California: Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This district was the center of Japanese American life prior to World War II, and since the 1910’s, home to more Japanese Americans than any other mainland city. The internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942 reduced Little Tokyo to a ghost town.

Site Office

Japanese American Cultural and Community Center

244 South San Pedro Street, Suite 505

Los Angeles, CA 90012

ph.: (213) 628-2725

fax: (213)617-8576

Web site: www.jaccc.org

Little Tokyo’s founding can be traced back to the establishment of a small restaurant by a former seaman, Kame, whose formal name was Hamanosuke Shigeta, on the west side of Los Angeles Street in 1885. A handful of other Japanese men had trickled down from San Francisco by then looking for work. From the onset, there was racial tension between the Issei (first-generation Japanese) and Caucasians. In the ensuing twenty years, many more Japanese came to work on the railway and in farming in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1903, the first publication of the bilingual Rafu Shimpo appeared, and the East First Street area was referred to as “Little Tokyo.”

The Early Years of Struggle

The year 1907 saw the greatest influx of Japanese at one time to come to the United States: over thirty thousand. A gentlemen’s agreement was struck wherein no more unskilled laborers were allowed entry; however, professionals such as doctors and technicians were exempt. More than three hundred businesses in Los Angeles were Japanese-owned, of which forty occupied a mere two blocks of Little Tokyo. Because there were many more men than women, some men secured the assistance of a haishakunin (marriage broker) to bring brides from Japan. Between 1910 and 1924, over thirty thousand Japanese women came to America, but not all as a result of prearranged marriages. Some young girls were promised to a groom from the same village, and others joined relatives already in the United States.

While anti-Japanese sentiment in San Francisco broke out into mob violence, Los Angeles had its share of racism. One Issei commented, “In those days, they insulted us at will. The best thing was not to go outside of Little Tokyo at all.” Japanese immigrants continued undaunted. In 1909, a group of Issei produce vendors started their own market to sell the vegetables grown by Japanese farmers in outlying areas, eventually founding the City Market of Los Angeles at Ninth and Pedro Streets with other ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the success of Japanese agriculture and wholesale produce fanned the flames of an anti-Japanese fire. The California legislature introduced twenty-seven anti-Japanese resolutions in 1911.

In the years before 1924, Little Tokyo residents gathered forces to combat the rising tide of racism, building a hospital, Buddhist temples, the Shonien Japanese Children’s Home, schools, and other cultural and educational organizations.

The Rise of the Nisei

By 1924, an immigration act was passed which limited immigration from other parts of the globe but ceased all movement from Japan. The birth of Nisei (first-generation American-born Japanese) helped establish some cultural affiliations with Caucasian Americans but did not stem the tide of hatred. As long as they stayed within “their town,” Japanese Americans were relatively safe. However, as soon as they ventured into other parts of the city, landlords and neighbors met them with harsh rebuffs.

Kenjinkai (prefectural associations) acted as employment agencies and assisted families with their finances. Little Tokyo enjoyed lavish New Year’s celebrations, annual sumo wrestling tournaments, and spiritually related events. In 1925, Nishi Hongwanji Temple was built, and it soon became a central meeting place for the community; later it was used as a storage facility for the many Japanese Americans forced into internment camps in 1942.

The economic solidarity of the Japanese community–from the abundant farms to the wholesale and retail markets–helped the Japanese through the Great Depression.

The Depression Years

Issei merchants, worried that the more Americanized Nisei were drifting away, collaborated with them in establishing a summer festival to attract people back to Little Tokyo. Kendo and judo (ancient forms of martial arts), as well as sumo, tournaments were held, and later street dances helped to revitalize interest in Little Tokyo.

Despite hard times, Japanese families pulled together to keep financially afloat, and Little Tokyo continued to attract Japanese American farmers from all over. The Yamato Club, later called the Tokyo Club, a famous gambling hall, was established to draw gamblers away from their sizable losses accrued in gambling in Chinatown. While it played host to the “seamier” side of life, the club was reputed to have served needy people with hot meals and even to have made loans to those with compromised credit.

The older generation may have had concerns about their offspring’s adherence to Japanese customs, but they were nonetheless proud of the Nisei’s accomplishments in an often-rancorous environment. The older and younger generations disagreed, however, on the issue of Japanese foreign policy as the commencement of World War II drew nearer.

By 1941, Japanese Americans were concerned that they would be caught between Japan and America as each country took opposing sides in what was to be a global war. Emissaries of goodwill traveled from Little Tokyo to Washington, D.C., but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating members of the Japanese American community anyway.

