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Since the 1940’s, the Little Tokyo district in Los Angeles has served as a multiracial community for both Japanese Americans and African Americans. Not only does this southern California ethnic enclave have a rich cultural history, but it also continues to play a profound role in serving as the melting pot of mutiracial, racialized communities. Prior to 1941, Little Tokyo was primarily home for issei, first generation Japanese immigrants in America, and nissei, second generation Japanese immigrants in America. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which forcibly relocated Japanese and Japanese Americans to remote internment camps, the Little Tokyo district transformed into Bronzeville. For the subsequent three years following Japanese internment, Bronzeville became home to thousands of African Americans ostracized by racial segregation laws that prevented them from living anywhere else. Many of the new residents of Bronzeville joined together to establish work coalitions and added a new layer of culture to the area. Thus, when the Japanese internment ended in 1944 with the decision of Korematsu v. United States, the Little Tokyo/Bronzeville region became the center of cultural and racial mixing. Instead of a race war, the returning Japanese Americans peacefully assimilated back into the area and developed a mutualistic relationship with the Bronzeville community. Today, there are organizations in and around the Little Tokyo/Bronzeville region that support and maintain the Little Tokyo community and its surrounding. The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) welcomes all ethnicities by offering services in a variety of language and hosting community events that best fit the needs of the multiracial community and its surroundings. There services range from establishing small businesses to supporting senior citizens.
Prior to World War II, Little Tokyo constituted the biggest and busiest Japantown in California (Jenks, 2011). Though there are no official records documenting the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Los Angeles, there is a Los Angeles County census from 1890 that recorded thirty-six Japanese immigrants and the subsequent influx of Japanese immigrants into the area (Nishi 1958). Many of these immigrants had migrated from the Central Valley, where living conditions were poor and opportunities were sparse, or from Japan through passageways in either San Francisco, CA or Seattle, WA (Nishi 1958). Although there were no direct routes from Japan to Los Angeles, CA, Japanese immigrants found their way to Los Angeles in search of small business opportunities and sought to improve their socioeconomic status. Over time, the Japanese and Japanese American population exploded. In order to support the large, growing Issei generation, the Little Tokyo area quickly developed facilities and services that provided for all aspects of life. Japanese-oriented shops, bathhouses, doctor’s offices, churches, temples, restaurants, newspaper offices, movie theaters, flower shops and wholesale produce markets sprung up to support the growing community (Jenks 2008). As a result, Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were able to make a space in Los Angeles a comfortable home while building strong relationships and feeling a sense of belonging. With time and hard work, they were able to make it their place called Little Tokyo.
However, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, a United States naval base, in Honolulu, Hawaii and rattled the stable, Japanese American community. Following the bombing incident, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the current United States president at the time, signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The executive order forced the relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans, 90,000 of which were Californians, to ten different concentration camps across the midwest (Roger 1991). This completely altered the community that the Japanese Americans had built and devastated families that were forcibly incarcerated and separated in some cases.
At the start of World War II and the beginning of the Japanese American incarceration, Little Tokyo was rapidly transformed into Bronzeville by the growing African American population. As new jobs opened up between 1940 and 1943–nearly 550,000 new jobs–in Los Angeles to meet increased demands, thousands of African Americans flooded into the area (Jenks 2008). Ostracized by housing restriction and segregation laws, though, African Americans struggled to find housing. Much of the open housing projects limited black occupancy to less than 2% (Jenks 2008). However, Little Tokyo was one space that the increasing African American population was able to live and thrive. Moreover, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8022, issued on June 25, 1941, African Americans, for the first time, had access to high-paying skilled manufacturing jobs due to the “mandated training and employment in the defense industries without discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origins (Jenks 2008).” Thus, they were able to afford renting the vacant storefronts, hotels, and houses in Little Tokyo that were left behind by removed Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. Furthermore, tenants in the Little Tokyo area were compelled to rent out the properties once leased by Japanese American to the incoming African Americans because they saw it as economically beneficial and lucrative.
Soon enough, “ ‘This is Bronzeville. Watch us grow.’ ” filled the streets and storefronts in Bronzeville (Kurashige 2008). African Americans capitalized on the present situation and transitioned what was once Japanese American property to fit them culturally, socially, and economically. Southern African American migrants invested in opening restaurants, department stores, barbershops, night clubs, and hotels. African American leaders and activists took very similar noncommercial institutions and made them their own. What was originally the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple property was leased to Providence Baptist Church and the Centenary Methodist Church was transitioned into Trinity Baptist Church (Kurashige 2008). However, some African American migrants maintained Japanese, or general oriental, practices and morals. The book, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, by Scott Kurashige explains how a black woman and “former beautician Gail Thompson took over the Taiki cafe and maintained the Chinese food menu of its previous Issei operators (Kurashige 2008).” The surrounding Chinese community not only complimented her for her chop suey’s authentic flavor but also recognized her effort to continue traditions that everyone could enjoy, not letting racial differences get in the way (Kurashige 2008).
In January 1945, Executive Order 9066 was ruled unconstitutional and Japanese Americans were free to resettle across the country. The supreme court case, Korematsu vs. United States, argued that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional and violated the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, “depriving of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law (Strauss 2017).” Of the many chosen destinations for relocation, such as Illinois, Colorado and Wisconsin, “the most impressive movement, however, was the speedy resettlement of 85,000 Japanese (60 percent of the national total) to California (Nishi 1958).” Immediately after relocating or returning, many internees were left homeless. There were shortages in wartime housing and hostels and trailer camps were heavily utilized (Nishi 1958). Luckily, “by the end of 1946 an estimated 86-90 percent of the displaced persons had succeeded in finding permanent housing” and about a quarter of them were able to reclaim their houses from pre-war times (Nishi 1958).
