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Redevelopment is again threatening Salt Lake’s Japantown. This time, a younger generation is ready for the challenge.

The Salt Palace encroached on the once-thriving Japantown. Now members of SLC NextGen JA want to join discussions on downtown’s entertainment district.

When members of Utah’s Japanese American community heard about plans to create a downtown Salt Lake City entertainment district linking the Delta Center to the Salt Palace Convention Center, there were two immediate reactions: panic and deja vu.

Those feelings spurred Aimee Kyed and Kenzie Hirai, who used to work together, to start chatting about what was going on in Salt Lake City’s Japantown — and to seek a seat at the table as the city and Smith Entertainment Group, which owns the Utah Jazz and the new Utah Hockey Club, make plans that could change the neighborhood again.

“We were kind of like, ‘Well, there’s a lot of excitement around the arena and this new development, and what if Japantown could be part of that?’” said Kyed, an architect. “This seems like it could be our chance.”

Kyed and Hirai are among a dozen younger Japanese Americans who have formed SLC NextGen JA, a group focusing on talks about the proposed revitalization of downtown Salt Lake City.

Trey Imamura, who heard about the group in March and was eager to join, said NextGen’s mission is to “amplify the collective Japanese-American voice of Salt Lake City, through intergenerational collaboration that promotes the diverse voices of Japantown’s past, present and future.”

That intergenerational collaboration stems from the history of Japantown. Nearly 60 years ago, Japantown was a sprawling hub of commerce, culture and community. It was home to 90 businesses and organizations, according to Imamura, and a refuge for those displaced by incarceration camps of World War II.

Before demolition began in 1965 to make room the Salt Palace, Japantown — founded in 1902 — spanned “nearly 10 city blocks” and was home to almost 8,000 people, according to the NextGen group, but was forced to downsize because of construction.

“People remember that vividly, the change in the community,” Imamura said. “There’s so many people who have vivid memories of an active and live Japantown.”

Today, Japantown is limited to a single block, along both sides of 100 South between 200 and 300 West.

It’s tucked away into a corner that faces the Salt Palace’s loading dock to the east and towering buildings to the west. Within the neighborhood are two places of worship — the Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple — and a World War II memorial garden.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Japanese Church of Christ, on 100 South in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, June 27, 2024.

What Japantown was — and what it could continue to be

Ethan Hirabayashi, another NextGen member, said people in the group have heard stories passed down from their families about “feeling safe” in Japantown.

For almost 60 years, the Japanese American community in Utah has not had a nonreligious place to gather in Japantown — no restaurants, no markets, no coffee shops. But the sense of community has not wavered.

Hirai said, “It’s super important to realize that it wasn’t just a place where there were a lot of Japanese businesses, it was a place to feel safe, and that was before World War II. Then after, it was a safe place to land as well. We would like to preserve that feeling for folks coming to Salt Lake City.”

Hirai said her aunt was incarcerated at the Topaz Internment Camp in Delta, Utah, during World War II, where Hirai’s aunt requested a Salt Lake City business license for Japantown. After she was released, she had “a place to land” in Japantown, and was able to establish a miso factory.

Kyed’s grandmother, who was born in Oakland, California, was relocated to Topaz. That’s how her family ended up here for generations — her grandmother married a man who lived in Utah, and they never went back.

“It’s definitely intertwined in Japantown, the history of World War II,” Kyed said.

These experiences are also starkly different from what members of the younger NextGen group have gone through. Hirai said that the younger generations of Japanese-Americans in Utah get to experience “the last part” of what generations before them established.

“I don’t think in any of our lifetimes here on the street, we can ever remember associating the words ‘active’ and ‘live’ outside of Obon,” Imamura added. The Obon Festival is a festival that celebrates joy in Buddhism, Imamura, who teaches the dances at the event.

(GSBS Architects, via Salt Lake City) The Obon Festival in Salt Lake City, which happens annually in what remains of the city’s Japantown neighborhood.

Kyed said Obon, which this year will be celebrated in Salt Lake City on July 13, also commemorates ancestors that have passed on.

Obon, for her, is “better than Christmas.” “There’s a lot of nostalgic memories centered around that we do every year,” Kyed said.

Marisa Eng, another NextGen member, said these experiences are why they are all so passionate about keeping the community preserved. Obon, she said, is often their favorite time of the year because it “brings the whole community together.”

All 12 members of NextGen have different backgrounds and experiences, Eng said. Many in the group have grown up immersed in Japanese culture through the two houses of worship and other cultural activities.

