Little Tokyo is barely a ghost of how I remember it. Businesses have come and gone since the recession. The building formerly known as the Mitsuwa Mall doesn’t even resemble its former self.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every city undergoes growing pains during its generational transition. But the notion that it visibly looks less “Japanese” is enough for any Nikkei to reminisce on bygone days. This nostalgia, however, has impeded people from looking ahead. The only other alternative is to keep Little Tokyo a museum piece and stagnate its local businesses. What’s needed is a vision for how the community can adapt to the most recent incarnation of the information age.
I recently read an interview, “Akihabara 3000: Real — Saipan,” between cultural critic Hiroki Azuma and other celebrities immersed in Akihabara’s culture. In it, they discuss the ways in which Akihabara evolved from an electronics hub and into the centralized haven for the otaku, Japan’s subculture of anime-obsessed hobbyists.
Little Tokyo in a lot ways reminds me of Akihabara. Ethnic demographics aside, they both attract the same types of people. The otaku can apply to people who consume anime, comics, and video games to a pathologically maniacal level. It’s reached a point, however, where the otaku — as a pejorative — coincides with anything and anyone so much as it relates to a passionate hobby. The one consistent trait is that they share and exchange information with one another online. This is one of the reasons why I believe Azuma’s interview holds implications for Little Tokyo.
Little Tokyo, of course, attracts people in the states who self-identify as otaku due to the modern-day correlation between anime and Japan. Unlike Akihabara, Little Tokyo isn’t the nucleus for otaku culture. Hipsters, on the other hand, are another matter altogether. Hipsters as a subculture are so amorphous that their pretensions can apply to virtually any other counter-culture in America. Their recurrent trait in the contemporary sense is their addictive dependency on social media, technology, and information like the otaku.
Consequentially, Little Tokyo somehow attracted that set of people outside of the Asian American community. I can’t open my eyes without seeing flannel shirts, cutoff jeans, and the other irony-laced apparel designs endemic to hipsterdom. Pop Killer and other apparel stores have sprouted up around the city, catering to some of the consumer tastes of that subculture. I’ve even heard people sardonically refer to ramen as hipster food.
Anyone who knows me understands that I have an allergy counter-culture groups and their consumerism. Far from resisting this, however, Little Tokyo should embrace it. I’d argue that the consumerism of the contemporary years has rendered us all hipsters (or even otaku) in some respect. We’re all cool-hunters in some way, shape, or form. Technology has further impacted the way we consume and share information.
Different businesses in Little Tokyo already connected with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to attract customers. What lures people out, though, are goods, services, and information that are otherwise unobtainable online. This one of the reasons why I feel like stores concentrating on anime-related merchandise are destined to decline. Better and often times cheaper goods are easier to order online. Something social or physical like Akihabara’s idol meet-and-greets need to be provided in order outside of the confines of the Web. Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot Magazine has done something similar to this with its Game Nights in West Los Angeles. I’d like to see more events like this with older establishments.
To put it frankly, the people who complain about the “Mitsuwa Mall” being Korean are narrow-sighted. A district with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese businesses sharing the same block is more akin to the cosmopolitan Tokyo of today than the idealized vision of Japantown of yesteryear.
Even though these newer businesses have used these mediums, other fixtures in Little Tokyo have failed to keep abreast of today’s technology. In order to remedy this, Little Tokyo might require an urban development committee of some sort to advice and even assist business in this endeavor.
Having some a community-based urban planning committee of this type might help divert the decline of such establishments. To a certain extent, I hope the same for The Rafu, and it takes a higher emphasis on connecting with this generation’s more net-savvy world.
Brett Fujioka can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.