The Role of Community Activism in Little Tokyo Workshop Notes

Role of Activism in Preserving and Developing Little Tokyo

Workshop Notes

Part I

History of Little Tokyo (Alan Nishio)

Importance of Place- Significance of Preserving and Developing Little Tokyo as an historic JA community.   Providing a sense of identity and culture for future generations of JA’s.  One of only three remaining Japantowns in the nation.

  • LT has been in existence for over 120 years. It is one of three remaining J-towns in the U.S.
  • Pre-WWII over sixty communities in CA and over 100 throughout the U.S.
  • Natural changes that occur in communities. 

            Little Italy near Chinatown

Jewish then Japanese community in Boyle            Heights

  • Changes in the JA community.  Dispersal, intermarriage.
  • Challenge to preserving a historic ethnic neighborhood.
  • More than a tourist destination.  Preservation and development as a center for community life.  Not a static view of preservation- dynamic view that changes and incorporates the experiences of new residents, workers, and those who identify with the community.

Start of Little Tokyo

  • Little Tokyo has been in existence since 1884 and has served as the social, cultural, community, business center for the Japanese American community of Southern California.
  • Little Tokyo, like Chinatowns and Black communities and barrios, initially emerged as a result of restricted housing, educational, social and employment opportunities and a center where those with limited English skills could live, work, and socialize.
  • Little Tokyo grew from a few dozen Japanese in the late 1880s to nearly 30,000 by the 1930s.
  • Churches and temples served as a community and cultural centers;

Early Businesses

  • Los Angeles was heavily impacted by the influx of Japanese businesses and culture; such as in agriculture, fishing, gardening, restaurants, and in carving out a conspicuous niche in downtown Los Angeles.
  • Japanese farmers were producing and wholesaling 75% of all fresh vegetables consumed in Los Angeles.


          About 70% of the 35,000 Japanese in LA County lived in the 3 mile radius of San Pedro and First Streets

          By 1930 50% of Japanese were American-born


  • WW2 – forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry from Little Tokyo and all other West Coast areas in 1942.


  • During WW2, the newly created available housing in Little Tokyo provided space for people from the South and Mid-west. African Americans re-cast Little Tokyo into their own community of “Bronzeville,” complete with jazz clubs and other outlets. Little Tokyo has always had a multi-ethnic mix to varying degrees.


  • Americans of Japanese ancestry reestablished Little Tokyo after WW2.  Less than 1/3 size of Pre WW II Little Tokyo
  • View of First and San Pedro Streets looking west. All of the buildings were demolished in the 1950s to make way for the then-new LAPD Police Headquarters. A major block of Little Tokyo, which contained homes, churches and businesses, died and disappeared in one stroke.


  • Little Tokyo CRA established in 1970 to try to counter civic center expansion and renovate Little Tokyo. The CRA helped develop new projects for the area and old buildings were being replaced but others feared that Little Tokyo was losing its grassroots neighborhood context.
  • While many important developments were implemented as a result of redevelopment, the overall impact of redevelopment on housing was the loss of thousands of units of housing, primarily the many boarding houses and hotels that were in the area.


  • 1970 – 1990: The redevelopment process occurred simultaneously with the rise in Japanese corporate presence in the U.S.  Little Tokyo became an important focus of Japanese investment and community life.
  • In the 1980s, companies from Japan bought large tracts of land in LT, but then went undeveloped for decades as the Japanese “bubble” burst in the late 1980s.

1992 and the LA Riots

  • This was the nadir for downtown and impacted everyone. Little Tokyo was often empty after 5pm and on the weekends.

          Many businesses left the area.

          Businesses began to close as shopkeepers aged or were sold to newer entrepreneurs.

Resurgence of Downtown in 2000

  • Starting with Staples Arena, Disney Concert Hall, downtown lofts and the New Catholic Cathedral, downtown property becomes “hot.
  • Impact on Little Tokyo.  Gentrification, increasing franchises


Little Tokyo Today-  Takao Suzuki

Present Situation

  • Right now, Little Tokyo is currently in the 3rd wave of gentrification… meaning encroachment & displacement of what we have come to know as Little Tokyo
  • In the early 2000s, the real estate explosion lead to a rapid influx of new market-rate developments. Since 2001, over 1,000 units of market rate housing was built with only 70 units (6%) set-aside for low-income households.
  • At its peak (heydays), Little Tokyo included 26 square blocks with approximately 30,000 residents. Today, it consists of 8 square blocks and is made up of mostly working class, seniors and low-income families of all ethnicities.
  • The recent economic crisis has slowed down market-rate development, but Little Tokyo continues to battle encroachment by public and private entities spurred by the Downtown renaissance.