Many of them are also members of either the Church of Christ or the Buddhist Temple, though it’s not a requirement to join NextGen. Because of those faith connections, though, the members of NextGen have known each other well enough to call each other “family.”

That family feeling is apparent one evening in June, when they gather at the Buddhist Temple, and look at old photos.

“Bet we’re in the background of each other’s photos,” one member said. Many of them are standing next to each other in the photos, younger and with bright smiles.

Another member, Kristine Aramaki, pointed to a photo of her and her sister, each wearing kimonos her grandmother custom-made for them. Her family has photos to commemorate how Obon has been a multigenerational celebration in Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clarysa Park, Ethan Hirabayashi, and Marisa En, look through photos from past Japanese Festivals, on Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

Hirai says she has photos of her great uncle learning judo in the basement of the church.

The photos show the NextGen members when they were younger, celebrating Obon and Nihon Matsuri (a festival in April that celebrates Japanese culture) together, attending church and temple activities and classes together.

Kyed recalled them playing “pig,” basketball and volleyball at the Buddhist temple, and having sleepovers. The memories are plentiful, even if the space in Japantown was limited.

“Growing up, it was more than just festivals,” Eng said, recalling classes they took in Japanese and in shodo, the art of calligraphy.

“Having a place to come back where everyone understands your culture, you kind of bond over the cultural celebrations that you have. It’s just nice to have that kind of family,” Kyed said.

“We want to be able to carry that on for future generations and other people who might be interested, who may be coming from other places. That’s what in my mind drives me: those memories and that feeling of being at home,” Eng said.

Carrying the torch

Imamura said his hope for the NextGen group is to help bring around a more activated Japantown.

“Instead of being, ‘Oh, there’s a Japantown in Salt Lake,’ [to] Oh, there is a Japantown in Salt Lake … there’s more going on here and instead of just being a loading dock,” Imamura said.

In March, the Salt Lake City Council was exploring ways to facilitate an around $15 million refresh of Japantown, but streetscape construction for that project has yet to begin, as an op-ed by members Alex Hirai and Clarysa Park noted. Those plans were made before discussions of an entertainment district dominated the conversation over Japantown’s future.

Ultimately, the group wants to continue “fostering that partnership with SEG” and “having a seat at the table the whole time and fully,” Hirai said. The group said they’ve also been working closely with council member Darin Mano throughout this process.

They’d also like to come up with their own plan for the revitalization of the Japantown properties that they can all work on together, Kyed said. The group also said this has taught them all how to be more involved in the government and city functions.

“We’re kind of learning also how to advocate for ourselves, learning a lot about our government system and who are my representatives that I can reach out to when I want to get something done,” Kyed said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marisa Eng, Kristine Aramaki, Alex Hairi, Kenzi Hairi and Trey Imamura, look at photos from past Japanese Festivals, on Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

NextGen has also tabled at events with a petition set up by Park, one of the op-ed writers, that has seen great support from within their community and outside it.

A representative from Smith Entertainment Group did not respond to questions asked by a reporter for this story.

On Tuesday, however, at a Salt Lake City Council work session, in a proposed pact, $5 million of a unverified $100 million fund will be earmarked for the restoration of Japantown. A possible vote on the pact was postponed to July 9.

At the session, City Attorney Katherine Lewis said that, additionally, SEG “commits to continue to be in close conversation with the members of the Japantown community, including a commitment to a minimum twice a year for 36 months, with members designated by the Japanese Church of Christ and the Buddhist Temple to discuss SEG’s project progress and planning efforts related to the revitalization of Japantown in to receive input from those designated members.”

Lewis also said SEG will commit to “using commercially reasonable efforts to incorporate Japanese architectural and landscaping elements into that portion of the District development and also will work with the Japanese American community to develop historical markers that relate and reflect Japantown’s history.”

Elders in Utah’s Japanese American community have been responsive to NextGen’s efforts. Some elders, Imamura said, have given advice on what to do to avoid certain conflicts, and whether they should trust people in politics.

The NextGen group credits those elders for getting the community where it is today.

Hirabayashi said, “It’s kind of amazing to know that for 50 years now, they’ve been kind of holding the fort down. If there wasn’t that great leadership before us, things could be a lot different now.”

“That generation definitely taught us resiliency, like after being relocated from their homes to camps and coming to Utah and having their Japantown taken away,” Aramaki said. “Now they’re kind of giving us the torch to make a Japantown what we want to see.”