Little Tokyo

Historical Background

Little Tokyo, officially comprising 67 acres designated by the City of Los Angeles as the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project, serves as an international center for tourists while maintaining the intimate character of a small town with places to shop, to eat and most importantly, to live. Its educational, cultural and religious institutions unify Southern California's Japanese American community. And its buildings, museums and public art preserve memories of over a century of social and economic change, during which the Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) fashioned their individual and collective identities while struggling and finally succeeding in becoming accepted as Americans.

The history of Little Tokyo begins in 1886, when Charles Kame, an ex-seaman from Japan, opened a Japanese restaurant at 340 East First Street. By the turn of the century, a small Issei (immigrants from Japan) community was firmly established around First and San Pedro Streets. The area became known as Little Tokyo after 2000 Issei, recruited in northern California by Henry Huntington to lay tracks for the Pacific Electric Railway in 1903, 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.

Unlike the Issei, the Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants) were American citizens by birth. They excelled in school, voted in elections and acquired property. But as they left downtown for the surrounding communities, Little Tokyo began losing its social cohesiveness. In response, community leaders organized the first Nisei Week in 1934 as a way of maintaining commercial and cultural links between Little Tokyo and the increasingly dispersed Japanese American community. Combining traditional Japanese arts, such as calligraphy and ikebana (flower arranging), with typical American events, such as a beauty contest with its coronation and court, Nisei Week was soon promoted as an annual celebration of Japanese American loyalty to the United States.

But the festival was not enough. Nor even the United States Constitution was enough to protect Japanese Americans against the racial bigotry unleashed by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, capped weeks of growing hysteria fueled by inflammatory statements from public officials and by prejudicial press reports about Japanese American loyalty. This Order gave the United States Army authority to uproot more than 110,000 Nikkei living on the west coast and force them into concentration camps built in isolated and barren areas of the United States.

A few bilingual Nisei 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, "[T]he 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.

While construction during the 1970s and 1980s dramatically changed the appearance of Little Tokyo, its character as shaped by the Issei is maintained by the 15 structures making up the Little Tokyo Historic District. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, a core of 13 simple and unpretentious commercial buildings on the north side of First Street are framed by the stately-columned Union Church on San Pedro Street and by the distinctive former Nishi Hongwangi Buddhist Temple at First and Central. In the words of the application that created the district, these structures preserve, "the historical development of the Japanese American Community and symbolize the hardships and obstacles that this ethnic group has successfully overcome in securing its place in American society." Housed in the former Nishi Hongwangi Buddhist Temple, the Japanese American National Museum visually anchors the district while reinforcing the commemorative nature of First Street. The completion of the 100,000-square-foot addition in 1998 significantly elevates the presence of the museum as a place for remembering our nation's past.

It is through art, as much as through architecture and the museum, that the Japanese American community's pride in its history and culture is displayed in the public realm. The first public art was installed at the New Otani Hotel in 1977 to fulfill a provision in the Plan for the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project requiring developers to commit a half percent of the cost of new projects for landscaping or public art. The same year, a community based volunteer group, The Friends of Little Tokyo Arts (FOLTA), was formed to promote the integration of art in the redevelopment of Little Tokyo. For six years, the organization commissioned artists, raised funds and worked with developers, who were often involved in the Japanese American community, in having funds set aside for public art. Because of FOLTA, public art became a regular part of urban renewal in Little Tokyo even though the Community Redevelopment Agency's mandate for it was weak and vague. In 1985, the public art requirement was tightened when the CRA adopted a strong percent for art policy applicable to all of downtown. The most recent addition to the process in creating public art was the formation in 1991 of the Public Art Task Force by the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee to channel community input to artists and developers.

Though most of the works in Little Tokyo are a result of commercial development, they are more than architectural embellishment or visual amenities. As places where art and history meet in the public realm, they embrace a respect for the past and transmit the community's collective values and experiences into our own life. As part of the urban fabric, they respond to the scale of the district's pedestrian-oriented streets and give Little Tokyo its unique identity, personality and sense of place. As works of context and connections, they reflect a sense of community and articulate a belief in shared obligations and responsibilities. And most importantly, as social art, these small works address big ideas, helping us remember a chapter of our nation's enduring struggle between its legacy of bigotry and prejudice and its dream of liberty, equality and justice for all.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1998.

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