Last updated: October 12, 2023
Little Tokyo Historic District is a historic Japanese commercial district in downtown Los Angeles, California. Japanese immigrants settled the district in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was the largest Japanese community in the United States. Today, the Little Tokyo Historic District represents the original commercial heart of the community.
Establishing Little Tokyo
Until the 1880s, the majority of immigrants from Asia to the US were Chinese. This changed with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US. Because of this, Japanese laborers became increasingly sought after by American businesses and the number of Japanese immigrating to the US, particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly.
The area that became known as Little Tokyo was first settled in 1885, when a former sailor, Hamanosuke "Charles Hama" Shigeta, opened the Kame Restaurant on East First Street at what was then the southeastern end of Los Angeles. By the late 1800s, large numbers of Japanese immigrants, nearly all male, were beginning to concentrate in boarding houses in the areas around East First Street. Many had come for short-term stays to work in the local agricultural industry, but as Los Angeles entered a period of growth in the early 1900s, they chose to remain in the US.
The "Gentlemen's Agreement" Era
The rapid increase in Japanese immigration helped to cause a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment and, to avert a crisis, the US and Japan came to a "Gentlemen's Agreement" in 1907. Under the Agreement, Japan denied passports to Japanese citizens who wanted to work in the US and the US permitted the immigration of students, business people, and spouses of Japanese already in the US. Starting in 1910, newly arriving Asian immigrants were processed through the US Immigration Station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay before continuing on to Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast.
After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, many of that city's Japanese residents moved south to Los Angeles, causing the Japanese population to grow from 3,000 to almost 10,000. With the adoption of the Gentleman's Agreement, Japanese women began to immigrate to the US in greater numbers, either as new brides or to join their families, and Little Tokyo began to develop larger communities with an established commercial district.
Community Growth and Flourishing
Little Tokyo eventually was comprised of thriving businesses and residences. Primary and secondary schools as well as trade schools, such as the Rafu Yossai Gakuen (Los Angeles Sewing School), were opened. Newspapers flourished, led by the Rafu Shimpo, the oldest existing Japanese newspaper in the US, founded in 1903. Religious institutions were formed, such as the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in 1912, the Japanese Union Church in 1923, and the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in 1925. Local businessmen formed temporary credit associations, called tanomoshi-ko, to provide capital on a rotating basis for new business ventures.
Local leaders established formal organizations such as the Central Japanese Association, the Japanese-American Citizens' League, and the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce to promote community development. There were also multiple kenjinkai (mutual aid societies) organized around various Japanese prefectures, a jurisdiction similar to a US state. Kenjinkai provided social opportunities and aid, and were an important part of Japanese communities in the US. By 1940, Little Tokyo had kenjinkai representing 40 of Japan's 46 prefectures.
All of these businesses and organizations provided the basis for the largest and fastest-growing Japanese community in the US. Between 1920 and 1940, Los Angeles County accounted for the majority of the growth of the Japanese population in the country. By 1942, Little Tokyo was a vibrant community of more than 35,000 people all living and working within three miles of the current Little Tokyo Historic District.
World War II
The 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan brought Little Tokyo's prosperity to an end. Wartime hysteria – coupled with questions about the loyalty of Japanese living in the US – resulted in Executive Order 9066, which required more than 120,000 Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent to be forcibly removed from the West Coast. Residents of Little Tokyo were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, and move to relocation centers in isolated areas throughout the U.S. This caused severe financial and emotional hardship as the flourishing community of Little Tokyo virtually shut down.
During World War II, Los Angeles faced a labor shortage. Thousands of African Americans, mainly from the Southeast and Midwest, came to the city to fill wartime jobs. They settled around Central Avenue next to Little Tokyo, in what was then the city's Black community. This area soon became overcrowded and Little Tokyo, now a ghost town, provided room for growth. Because Japanese immigrants were barred by law from owning property, most of the buildings in Little Tokyo had been leased from their non-Japanese owners. The owners, needing tenants for their vacant buildings, leased them to the newly arriving African Americans.
Little Tokyo soon became known as Bronzeville, with hotels, restaurants, stores, residences, a chamber of commerce, and an active nightlife including jazz clubs and breakfast clubs. For three years, from 1942 through 1945, Bronzeville was a thriving, overcrowded community with close to 80,000 residents.
As the war came to an end, however, industries began to shut down their wartime operations and jobs became scarce. Japanese business owners and residents began returning to Little Tokyo to reestablish their community, and many of the residents of Bronzeville left to find jobs in other parts of the country. The transition from Bronzeville back to Little Tokyo was, for the most part, smooth. Many of the returning Japanese bought out the Bronzeville business leases. The Common Ground Committee was formed to foster better interracial relations, and many Japanese business owners hired African Americans while remaining Bronzeville businesses hired Japanese Americans.
Eventually, the central commercial core of Little Tokyo along First Street was revived, but the community's size was much smaller than before the war. Many of the returning residents chose to live in outlying areas around Los Angeles, with only one-third of the original residents coming back to Little Tokyo. The physical size of the community also shrank due to the construction of the Los Angeles Police headquarters building, Parker Center, in 1953, which demolished one-fourth of Little Tokyo's commercial area as well as the residences of nearly 1000 people. Urban renewal and community redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s also reduced the size of the original commercial district.
