Little Tokyo - History PDF Print Email

Phto Little Tokyo traces its origins to the first business started by a Japanese seaman named Kame who opened a restaurant on Los Angeles Street, near First Street. The Japanese population grew slowly until the immigrants, known as Issei, decided they wanted to settle in Los Angeles and raise families. A population surge (over 30,000 Japanese came to America in 1907 alone), fueled by arranged marriages, changed Little Tokyo from a bachelor enclave into a community. Many of the local Japanese were involved in agriculture and that led to the establishment of wholesale produce markets near Little Tokyo. Despite discrimination, the Japanese built their own churches, temples and hospitals and established many business and community organizations.

Everything was placed in jeopardy when World War II began and the U.S. government unconstitutionally forced all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and parts of Hawaii. Thousands wound up prisoners in domestic concentration camps. Little Tokyo was abandoned by Japanese Americans and in a quirk of fate were replaced by African Americans, many looking for jobs and a place to live. Little Tokyo became known as Bronzeville.

When the war ended and Japanese Americans were able to return to Los Angeles, thousands came back to Little Tokyo in the postwar years. Most of the African Americans moved to other parts of Los Angeles, as Japanese Americans reopened their businesses. Recovering from the war was a long, slow process, yet Little Tokyo had survived. But, even in the postwar, Little Tokyo faced major changes such as the loss of an entire block to make way for the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in the 1950s and the demolition of historic buildings to create space for new developments, some financed by Japanese companies, in the 1970s. In response, the local community led the establishment of the Little Tokyo Towers, a 300-unit structure built for seniors, the construction of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) and the founding of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC). Rather than demolish old buildings, the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple was renovated by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the old Union Church structure became the Union Center for the Arts, thanks to LTSC, housing several nonprofits including East West Players, L.A. Artcore and Visual Communications. The north side of First Street, from Central Avenue to Judge John Aiso Street, was declared the Little Tokyo Historic District by the Department of the Interior in 1995.

photoToday the challenges remain, including the prospect of major construction with the proposed Metro Regional Connector running through the heart of Little Tokyo. The formation of the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) in 2000 has provided a mechanism through which the businesses, residents and nonprofits can work together to face the challenges of the future. If its history is any indication, Little Tokyo will persist and welcome the next generation of new visitors and supporters.