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Japantown rebounds with help from San Francisco native's community district

Jefferson Award winner: Grace Horikiri
Jefferson Award winner: Grace Horikiri 03:55

A San Francisco native is helping keep alive the city's historic Japantown, one of only three left in the U.S.

Growing up, Grace Horikiri came to Japantown to learn the Japanese language, become a youth leader, and hang out with friends. Today, Jtown is a part of her identity.

What place does it hold in her heart?

"All the way, deep, deep, deep down inside," she laughed. "I live and breathe Japantown."

Jefferson Award Winner Grace Horikiri  CBS

Horiki keeps the history, culture and beauty of Jtown alive as executive director of the Japantown Community Benefit District for the last four years.

"It gives me a chance to not only give back to the community but to make sure it's going to be here for the future," she said.


To that end, she's headed up the Nihonmachi Street Fair in the heart of Japantown for over half its 50 years. The festival celebrates the rich diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Horiki recently helped lead the effort to make the fair a Legacy Business, a city designation that comes with business, marketing and grant support.

But many locals will tell you Horikiri's work was most critical in the pandemic. Linda Mihara owns the Paper Tree, an origami store her parents started 57 years ago. She says Horikiri crafted a strategy that kept many stores from folding.

"She's the only reason Japantown survived the pandemic," Mihara stated.

She said Horikiri checked in with small business owners often to ensure they had updates from the city, PPE, Covid tests, and access to vaccines.

The Paper Tree was among 80 stores that received grants from a half-million-dollar fund raised by the Japantown Community Benefit District. With Horikiri at the helm, the district also helped set up outdoor dining, and promoted Jtown through social media, technology many mom-and-pop stores had never used.

"Without her support and continued making sure she took care of the community, none of us would be open," Mihara said.

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

Today, Japantown sales tax revenue and foot traffic are above pre-Covid level, and Horikiri remains a face and voice for Jtown. Whether she's keeping in step with yellow-clad community safety ambassadors or walking arm-in-arm with the mayor to promote city unity, she's only a phone call away from community members she calls family.

"If my Dad calls me in the middle of the night, I will answer the phone. Same thing with the small businesses, too," Horikiri said.

So for sustaining a thriving Japantown in San Francisco, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Grace Horikiri.

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