By BILL WATANABE
Little Tokyo traces its beginnings to 1884, when a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Sugita jumped ship in San Diego and traveled to small but growing Los Angeles. Sugita opened a Western-style restaurant around this time on First Street; he was pretty much the only Japanese in town at the time, so a Japanese restaurant wouldn’t make much sense.
The historic location is marked by a newly installed plaque on the wall of the Bunkado gift shop (see marker photo); it should be noted that the Bunkado gift shop is historic in itself since it recently celebrated its 75th anniversary in Little Tokyo! The plaque was installed by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in May this year.
Sugita’s restaurant on First Street flourished, and news of his financial success spread; people in Japan and other Japanese-American enclaves got the message that Los Angeles was a place of opportunity for Nikkei people who had the courage to come and start something new. From this spark, the Japanese began to arrive, and the community of Little Tokyo continued to grow and prosper until the outbreak of World War II. In 1942, approximately 35,000 Nikkei lived in or near Little Tokyo.
Stores like Fugetsudo and companies like The Rafu Shimpo originated in the early 1900s and have been around for over a century! People are often surprised to learn that foods like ramen, California roll, fortune cookie, mochi ice cream, and shabu shabu have a historical connection to Little Tokyo!
Not everyone knows that during World War II, Little Tokyo was transformed almost overnight from an American-Japanese community to an African-American community when all Japanese people were rounded up and forcibly deported into detention centers. At the same time, many new jobs were created in Los Angeles due to the war effort, and black people were arriving in droves from the South; however, blacks were excluded from most residential areas. Little Tokyo was not a red-lined neighborhood and lo and behold, tens of thousands of black people moved into the empty homes and shops of Little Tokyo.
Almost overnight, Little Tokyo became known from 1942 to 1946 as “Bronzeville”, which became a center of African-American culture – as evidenced by the creation of an energetic jazz scene featuring greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Miles. Davis.
After the war ended, the Nikkei rebuilt their lives and many returned to Little Tokyo, but many did not. Little Tokyo has become a collection of aging buildings, populated by unilingual, low-income Japanese men and women who call them home. Later community redevelopment and revitalization efforts brought major new construction to replace the old unreinforced structures.
Major cultural entities such as the JA National Museum and the JA Cultural and Community Center were built. Little Tokyo survived the 1992 riots and a major economic decline in the city center, but now Little Tokyo is experiencing a major resurgence of downtown life as upwardly mobile people have returned to live, work and visit the region. Little Tokyo is now facing the challenges of gentrification and even considering its possible demise as a Nikkei cultural and historic district.
There are so many interesting stories of people and places that have cropped up in the nearly 140 years since the intrepid pioneer Sugita came along and started his restaurant business. Some colleagues and I have given many tours of Little Tokyo this summer – if your group would be interested in taking a walking tour of historic Little Tokyo, let me know and we’ll try to accommodate your request.
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.