing:

"Mr. Star, Mr. Star,
For a single star to rise alone is not right
Even a thousand, even ten thousand should rise together."

Japanese mothers in these busy times are engaged in embroidering and making kimonos, rather than in teaching folk lore to their children. Nevertheless they hum the old lullabies to the babies as they work. You hear quite an exact version of some of the Mother Goose rhymes, such as "Bye baby bunting, Daddy's gone a hunting," only that the Japanese father is expected to bring home something like red beans or rice cakes, more practical, perhaps than a rabbit skin.

Raise Fund First.

To encounter real Japanese enthusiasm, and the spirit of the colony here, you must turn to some such project as the Japanese Chamber of Commerce is now engaged upon. Last April the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce invited those nations represented here by consulates to take part in a permanent industries exhibition. Ahead of all the other nations and before the Chamber of Commerce has been able to secure a place for such an exhibition, the Japanese have a $100,000 collection already coming in at this port, and are planning to set it up as an individual show until such time as a place is provided for it. Secretary Watanabe of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce is as enthusiastic over this project as if it were fully and solely an enterprise of his own.

"Think what it will mean to San Francisco," he said, "to have on exhibition here the products, materials and manufactured goods in which all the nations who come to this port are trading. We have Japanese buyers coming here to get American machinery. They do not know where to get what they desire or what is best. In San Francisco they go to this exhibition where many kinds are shown. They find out with little trouble or expense if the article they want is made in Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or Detroit. They do not have to travel all over this big country.

"The same is true for the American buyer who is coming from New York. He needs not to go to Tokio or Yokohama, or Kobe or Osaka. In San Francisco he goes to the Japanese exhibit, and there finds what he is looking for. It is not for sale to him, but he must write to the manufacturer instead of going thousands of miles across the ocean to find it. My government and all Japanese Chambers of Commerce think this will make San Francisco a great commercial city of the world. Only this week our goods for exhibition have been exempted from customs duty, and are coming in. I think the Japanese exhibition  will open in January, alone at first, but moving as soon as the other countries and manufacturers are ready."

Rice and Cotton.

The largest single item in the shipments from San Francisco to Japan is cotton, unmanufactured. Next has come recently to be one of Japan's own leading products, rice. San Francisco's chief item on the import list from Japan, of course, is silk, raw and manufactured, amounting in all to probably something over ten million dollars in value, without having available the figures for this closing year.

It may be interesting to note that in 1922 the United States exchanged raw cotton valued at 178,808,772 yen for Japanese raw silk valued at 610,844,118 yen, and then the United States brought back manufactured cotton valued at 4,125,972 yen, making in these two leading articles a considerable balance in favor of Japan. However, summing up all imports and exports, the balance for the previous year was not large, the imports of the United States being $251,267,660 and the exports to Japan $235,425,679, giving a small net balance in favor of the United States.

Among the large Japanese business enterprises in San Francisco are two large Japanese banks, a steamship company, sixteen general exporting and importing firms, some fifty or more wholesale dealers in art goods and general merchandise engaging in a small way in importing, about twenty florists, three large hotels and three bookstores. They even have a stock and bond house in San Francisco.

The atmosphere in the Japanese colony, as even a stranger might surmise, is chiefly of business. Consul General Oyama says the problem of unemployment is almost unknown in this city. He has some fears for approaching conditions in the country. Many of the young men engaged formerly in domestic service have gone to the country where wages have been high and where labor has been most in demand. The law which put the Japanese farmer out of business has brought about a new condition. Prejudice against Japanese labor keeps the Japanese out of many of the fruit districts where labor at certain seasons is most in demand. Japanese companies engaged in farming and farmers were able to employ many of their countrymen, but since they may no longer hold land, they must all look elsewhere for employment. They do not want to come back to the city and in the present scheme of things it is not desirable that they should. There is competition of labor in the cities while in the country there is an unfilled demand. Oyama says the disposition of the Japanese is to accept without resistance the laws and edicts of the court, and to continue as best they may to look for employment that will not be less profitable than that they have enjoyed. Another aspect of the problem he sees is that the Japanese have sought of late to labor here whereas now they have little opportunity outside of that offered by mercantile enterprises, or the securities offered by banks and corporations.