The Internment

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a vigorous air raid attack on Pearl Harbor, swiftly sealing the fate of every Japanese American person in the western United States. FBI agents detained community members who had been under surveillance–for several years in some cases. Newspaper publishers and even Buddhist ministers were targeted. The Western Defense Command, helmed by Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, moved into action, and General DeWitt urged Washington to “collect all alien subjects.” Bank accounts were frozen, shops were shut down, and rumors ran rampant that Japanese Americans had sinister plans in store for their American “foes.” Additionally, inflammatory news reports questioning Japanese American loyalty whipped up overwhelming hatred against them.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 giving the United States Army the authority forcibly to remove more than 110,000 Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry). Within a month, the first Nisei group met at the Maryknoll Mission to begin the journey to Manzanar, an internment camp in Owens Valley. This marked the beginning of the removal of Japanese Americans from Little Tokyo and outlying areas, scattering them across ten far-flung relocation camps. Forced into selling all they owned except what they could carry, then corralled behind barbed wire, Japanese families made do under very cramped and inhospitable conditions. None knew if they would ever be allowed to return to their homes.

In their absence, African Americans moved into Little Tokyo, soon known as Bronzeville, in response to ship and aircraft building job opportunities. Four years later, the United States captured Saipan, the Marshall Islands, and the Philippines. It was not until 1945 that the Nikkei internees were freed to return to an uncertain future.

The Postwar Years

Although fearful that anti-Japanese sentiment was still present, Japanese Americans moved back to a changed Little Tokyo that now included the presence of another ethnicity. In excess of eighteen thousand former internment camp detainees settled in Illinois instead of going back to the West Coast, where memories of happier times were still painful. Thousands more moved to other parts of the United States.

While shops and restaurants reopened, the population of Japanese American farmers, fishermen, and wholesale produce sellers nevertheless had suffered great losses. Most of the prewar farmland had been converted for industrial usage or sectioned off for housing.

Another significant change occurred in the Nisei’s realization of their rights. In 1948, the publisher of a Japanese newspaper challenged the 1920 Alien Land Law and won, purchasing property in Little Tokyo in his own name. Limited reparation was made on July 2, 1948, when President Harry S Truman signed the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, allowing some compensation for losses due to evacuation and imprisonment.

In 1950, the district suffered another great blow when the city planning commission decided to level the northwest part of Little Tokyo to make way for the new police headquarters. Over one thousand residents were forced to leave their homes, a disturbing echo of the prior, albeit larger, evacuation of Japanese Americans.

A decade later when plans were made public to widen First Street through the town’s historic center, the community pulled together to establish the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Advisory Committee and other agencies. In 1986, thirteen of the original commercial buildings along the northern side of San Pedro Street were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Places to Visit

The Japanese American National Museum on East First Street is one of the finest of its kind in the country, with exhibits commemorating the 1940’s internment camps as well as other cultural and historic events. It includes a museum shop, comprehensive resource center, and water garden. The museum is open year-round.

The original Nishi Hongwanji Temple, built in 1925 and located on North Central Street, is part of the older Japanese American National Museum structure. The temple is one of the most vital religious structures to have served the community. Its congregation, established in 1917, represented the merger of three Buddhist churches.

The Japanese Union Church on North San Pedro Street, now closed, was built in 1922. Japanese Americans awaiting processing for the internment camps went there.

Thirteen buildings (a few housing restaurants) as well as other businesses are still closed along East First Street, which forms the heart of Little Tokyo. A public artwork stretches along the sidewalk; it includes written memories, images, and a list of businesses that used to be in the area.

The Koyasan Buddhist Temple on East First Street, founded in 1912, has a main hall which serves multiple functions: It is a place of worship, a community meeting hall, an auditorium for judo and kendo, and the home to Boy Scouts of America Troop 379. Established in 1931, the troop has gained a national reputation.

For Further Information
  • Duus, Peter, ed. Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. A very detailed collection of documents on everything from “A Black Ship Scroll with Dialogue” to “An Explanation of Twelve Western Words,” this is a treasure trove for those interested in how both American and Japanese cultures historically viewed one another.
  • Hosokawa, Bill. Out of the Frying Pan: Reflections of a Japanese American. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998. The author, who gained prominence as a reporter for the Shanghai Herald, chronicles life with his wife and infant child in a Wyoming internment camp.
  • “Japanese American National Museum.” www.lausd .k12.ca.us/janm.
  • Maki, Mitchell T., Harry H. L. Kitano, S. Megan Berthold, and Roger Daniels. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Tells the story of how Japanese Americans received a written apology from the president of the United States and monetary compensation in accordance with the Civil Liberties Act of 1998.
  • Mike, Ichiro. Little Tokyo: One Hundred Years in Pictures. Los Angeles: Project of Visual Communications-Asian American Studies, 1983. With an extensive prologue about the history of the district and moving photographs of early Japanese American citizens.
  • Niiya, Brian, ed. Japanese American History: An A-Z Reference from 1886 to the Present. New York: Japanese American National Museum/Facts on File, 1993. Comprehensively compiled information on historical buildings, key personalities, and facts about internment camps.
  • Tunnel, Michael O., and George W. Chilcoat. The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp, Based on a Classroom Diary. New York: Holiday House, 1996. Using a diary, teacher Lillian Yamauchi Hori recorded the moving experiences of her interred students. Includes photographs and a lengthy introduction by the authors.
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