  • ·         Residents:  The majority are low-income monolingual seniors with a small number of families living in affordable housing.  There are a few small residential hotels mostly housing single workers and students.  But there is also a growing number of young, wealthy professionals lured to downtown, and into Little Tokyo by high-end apartments and lofts, and a ready-made pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
  • ·         Businesses:  Some 90% are family-owned, 80% are storefront retail, 70% are owned by Japanese/Japanese Americans with Korean Americans at 14% but growing.
  • ·         Workers:  Many of the businesses employ family members, youth and seniors.  There are a significant number of employees of non-profit organizations in the area, as well as governmental entities w/ offices in Little Tokyo.
  • ·         Non-profits:  Social service, arts, historical organizations, as well as temples and churches all play an active role in Little Tokyo community life.

Issues prompting interest in LT

  • ·         Little Tokyo is one of the most vibrant, pedestrian friendly communities in Downtown
  • ·         Smart growth (development of mixed-use, high density, walk-able communities with amenities, close proximity to public transportation), in response to the sprawl movement in the mid 1900s, has been a trend for quite some time. And because Little Tokyo was built before the sprawl movement, to some degree, much of the smart growth infrastructure was here, as in other historic ethnic communities…. Making it a community ripe for smart growth development.
  • ·         Even with the current recession, one of the factors that maintained the property values and rents was the development of the light-rail station.
  • ·         Moreover, the Regional Connector will make the Little Tokyo station the 2nd busiest station in LA County next to Union Station. The proposed Regional Connector is a 1.6-mile long light-rail that would connect the Little Tokyo/Arts District Gold Line station at First St. and Alameda opened in 2009 with the 7th Street Metro station hub, thus connecting all existing train lines—Red, Blue, Purple and Gold Lines. Most in Little Tokyo see the need for the project, support public transportation and see the benefits to the region overall.  However, the negative impacts, especially during construction, would be bore disproportionately by Little Tokyo…. Thus Little Tokyo must exert community control before, during and after the development process.

What is at risk?


  • ·         Properties such as the mangrove property, Block 8, First Street North and the old-Parker Center block is being highly sought after.
  • ·         Also, older housing stock such as the Miyako Gardens and SROs are prone to be sold for new developments. And most visibly, businesses such as the former Kyoto Grand, Weller Court and JVP have been affected by this trend.


What now?

We definitely can learn from our past successes, such as the community-wide jail relocation campaign, which has taught us that:

  • §  A community plan (especially with the CRA project area sunseting in 2014, and possible elimination of the CRA even sooner) is critical in order to identify planning tools (i.e. overlay zones, design guidelines, Q conditions – restrictions on properties). Moreover, a comprehensive plan of what the community wants needs to be developed. The first step towards this has been taken, with the current asset-mapping project with the help of graduate students.
  • §  Currently, a “gatekeeper” in the LTCC does exist, which has developed into a unified voice on certain issues.  Through LTCC, community self-determination and control can be further developed.
  • §  Also, with new city council leadership in the near future, it is important for Little Tokyo to continue fostering the good relationship with the city.


The Little Tokyo Mural and Activism in J-Town

Tony Osumi


Little Tokyo history can be defined as an ongoing struggle between the JA community and LA City Hall/rich corporations.  We may not have direct access to City Hall or the power that corporate money brings, but we have the numbers and people power. 


More than just a large painting, the Little Tokyo mural Home is Little Tokyo, should be seen as an organizing tool to bring the community together, provide an example of democracy in action, and the allow the community to visualize their hopes and dreams for J-Town.


The making of the mural is an example of how we want decisions made in Little Tokyo.

  • Instead of decisions being made from the top down, the Little Tokyo mural sought out community input.
  • Numerous community meetings were held in Little Tokyo to gather mural ideas. 
  • Ideas were blended together into a draft and brought back to the community for further input.
  • Over 500 people, young and old came together to paint.
  • This is in direct contrast to the way City Hall and big businesses worked with the community.


Along with the process, the content of the mural includes images from Japanese American and Little Tokyo history: 


  • Early LT with a family fruit stand
  • Nisei ballroom dancers
  • a Nisei Week Queen in a 1950s car
  • a Sansei carrying an Issei during a health fair during a Serve the People programs
  • images from a rally during 1970s’ redevelopment struggles updated with STOP THE JAIL from the early 2000 campaign
  • taiko drummers
  • a Latino worker
  • a karate, a basketball player, obon dancers
  • woman holding a rec center sign
  • early 80s Day of Remembrance poster image
  • Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and hanging lanterns
  • a young girl pounding not mochi, but a WWII concentration camp guard tower with a hidden New Otani Hotel logo


Along with images and ideas gathered from the community meetings:

  • Shin Issei ladies wanted Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms
  • Older Sansei remember going to Nisei Week at night and remember the hanging lanterns


It’s also important to help the community visualize future goals, like the Recreation Ceter/Budokan.  And to carefully push the community to challenge itself: the Latino restaurant worker in the mural represents the multicultural make up of LT and the need for all workers to work in dignity and to make a fair wage.


