The Last Of Us Today, Little Tokyo is one of downtown Los Angeles' last remaining ethnic enclaves. Will the city center's resurgence change that?

In a small gift shop in Downtown Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, past and present sit calmly side by side. Customers from a movie festival catch a glimpse at elegant vases and traditional toys, while upstairs they browse through books and cassette tapes. A breeze lightly jostles black and white photos by the door.

Irene Simonian, owner, sits at the counter, scrolling through orders on a tiny computer screen. Bunkado has been having calm days like these since it opened after World War II, but there are still difficulties.

“Whether it’s self imposed or not, I do feel pressure to stay open,” she said recently in an interview.

For the last 20 years, Bunkado has helped visitors and residents connect with the culture and history of one of downtown Los Angeles’s oldest ethnic enclaves. However, that ‘pressure to stay open’ has mounted from areas ranging from rising rents, private development, to Los Angeles' Civic Center Master Plan update.

Bunkado has been home to Little Tokyo for over 70 years.

As of 2017, the new plan is set to extend into Little Tokyo's most historic area: First Street North. However, only the northside of First Street North is protected by both state and federal ordinances, leaving historic businesses like Bunkado vulnerable.

For Simonian, the responsibility of maintaining a historic legacy rests with Little Tokyo’s oldest businesses and institutions.

“For the few of us that remain,” explained Simonian. “We get to become more and more important, just because of the history that we represent.”

That history is one of innovation and community. Japanese immigrants began establishing businesses on First Street North more than a century ago. While the light bulb was beginning to light up the streets of the United States’ urban centers, new residents built Little Tokyo out of mochi-shops, tintype photo-studios, and their own community newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo, which still exists today.

This development of Little Tokyo is also marked by displacement. In the early 1950s, just a few years after Little Tokyo’s residents had returned from internment camps, the city destroyed one-fourth of the community’s business districts, along with the homes of nearly 1,000 residents, to make way for former LAPD headquarters at Parker Center.

In the 1970s organizations affiliated with The Los Angeles Department of City Planning began a 30-year-old initiative to transform Little Tokyo into a cultural destination. Today, the stylized Japanese Village Plaza, one of their projects, is a popular place for Instagram photo shoots and cultural festivals.

“It’s turned into a place where foodies come to eat and hipsters come to buy clothes,” Simonian said. “People are choosing to come here to have fun and I think that’s absolutely delightful.

Some community members argue that this change should not come at the cost of the community’s heritage. Sustainable Little Tokyo, a coalition of 3 community non-profits, began a petition urging councilmember Jose Huizar and Mayor Eric Garcetti in their vision for First Street North in April. The advocates also want the Little Tokyo Service Center to be selected as the community developer.

“We are the public and it’s public land,” says Scott Oshima, lead Community Organizer for Sustainable Little Tokyo. “We should get a say in what is built there.”

While planning for the Civic Center Master Plan is still underway, the city has begun other development initiatives. On April 20th, the city broke ground on a series of public improvements that will bring bring 50 curb ramps, 56 pedestrian lights, 104 planted trees, continental crosswalks at six intersections, two new traffic signals and more than 22,000 square-feet of sidewalk repairs.

“For generations it has been one of the City of Los Angeles and DTLA’s premier destinations, a true Los Angeles’ treasure,” said Huizar at the ceremony. “These upgrades will vastly improve the pedestrian experience so that locals and visitors can continue to enjoy Little Tokyo.

Fugetsu-Do Bakery Shop, founded 1903 in Little Tokyo, is the community's oldest business.

"As new tenants move into Little Tokyo over the years, the enclave’s population continues to change. Today, 60% of Little Tokyo’s residents are of non-Asian descent and only one-half of Asian residents are of Japanese descent, according to a community assessment by researchers at the SOL Price Center for Public Innovation at the University of Southern California.

For Simonian, the Little Tokyo of her youth was a much more insular community.

“This place existed in a way that you didn’t really have to leave,” she said. “It was a vibrant community and it was a neat place, but it was kind of a place that had it’s time. Little Tokyo doesn’t have to be that way anymore.”

“For the few of us that remain, we get to become more and more important, just because of the history that we represent.”

In response to this demographic change, community groups have established events to bring the diverse community together. A yearly summer event celebrates the origins of traditional Japanese and Mexican dance, while a recent Mini-Golf pop-up featured a display that combined traditional Japanese banners with a message highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement.

At an event celebrating historic Asian-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, one past resident noted how Little Tokyo has changed over the years.

“In Little Tokyo, I don’t hear Japanese spoken too much,” said Mike Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society. “Which is fine, but this is a cultural destination.”

Wearing a bright blue Little Tokyo Historical Society happi coat, a traditional Japanese straight-sleeved jacket, Okamura shared stories with students about the society’s programs..

Gesturing to a black and white brochure photo of a little girl in a traditional Japanese kimono playing a game, he paused to lament.

“You used to see things like this all of the time,” he said. “But you don’t see it anymore.”

All Photos by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn, article originally for JOUR307: Reporting & Writing II Class, Spring 2018


Piper Hudspeth Blackburn