Exploring Little Tokyo

A Brief History

“Built between 1882 and 1957, the structures on the north side of East First Street, between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street, are survivors” — the last original buildings. (kcet.org)

By the turn of the 20th century, a small community of Issei (Japanese immigrants) had been established between First and San Pedro Streets. The population of the area was swelled by thousands of workers from Northern California who had been recruited to work on the Pacific Electric Railway, and by thousands more who fled from anti-Japanese sentiment following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Issei who lived there, despite being denied citizenship and facing many other discriminatory restrictions, made important contributions to Los Angeles in the fishing, agriculture, produce, and retailing industries as well as maintaining connections with their Japanese heritage.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II devastated the population of Little Tokyo, and after the war many former residents moved to the suburbs. After urban development in the 1950s swallowed up part of the area, community leaders fought back against further plans to expand the Civic Center into Little Tokyo, ultimately resulting in the establishment of the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project in 1970. Although the landscape has continued to change in the decades since, the core of the original Issei establishment, the 15 structures that make up the Little Tokyo Historical District, has been preserved. Today, it is still a residential, educational, cultural, and religious center for Japanese Americans, as well as a commercial district and tourist attraction.

Japanese American National Museum

Back in February, a friend and I visited Little Tokyo. The first major site we went to was the Japanese American National Museum, built on the former site of the Nishi Hongwangi Buddhist Temple at First and Central. The building was sold to the city in 1973 and declared a landmark. It reopened as the JANM in 1992 with an addition in 1999.

Exterior, Japanese American National Museum (latimes.com)

One of the most memorable parts of the museum for me was the “Relics from Camp” art installation, by Kristine Yuki Aono. The piece consists of multiple glass dioramas, each labelled and filled with soil from one of the U.S. concentration camps (the museum prefers to use the term “concentration camps” instead of the more common “internment camps,” because it more accurately reflects the conditions that Japanese Americans experienced). Each diorama also contains items left behind in the camps by Japanese Americans after the war. We were able to speak with a museum volunteer whose father was a child when he and his family were forced to re-locate to a camp. He also gave us insight into the economic realities of what internment meant for many residents of Little Tokyo. Many left their belongings with white neighbors to be kept safe until they returned. Some kept their word, but many Japanese Americans returned to find all their possessions gone.

Another exhibit that profoundly touched me was the temporary exhibit on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’d never seen actual photographs of the devastation before. It brought home the terrible effects visited upon generations of Japanese people, and made me question what I always believed – that the atomic bomb was a necessary evil and the only way to end the war in the Pacific. The exhibit also showcased artifacts from near the impact site, as well as artwork inspired by the bombings and their aftermath.

Japanese Village Plaza and Little Tokyo Mall

When we left the museum around 3pm, it was noticeably more crowded in the central hub of Little Tokyo, the Japanese Village Plaza, than when we had entered. Throngs of people milled about the various shops and restaurants and gathered by handcarts where vendors sold steamed buns. After stopping for some ramen, my friend and I headed to the Little Tokyo Mall underneath Weller Court.

The mall wasn’t exactly hidden, but it seemed like the kind of place you would only come across if you were deliberately looking. The main attraction is Entertainment Hobby Shop Jungle, also known as Anime Jungle, a store dedicated to Japanese visual media and merchandise (games, anime, manga, etc.). It filled two separate storefronts and took up most of the underground space with warehouse-like shelves. We had seen other shops in the area dedicated to Japanese pop culture, but the sheer volume and variety here was staggering. It’s known as something of a mecca for fans looking for obscure titles and items not found anywhere else outside of Japan. People came in and out constantly.

Looking back, I realize there was a marked contrast between the museum, where for the most part my friend I were the only patrons, and the bustle of this entertainment center. I’ve noticed that many younger Americans, including myself, are enamored with Japanese pop culture but often don’t take the time to consider the environment and history that produced that culture, or the effect that America has had on Japanese culture in turn. It also left me considering how the functions of communities change over time. Little Tokyo formed around Japanese immigrants who sought to protect their interests and to unite around their common language, customs, and traditions. It now serves both residents and tourists, whose interests and priorities only sometimes intersect.





One Comment

  1. AN

    Your post about Little Tokyo really hit home with me regarding the museum. It reminded me of the time I went to the Museum of Tolerance in NYC. I was a little kid and couldn’t sleep for like a month from nightmares. I can’t even imagine actually living in a concentration camp.
    Asians are often seen as the “model minority” today, which is understandable when you look at the statistics. I’m of Vietnamese descent and I’ll admit that the majority of my family and friends went to college. I’m one of two young adults I know whose parents are divorced. No one I personally know has been in jail or prison. Yet, Asians have been and are still discriminated against just like any minority, but definitely not as severely or as often.
    I’m not into super Asian stuff. Hahaha. My extent is liking Hello Kitty and watching the occasional kdrama. But your post reminded me how rich many Asian cultures are and how they are most often known for things like kpop or being gamers/kung fu artists/nerds/terrible drivers or eating dog. Thanks for showing a side that people might not usually see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.