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Community comes together to revitalize Japantown language school

Community works to preserve historic Japanese American language school in S.F.
Community works to preserve historic Japanese American language school in S.F. 03:12

Kinmon Gakuen in San Francisco's Japantown is poised to undergo a major facelift after community leaders spearheaded a fundraising effort. Proponents say it's a symbol of survival, as other relics have disappeared during decades of urban renewal in the neighborhood.  

Diane Matsuda vividly remembers when she would come to Kinmon Gakuen as a child every week.

"It was a place where we learned about community. It was a place where you learned about your cultural heritage," said Matsuda.

The San Francisco native attended Japanese language classes every Saturday morning. So did generations of Japanese Americans before her, when the language school opened in 1911.

"It was always a lively, lively venue for many many people, and then World War II happened, and everyone had to leave," said Matsuda.

Kinmon Gakuen, which translates into English as "Golden Gate Institute", became a processing center as Japanese-American citizens were forcibly sent to internment camps starting in 1942.

"In exchange for giving their family name, they were given an ID number. They were no longer humans. They were literally a piece of government property," said Matsuda.

"In a sense, the building is a symbol," said Masahiko Minami.

Minami, an SF State professor who specializes in Japanese language and cross cultural studies, explained how a San Francisco school board policy mandating in 1906 that all children of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent attend an "Oriental School" in Chinatown led to the creation of the school.

"That triggered the establishment of Kinmon Gakuen. The Japanese people gathered to set up Kinmon Gakuen," said Minami.

Early educators taught both Japanese and English to newer immigrants. Over ime, 2031 Bush Street became a central gathering place for the community. But after World War 2, many parts of Japantown began to fade away.

"When redevelopment came through and ripped apart a lot of the homes and businesses in Japantown, we were lucky this building was spared," said Matsuda.

Matsuda and fellow board members have secured $10 million in city and state grants to turn a dilapidated auditorium into a 21st century performing arts center.

They say more is needed to modernize the rest of the historic building, recently classified as a landmark by the city.

"'Reki shi mi ra men' means bringing history into our future," said Matsuda.

Sifting through old pictures reminds them of Kinmon Gakuen's past.

"It's really important for future generations to understand what struggles and challenges our Issei grandparents had to build this building and what their vision was for the future. We want to continue to keep the vision of community alive," said Matsuda.

It's bringing new life into an old part of Japantown, for the next generation. The school board members expect a groundbreaking and construction to begin sometime this year or next.

Classes are offered every Saturday, and will continue to be taught during the makeover. 

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