Upon returning to Little Tokyo/Bronzeville from internment camp, Japanese Americans were welcomed back; both communities committed to “peaceful coexistence, with emblems in the windows of Japanese and African American stores proclaiming ‘we respect all’ (Jenks 2011).” Japanese Americans were harmoniously integrated back into the society they belonged and helped create a sense of multiracial acceptance and belonging in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville. Both ethnic groups, African Americans and Japanese Americans, showed each other respect through their coexistence as they supported each others business, worked together, and shared friendly gestures. At local health clinics, black, Japanese, and white doctors were seen cooperating and serving the community while Japanese and black children played outside together (Jenks 2011). With everyday interactions and mutual support, both ethnic groups gained respect for each other and new perspective of the opposing race. “A Japanese American launderer said his initial image of African Americans as ‘dirty people’ had been displaced by a perception that most were ‘very nice’ and ‘very clean’ (Kurashige 2008).” In routine errands, “Japanese barbers cut black hair, African and Japanese American wives conversed in the corner market, and men of both races shared games in the neighborhood (Jenks, 2011).”
An important aspect of the construction and assimilation to the multiracial lifestyle and community between Japanese Americans and African Americans in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville was the establishment of the Common Ground Committee of Caucasians, Japanese, and Negroes. It was a significant movement toward solidarity between Japanese Americans and African Americans. With the help of the Pilgrim House youth service agency, social workers and public health officials went to seek out needs in the Negro district of Little Tokyo (Kurashige 2008). “Common Ground promoted multiracial solidarity through sponsorship of mass meetings and conflict resolution between leaders of the different ethnic groups (Kurashige 2008).” They pulled leaders from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) as well as from the African American community, all with the common goal of interracial activities. Together, they opened up a safe, common space for Negroes, Mexican, Caucasian, and Japanese American children to interact and play together (Kurashige 2008). According to Ebony magazine, an African American magazine, the post-war relationship between the African Americans and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles was “a miracle in race relations (Deverell, et. al 2014).” It described the multicultural bond as a “mixture of chitterlings and sukiyaki, or jive and Japanese” with “a heartfelt kinship that has grown between two minorities, both victims of race hate. (Deverell, et. al 2014).”
Today, Little Tokyo, consisting of Japanese restaurants, shops, and even a museum, is full of Japanese American culture, but still welcomes diversity and provides services to the surrounding multiracial community that exists. The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) provides for the Little Tokyo community as a whole. The LTSC “promotes community control and self-determination in Little Tokyo” by providing social services (ltsc.org). Their services are available to everyone in need, not just Japanese Americans living in Little Tokyo. Services are offered in English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin and include a vast list of support systems (ltsc.org). These services that are open to the diverse Little Tokyo community and its surroundings include: childcare, small business assistance, educational services, therapy, counseling, and domestic violence support (ltsc.org). In LTSC’s recent newsletter, June 2019 edition, they advertised the Angelina Basketball Tournament, a LTSC sponsored event that promotes community building and lasting friendships. Young residents of the Angelina Apartments affordable housing community in the Temple-Beaudry area of Echo park form teams of 3 to play hard and display good sportsmanship (ltsc.org). The LTSC recognizes common struggles that exist in a large variety of communities, of all ages and ethnicities, and does their best to create relationships between them, provide support, and building lasting memories. The LTSC strives to keep the local community together, offering many local, affordable events with the consideration of everyone. Another recent event they organized was taking senior citizens for a day-trip to the Huntington Library. This event highlighted the importance of affordability and keeping the elderly community members physically and socially active (ltsc.org).
In conclusion, the Little Tokyo district in Los Angeles has and always will be a melting pot of different cultures and racialized communities. Whether it was Japanese immigrants moving into properties owned by white tenants, African Americans moving into the area to form Bronzeville, or returning Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans working with the Bronzeville community to reestablish Little Tokyo, the Little Tokyo district has always embraced the cultural and ethnic diversity in the area. More importantly, the Little Tokyo district offers services to not only help the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the area, but also the African American, Latinx, and other racialized groups to promote cultural diversity and acceptance.
- “About Us.” Little Tokyo Service Center, www.ltsc.org/about-2/.
- “Bronzeville and Little Tokyo.” The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, by Scott Kurashige, Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 158–185. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t850.13.
- Daniels, Roger. “Milestones in California History: Executive Order #9066 (Feb. 19, 1942).” California History, vol. 70, no. 4, 1991. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25158587.
- Deverell, William, and Greg Hise. A Companion to Los Angeles. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
- Jenks, Hillary. “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles.” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 93, no. 2, 2011, pp. 201–235. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41172572.
- Jenks, H. (2008). “Home is little tokyo”: Race, community, and memory in twentieth -century los angeles (Order No. 3325078). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304462032). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/304462032?accountid=14512
- LII Staff. “Due Process.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, 26 June 2017, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/due_process.
- Nishi, Midori. “JAPANESE SETTLEMENT IN THE LOS ANGELES AREA.” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, vol. 20, 1958, pp. 35–48. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24042248.
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