Inspired by my recent post about San Francisco’s Japantown, I thought I would present a follow up piece on the second of the remaining three Japantowns, Little Tokyo, also known as the Little Tokyo Historic District located in downtown Los Angeles.
The political, cultural and social changes resulting from the 1868 Meiji Restoration prompted the emigration of many Japanese to the U.S. Further, following the passage of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese laborers were in high demand to replace the Chinese. The newly arrived Issei (immigrants from Japan) initially found jobs in northern California laying tracks for the Pacific Electric Railway, positions previously occupied by the Chinese.
The history of Little Tokyo is said to have begun in 1886, when Charles Kame, a former fisherman from Japan, opened a Japanese restaurant at 340 East First Street. By the turn of the century, a small Issei community was firmly established around First and San Pedro Streets. They were later joined by thousands more who fled the heightened racial tensions in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
Though denied citizenship by federal laws, barred from owning property by State legislation and subjected to local employment and housing discrimination, the Issei nevertheless succeeded in carving an economic niche in Southern California in fishing, agriculture, wholesale produce and retailing.
At its peak, Little Tokyo had a population of approximately 30,000 residents.
However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 which led to the outbreak of WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the U.S. Army the authority to uproot more than 110,00 Japanese living on the west coast and force them into concentration camps built in isolated and barren areas of the United States. Little Tokyo became a virtual ghost town.
A few bilingual Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants who were American citizens by birth) however were not sent to camps, but were secretly recruited to be translators in the Military Intelligence Service. Because of the critical intelligence they obtained by interrogating prisoners and translating military messages and documents, including Japan’s plans to defend the Philippines, The Nisei, according to G-2 Intelligence Chief, General Charles Willoughby, “saved countless Allied lives and shortened the war by two years.” Other Nisei served in Europe with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, bringing distinction and honor that significantly contributed to the post-war decrease in prejudice against Japanese Americans.
After the war, returning soldiers and camp internees briefly settled in Little Tokyo before joining the nation-wide exodus to the suburbs. Little Tokyo’s shrinking population was reduced further in the early 1950s when construction of the police administration building (Parker Center) destroyed housing for nearly 1000 people and one-fourth of the district’s commercial frontage. A decade later, leaders in the Japanese American community became alarmed by new plans to widen First Street through the district’s historic core and to extend the Civic Center deeper into Little Tokyo. Reacting to these immediate threats as well as to the problem of long-term decay, the community sponsored a variety of redevelopment proposals, each combining urban renewal with preserving Little Tokyo as a residential, commercial, retail and cultural center. As a result of this effort, the Mayor’s Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee was formed in 1969 and the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project was established the following year under the management of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
In the 1970’s and through the 1980’s, Japanese banks and corporations from overseas made L.A. their U.S. headquarters, resulting in a surge of development in Little Tokyo. The area was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995.
Today, Little Tokyo is a thriving, trend-setting district with a growing residential population.
You can visit Little Tokyo easily on a day trip. The heart of Little Tokyo and the center of activity is Japanese Village Plaza (350 E 1st St Los Angeles, CA 90012).
The plaza is easy to find just look for the giant wooden fire tower that guards the entrance. Inside Japanese Village Plaza you will find stores selling everything from mochi ice cream to Japanese pastries and breads. Plaza restaurants offer a wide variety of Japanese food items including Sushi, Takoyaki, Mitarashi dango, Pork Shu Mai, and barbequed meats.
For most of the year Little Tokyo is fairly quite especially during the week but during the month of August Little Tokyo celebrates Nisei Week Japanese Festival and Little Tokyo comes to life. Nisei Week activities include a parade, exhibits of Japanese art and culture, a taiko drum festival, a Japanese Matsuri-style Street Faire, a car show, and other events.
There are also two Japanese gardens that are open to the public—one is next to the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and the other is a rooftop garden in the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens, formerly the New Otani Hotel.
If time permits, make it a point to visit one of the many Japanese temples in the area. The Zenshuji Soto Mission (123 S Hewitt St., Los Angeles, CA 90012) for example is not far from the Japanese American National Museum and offers a little piece of paradise in the heart of the bustling city of Los Angeles.
Park your car in one of several public parking lots nearby and take a walking tour to really enjoy Little Tokyo. The area is bounded on the west by Los Angeles Street, on the east by Alameda Street, on the south by 3rd Street, and on the north by First Street and the Los Angeles Civic Center.
Little Tokyo is smaller than Chinatown which means less walking and more time for shopping and dining!