HomeTop StoriesThe community comes together to revive the Japantown language school

The community comes together to revive the Japantown language school

Kinmon Gakuen in San Francisco’s Japantown is set to receive a major facelift after community leaders led a fundraising effort. Supporters say it is a symbol of survival as other remains have disappeared during decades of urban renewal in the neighborhood.

Diane Matsuda vividly remembers coming to Kinmon Gakuen every week as a child.

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

The San Francisco resident took 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 vibrant, vibrant location for a lot of people, and then World War II broke out and everyone had to leave,” Matsuda said.

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

“In exchange for giving their surname, they received an ID number. They were no longer human. They were literally a piece of government property,” Matsuda said.

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“In a sense, the building is a symbol,” says Masahiko Minami.

Minami, a SF State professor who specializes in Japanese language and intercultural studies, explained how a San Francisco school board policy in 1906 required all children of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent to attend an “Oriental School ‘ in Chinatown led to the founding of the school.

“That was the reason for the creation of Kinmon Gakuen. The Japanese people gathered to create Kinmon Gakuen,” said Minami.

Early teachers taught both Japanese and English to newer immigrants. Over the course of 2031, Bush Street became a central meeting place for the community. But after World War II, many parts of Japantown began to fade.

“As redevelopment continued and many homes and businesses in Japantown fell apart, we were fortunate that this building was spared,” Matsuda says.

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

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They say more is needed to modernize the rest of the historic building, which was recently designated a landmark by the city.

“Reki shi mi ra men means bringing history into our future,” Matsuda said.

Searching through old photos reminds them of Kinmon Gakuen’s past.

“It is very important for future generations to understand the problems and challenges our grandparents from Issei had to build this building and what their vision was for the future. We want to continue to keep the community’s vision alive,” said Matsuda.

It brings new life to an old part of Japantown, for the next generation. School board members expect groundbreaking and construction to begin sometime this year or next year.

Classes are offered every Saturday and will continue during the makeover.

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