The History of Little Tokyo

640 words | 3 page(s)

Located in the city of Los Angeles, Little Tokyo comprises 67 acres and started to develop in 1886, when Charles Kame opened a Japanese restaurant at 340 East First Street. Starting with that point, Japanese immigrants started to establish in the area, and by the end of the century, they had already formed a community on the First and San Pedro Streets. In 1903, 2000 Isei, or Japanese Immigrants, moved here after being recruited to work on Pacific Electric Railway. In the next years, thousands of Japanese immigrants took refuge in this area against racial discrimination. The residents built their own hospitals, temples and churches; they developed their own businesses and started to contribute powerfully to the city’s economy. However, around World War II, the population of Little Tokyo began to shrink, as children of the first immigrants had left their homes and moved in various parts of the country. In addition, many were moved to concentration camps, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, leaving the area deserted.

Needing a place to live, many African Americans who came from the South to work for the defense industry established in the now empty spaces left behind by the Japanese immigrants, and Little Tokyo became known as Bronzville for a very short period. All the available spaces, from stores to churches, were used to house African American workers (Nakagawa 2008). The buildings rapidly decayed and the neighborhood transformed into a slum because dozens of people were forced to share bathrooms, or sleep in a single room. One important development was the opening of new clubs, where the large amount of people could be entertained. One of the best known clubs was Shepp’s playhouse, currently the Kyoto hotel.

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However, by 1945, Japanese Americans were returning to Little Tokyo. African Americans did not protest to this, and agreed to sell the licenses to business in the area and move. Even though by the 1950s, Little Tokyo was in decay, the members of the community refused to allow local administration to widen the First Street to the Historical District and to extend the Civic Center deeper into the Little Tokyo. Instead, they proposed a Redevelopment plan, which was accepted in 1969. During the 1970s and the 1980s, the shape of Little Tokyo changed dramatically, but the 15 structures that comprise the Little Tokyo’s Historical District remained unchanged, thus preserving the characteristics of the community established by the Isei (Several 1998).

Today, Little Tokyo is a very vibrant community with a rich cultural life. The National Historical Landmark continues to preserve two blocks of the original pre-war building structure of the commercial hart of Tokyo, between the Union Church and the Japanese American National Museum (NPS). The Japanese Union Church located at 120 Judge John Aiso Street is a brick building in the Calssical Revival style, was built in 1923 (NPS), after Henry Patterson’s design The only building that continued to be owned by Japanese Americans during the World War II is the Art Deco building at 309-313 E First Street, which was built in 1933, and used for the first Nisei Week Festival in 1934. Finally another particularly relevant example of the history-filled buildings that still stand in the Little Tokyo Historical District is the Far East Building which dates from 1896, but was remodeled in 1935 in the Art Deco style. It was best known as a café that also sold Chinese-American food.

The Japanese community in Little Tokyo prides itself with its history and culture, displayed best in their own Japanese American National Museum and in the architecture of its buildings. They continue to inspire the young generation and to preserve a piece of the past and transmit it to future generations.

  • Little Tokyo Historic District, Los Angeles, California. NPS. Retrieved from: http://www.nps.gov
  • Nagakawa, M. (2008). Little Tokyo’s bronze age. Discover Nikkei. Retrieved from: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2008/6/11/enduring-communities/

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