Not Representative.

Americans are apt to forget in their estimates of any immigrant population the vast difference between the top and the bottom of society in any country—our own as well as others. It is the lower stratum naturally that first becomes migratory, those who lack the education, culture or inherited opportunity to progress at home. If inducements were held out to one thousand Americans to go to Borneo it would not be the representative citizens of San Francisco who would respond—not even the representative wage-earners who are comfortable and satisfied at home. Borneo would probably form a peculiar idea of Americans from its colony.

San Francisco is fortunate in having quite a large proportion of the educated, cultured and prosperous Japanese. The Nippon Club at 740 Taylor street, composed of Japanese business and professional men, is unquestionably the best appointed and most prosperous foreign club in the city. It occupies a three-story brick building, designed and built for its purposes.

The first floor is devoted to reception room, office and billiard and chess rooms. On the second floor are the main dining room, private dining rooms and kitchen. The large dining room with an adjacent room is convertible into an auditorium where the friends and families of members are frequently entertained. On the third floor is a luxuriously furnished men's lounge, with smaller rooms for members who wish to entertain privately. The presence of a Japanese naval ship in this harbor always means a period of festivity at the Nippon Club. It is an exclusive organization having a membership of about seventy-five. Here you may meet the Japanese millionaire, for such there is, and without exaggeration; or the university graduate whose education puts you a little ill at ease for your own neglected opportunities.

Leaving the club and going out into a vegetable garden you find yourself among an entirely different type of Japanese. And yet here you will seldom find either poverty or want. There are few appeals for relief among the Japanese, there are a few of them in hospitals, and a Japanese in jail in an exception. Their chief fault is Caesar's—they are ambitious.

There are several Japanese bookstores in the city and they are well patronized, this, in spite of the fact that the majority of the Japanese are hard workers and have little leisure. The Japanese have so far given little thought to the eight-hour day, except as it offers an opportunity to secure additional compensation for ten or twelve hours. Sleeping and eating are regarded as necessities rather than as indulgences.

Where the Chinese have built large and luxuriously equipped restaurants not only for the American trade but for themselves the Japanese have contented themselves with small eating places serving simple food or with employment in American restaurants.

There are one or two places in the Japanese district where, in a simple way, you may dine in the Nipponese style, with a course of raw fish, one of grilled eels and another of fowl that is cooked individually on a little stove that is brought to your table. Patronage of these places, however, is limited to a few of the initiated and they are quite obscure.

Little Real Art.

The great bulk of art goods coming to San Francisco in these days consists of trinkets and novelties but there are one or two places dealing only in genuine art, antiques, paintings and carvings of great age and value. These shops enjoy a small amount of retail patronage and find their customers among the museums and collectors of the East and Europe. In one of these shops you may look about over a small space where are exhibited art objects valued at a quarter of a million dollars.

Hostility naturally breeds hostility and suspicion. The Japanese are all aware of the legislative action in California against ownership and tenancy of land. Japanese wives and mothers are cognizant of the attitude toward "picture brides." They do not want any more pictures taken after they are established here nor do they want their children to pose before the camera. It is probably more difficult for an American to get an inside view of the Japanese colony than to ramble unobserved and inconspicuous in any of the other foreign pathways.

"The fish in the net are all good for some purpose," says the Japanese fisherman. He looks philosophically upon the recent disaster in Japan. The quick response of San Francisco and California in sending aid to the survivors has done much to remove racial prejudice and antagonisms arising over political relations.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 23 December 1923. K3. Pictures not included: Nippon Club House—billiard room and study, and children.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License