Revival in the 1970s and Beyond
Little Tokyo started to experience a revival in the 1970's. Japanese businesses began to lobby for expanded redevelopment of the Little Tokyo area as Japanese corporations grew their overseas operations and established headquarters in Los Angeles. In the mid-1980s the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation began promoting economic revitalization of the district while working to preserve Little Tokyo's history and culture. Also during the 1980s, artists began to move into aging downtown warehouse spaces, forming an arts community next to Little Tokyo. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened in the historic Hompa Hongwangi Buddhist Temple, helping to anchor the historic commercial district.
Today, the Little Tokyo Historic District National Historic Landmark is part of a vibrant Japanese cultural district. The National Historic Landmark preserves two blocks of the original pre-World War II commercial heart of Little Tokyo, anchored at one end by the Union Church and the other end by the Japanese American National Museum. The district is the focal point of one of the largest concentrations of Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) in the U.S and is made up of 13 one to four story buildings from the first half of the 20th century.
The Japanese Union Church at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, a brick building in the Classical Revival style, was built in 1923. The church was designed by Henry M. Patterson, a well-known architect and church designer in Southern California. During World War II, the church building was a "Civil Control Station" and all Japanese-Americans or people of Japanese descent living in Little Tokyo were required to report here for evacuation from the West Coast. Church members were sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming where the Rev. Donald Toriumi, who was the church's minister immediately before the evacuation, continued to lead the congregation while they were interned. The building was purchased by the City of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s as part of its redevelopment plan for Little Tokyo, and today houses the Union Center for the Arts, part of LA Artcore.
The San Pedro Firm Building, at 108-116 Judge John Aiso Street, is a large Classical Revival style building originally owned by the Southern California Flower Growers Inc., a group started by 54 local Japanese flower growers. They opened the Southern California Flower Market in 1913, which today is one of two large markets in the Los Angeles Flower District (700 South Wall Street). The flower market was so successful that the growers commissioned architect William E. Young to design a building in 1925, to provide Japanese growers with living quarters while they were selling their flowers at the market. The building also housed the Pacific Sewing School, one of several schools that taught sewing to Nisei girls. The San Pedro Firm Building has several storefronts, a cast stone first floor, brick second and third floors, and the words "San Pedro Firm Building" carved along the top under the roofline.
The Art Deco building, at 309-313 E. First Street, was owned by the young Nisei daughters of Yasujiro Kawasaki. Kawasaki was unable to own the building himself because California's Alien Land Laws prevented foreign-born Japanese from owning property. Many Japanese immigrant families were able to control property, however, by placing legal ownership in the names of their American-born children. The building was constructed in 1933, by Japanese architect Mieki Hayano from a design by W.C. Cook, who was Kawasaki's engineer. It was the home of the first Nisei Week Festival and Parade in 1934, and is the only building in the district that continued to be owned by Japanese Americans throughout World War II.
Dating from 1914, the 3-story building at 331-335 E. First Street was designed as a hotel by California architect Alfred F. Priest. Before and after World War II, it was known as the Mikado Hotel. During the war, when it served the largely black clientele of Bronzeville, it was known as the Shreveport Hotel and housed a well-known soul food restaurant. The building is a good example of the commercial architecture that filled American "Main Streets" in the early 20th century. The first story is glazed white brick, with the second and third stories being buff brick. The first floor still looks as it did in 1932, and contains three storefronts, two of which still have colored glazed tile under their windows.
The Far East Building, a 3-story commercial building at 347-353 E. First Street, dates to 1896, but was remodeled in 1935 in the Art Deco style. The building housed a hotel and storefront, but was particularly well-known for its Far East Cafe, a restaurant specializing in Chinese- American food. The Jung family opened the restaurant in 1935, and its location drew both Japanese and non-Japanese patrons to the heart of Little Tokyo. During World War II, the Cafe remained in business because of its Chinese ownership. In 2001, the building was donated to the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation. The Far East building is brick covered with stucco, with a zigzag design in the Art Deco style above the first floor. The larger of the two storefronts, formerly the Far East Cafe, reopened in 2002 as the Chop Suey Cafe and Lounge and still has its historic interior.
Built in 1925, the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, at 119 N. Central Avenue, was one of the biggest and most influential Buddhist temples in the U.S. The temple building consists of three sections that curve around the corner of E. First Street and Central Avenue with the entrance located on the plaza, across from the Japanese American National Museum's (JANM) modern building. The large cement roof canopy (karahafu) over the entrance replicates the imperial gateway at the Mother Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The temple's hondo (sanctuary) has decorations that resemble those in Nijo Castle and Nishi Hongwanji, in Kyoto. The temple had the largest social hall in Little Tokyo and hosted Central Japanese Association meetings. In 1942, the building was used to process Japanese Americans and people of Japanese ancestry for evacuation to relocation centers, and its members stored their possessions in the building while they were interned during World War II. In 1969, the temple moved to a new building and the original building was sold to the City of Los Angeles, becoming the first home of the JANM. In 1999, the museum moved into new facilities across from the old Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building and today the historic building houses JANM's National Center for the Preservation of Democracy.
Little Tokyo Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, is roughly bounded by 301-349 East First St., 110-120Judge John Aiso St., and 119 Central Ave. in Los Angeles, CA. For more information visit the Japanese American National Museum website.