The LT mural provided a working model for how decisions in J-Town should be made.  It included LT history and visualized our community’s aspirations.  It also encouraged people to come out to paint and be a part of something larger than they could have done by themselves.  Hopefully, it laid the groundwork for people to expect more from City Hall and to see that if they can make a mural together, they can come together to determine J-Town’s future.



Importance of Students in Little Tokyo- Cyndi Tando, UCLA NSU


UCLA Nikkei Student Union’s involvement in Little Tokyo

  • Planning & participating in conferences such as Legacy, Sansei Shoutout
  • Field trip to JANM
  • Little Tokyo Walking Tour
    • Planned by our Cultural Awareness and Community Service committee
  • NSU President attends Little Tokyo Community Council Meetings monthly
  • Chibi-K Kids Fun Run organized by our NSU

Connecting NSU with outside community

  • NSU plans social events, promotes culture and community service for on-campus students
    • But not as meaningful/significant unless we connect with outside world
  • NSU develops leadership & awareness amongst members so that they can use it beyond NSU
    • To connect with surrounding communities (i.e. Little Tokyo)
    • Use it even after post-graduation

Giving back to the community

  • Little Tokyo has provided us with programs, events, history, food, culture, and a space to gather
  • But Little Tokyo will not survive on its own
    • Needs people who care, who will continue it onto the next generation
  • Our generation (students) are the next group of people to be active

Preserving & Changing

  • Students are inclined to focus solely on “preserving”
    • Preserving is important too, but also need to be open to change
  • Community’s needs and wants change across time
    • Must accommodate to changing community

Be open to new ideas and see how Little Tokyo can also change, not just preserving what we have right now.



Kizuna:   Stacy Toyota


Kizuna in a nutshell:

  • New organization started by Yonsei
  • Focused on JA youth leadership development and community engagement
  • Formed to create a space for young people in LT and the JA community
  • 7 months old, no staff yet to implement programs


What Kizuna hopes to gain from conference/workshop:

  • Gain a sense of needs in the community
  • Spreading our mission and name

As part of the AAPI community, Kizuna’s mission is to build a vibrant Nikkei community by:

  1. 1.     Creating an empowering culture and environment
  2. 2.     Engaging and advocating for the community by igniting the passion of young Japanese Americans (JAs), and
  3. 3.     Building collective identity through multi-generational and multi-ethnic collaborations


Part II   Recommendations


1. Develop an Educational Program in Little Tokyo


  • Explore the concept of a “Little Tokyo University” where community-based classes and oral histories can be offered and shared. 
    • The Little Tokyo University would utilize area resources (i.e. artists, performers, educators, writers, community/business leaders) to offer free/low cost seminars/classes for the community. 
    • Classes might include: cooking classes (i.e. Oshogatsu), history (i.e. Bronzeville), current issues, arts/culture, etc.
    • Offer classes in LT locations like the JACCC, restaurants, churches, Diskovery Center.
    • Explore possibility of offering Japanese language classes in Little Tokyo.


  • Explore possibility of creating a “Japanese American” school for elementary school children in Little Tokyo.


Follow-up:  Tony Osumi is covening an exploratory meeting with folks who have expressed an interest in pursuing this idea.


2. Plan an “Explore Little Tokyo” Day


  • Explore the possibility of working with the Intercollegiate Nikkei Council and other area colleges and universities to have a coordinated event where students from throughout the state might participate in an event that would provide:
    • educational/informational tours of LT
    • business involvement with coupons/freebies
    • volunteer opportunities fair
    • “stamp relay”/scavenger hunt
    • “college bowl” competition on subjects such as JA/LT history, current events,  popular culture)
    • dance party


  • Connect with existing efforts:
    • Festival with food (JA and Japanese)
    • Arts and Entertainment (connect with TNC)


  • Outreach thru Social media, flyers
    • Involve local non-profits, businesses

Follow-up:  Alan Nishio will follow up NSU and INC reps to explore this idea.


3. Develop a “Community Space” to Serve as Gathering Place in Little Tokyo


  • Identify/develop a place in Little Tokyo where folks can “hang out.” Explore spaces that can provide a bookstore/coffee house environment where people can gather and meet informally.


    • Show need, create a buzz to rally support for the need/support for a gathering space.


    • Develop regular events/programs to attract people to LT (i.e. happy hours, readings, salon conversations).


    • Explore existing and future spaces for possible space (i.e. LT Public Library, JACCC, Budokan Café?)




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