The Little Tokyo District—officially 67 acres designated the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project by the City of Los Angeles—has been the economic, cultural, educational and religious center for Southern California’s Japanese American Community since immigrants began arriving in the late 1800s.
Japanese immigrants (Issei) first settled in the area around First and San Pedro Streets in Los Angeles.
By the time another 2000 Issei arrived from northern california in 1903—recruited by Henry Huntington (nephew to Collis P. Huntington) to lay tracks for the Pacific Electric Railway—this area was being called Little Tokyo. Those immigrants were soon followed by thousands more fleeing racial tension in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
Against all odds—federal laws denied citizenship, State legislation barred owning property and locally they were subject to housing and employment discrimination—Issei still managed to achieve success in fishing, agriculture, wholesale produce and retailing. Born in the U.S. and therefore American citizens the Nisei (children of the Issei) were able to buy property and many did in outlying communities. The first Nisei Week was organized in 1934 to help maintain the links between Little Tokyo and the Nisei.
A combination of American customs such as beauty contests and traditional Japanese art of flower arranging (ikebana), calligraphy, martial Arts and foods it also provides an opportunity for connecting with other Japanese communities in the U.S. including Nisei Week royalty participating in other events such as the Cherry Blossom Parade in San Francisco.
The success achieved by both the Issei and their Nisei offspring in America came to an abrupt end with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Just two months later President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19,1942 which authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan.
Not all Japanese Americans living in the U.S. were interred.
The highly decorated 442nd RCT (Regimental Combat Team) was formed from 2,600 volunteers from Hawaii—where Japanese Americans were not forced from their homes and business because it would have devastated the economy—and about 800 volunteers from internment camps on the mainland. Known as the “Purple Heart Battalion” because almost everyone who served in the 100th had at least one Purple Heart for injuries in battle. They were the most decorated unit in American military history. Just one of the 442nd’s many valiant efforts was the rescue of “The Lost Battalion”—The Texas National Guard 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment.
The Go For Broke Monument at Temple and Alameda Streets in Los Angeles Little Tokyo District—recognizing the patriotism of Japanese American veterans during World War II—was dedicated in 1999. In addition to the Monument an ongoing educational program strives to tell the story of these courageous Americans.
The Little tokyo Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It is composed of commercial buildings along the north side of 1st Street as well as the Union Church on San Pedro Street and The former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple at First and Central. The first Buddhist Temple built in Los Angeles—the Nishi Hongwanji (sometimes spelled Hongwangi)—mixed architectural elements of a temple in Kyoto, Japan with Middle Eastern influences and served as a house of worship, social hall and rental office space before being abandoned and falling into disrepair.
The Temple was leased to the Japanese American National Museum in 1985 the year before the declaration of the building as part of the Little Tokyo Historic District. The Japanese American National Museum—the only museum in the United States dedicated to sharing the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry—delayed its official opening for a few days as the planned festivities were scheduled the day the 1992 Los Angeles Riots began. The riots were in response to the outcome of the trial of LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King.
A new 85,000 square foot Pavilion adjacent to the historic Temple building now provides expanded space for exhibitions, education, public programs, Hirasaki National Resource Center, and collection storage.
The Pavilion is connected with the Historic Building by a Central Plaza which provides a location for festivities and large gatherings.
A stone and water garden—the Manabi and Sumi Hirasaki Family Garden—an impressive entry space, Garden Foyer and Conference and Meeting Spaces provide space for a variety of public and private functions at the museum. Among the many displays in the Japanese American National Museum is an original barracks from the Heart Mountain relocation camp that housed Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Situated between the Pavilion and the nearby Go For Broke Monument, the Geffen Contemporary downtown facility of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The Geffen Contemporary typically hosts more cutting-edge exhibitions than its sister on the Hill.
One of the most striking structures in Little Tokyo is across the street from the Japanese American National Museum at one entrance to Japanese Village Plaza shopping center. The Yagura Tower—a replica of a fire lookout tower in old rural Japan—withstood requested destruction by returning Japanese Americans after WWII because it reminded them of the guard towers at the concentration camps.
Japanese Village Plaza includes a culture center, dozens of Japanese shops, bookstores and restaurants. The Plaza is typically quiet except for lunch and dinner hours and when they are hosting Nisei Week festivities.
Nearby Noguchi Plaza contains a large sculpture—To the Issei—by Isamu Noguchi, the first Japanese American artist to attain international prominence. To the Issei is constructed of two twelve foot lon basalt rocks that suggest the material and form of traditional Japanese rock compositions. Representing repose and heroic power the chipped surfaces reflect a Japanese artistic tradition of completing natural materials with a human presence.
A bronze statue of Sonotoko (Kinjiro) Ninomiya in front of Manufacturers Bank at 200 South San Pedro Street is similar to one that could be found at almost every elementary school in Japan prior to the Pacific War. There is also a town in Japan named after the man that came from humble beginnings yet pursued knowledge.
The young Ninomiya—born into a poor family and orphaned at a young age—is reading a book even while working. In addition to lifting himself out of poverty with innovative agricultural methods he helped a number of feudal clans achieve financial health. Ninomiya also developed the idea that benefits received should be repaid—Hotoku or to repay virtue. Hotoku Ninomiya Jinja Shrine is near the Odawara Castle in Japan.
There are two tributes in Los Angeles Little Tokyo to America’s first Asian-American astronaut. Ellison Shoji Onizuka—born and raised on Kona, Hawaii—was a third generation Japanese American (Sansei) who was on his second mission when disaster struck. Onizuka took every opportunity he had to be a positive role model speaking at schools and other organizations. He frequently visited Little Tokyo and was the Grand Marshall of the 1985 Nisei Week Parade.
The first, a street—Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street, connects E 1st Street with S San Pedro Street at E 2nd Street. The second tribute is a sculpture of the Challenger Spacecraft that exploded 73 seconds after lift off on January 28, 1986 killing Onizuka and six other astronauts.
The sculpture—designed by Isao Hirai and paid for by a local merchant committee—is a memorial to Onizuka, the shuttle’s entire crew and the space program. In the photo to the right you see the Monument to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, and in the background, the New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo. A small stroll or shuyu garden featuring a waterfall, pools and walking paths is located on the rooftop terrace of the hotel.
The Friendship Knot—another nearby sculpture at the 2nd Street entrance of Weller Court—was designed by world renown sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri. Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Tajiri was sent to the Poston concentration camp in the Arizona desert in 1942. He was also wounded in Italy while fighting with the 442 Regimental Combat Team. The Monument to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka can be seen beyond the Friendship Knot sculpture in the photo to the left. Further back in the photo the tall white building is the Los Angeles City Hall.
A Farmer’s Market is held in Weller Court every Saturday afternoon.
Slideshow—all photos on this page and more of Downtown Los Angeles