By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
In an unpretentious section of Hollywood known as J-Flats, the 100-year-old Ozawa Boarding House evokes the early days of Japanese immigration and recently became the focus of preservation efforts by the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
Constructed in 1921, the Ozawa Boarding House helped new immigrants, primarily from Shizuoka, adapt to their new country. It is one of only eight such boarding houses still standing.
The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission is considering whether to designate the former boarding house and two other structures — the Ozawa family residence and Obayashi Employment Agency — as historic cultural monuments (HCMs).
The family residence was purchased in 1914 by Saichi Joy Yamaoka and relocated to the rear of the lot to make room for the construction of the boarding house. In the late 1930s, the property at 564 N. Virgil was purchased by George Ozawa, a Nisei born in the Virgil area and the eldest son of Sukesaka and Tsuya Ozawa.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Ozawa family was forced to relocate to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. Dr. Joe Ozawa, son of George and Doris, was born in camp. “We returned in 1945. The boarding house continued to function as a landing/transition place for Japanese immigrants,” emphasized Dr. Ozawa, a psychologist and pastor.
He noted that his parents and grandparents helped found the local judo dojo and a community center. The area was home to gas stations, barber shops, Fujiya Market, a garden supply store, Christ Presbyterian Church, and Hollywood Buddhist Church. Today, many of the shops and businesses that comprised the once-burgeoning Japanese American enclave have disappeared.
Dr. Ozawa’s daughter, Susan Ozawa Perez, points out, “This boarding house could have been lost during World War II. However, my great-grandfather Sukesaku and grandmother Tsuya (who were unable to own land) due to the alien land laws had previously bought land under Caucasian friends’ names. Family friends, the Arreolas, who were Mexican but American citizens, also held the title to land of theirs.
“When Executive Order 9066 was declared and Japanese were rounded up, Frank Box, a family friend and Sunday school teacher, took over the power of attorney for my families’ properties in November 1942 during the war and returned the power of attorney to the Ozawas after the war. He paid the taxes and insurance on the property, so that they were never seized by the government like so many other Japanese properties.”
Together with his wife, Shizuka, George Ozawa converted the boarding house structure into a duplex in 1951. Doris helped Shizuka run the boarding house.
The Ozawa family retained ownership of the property through 1980 and operated the structure as affordable housing. The structure was also listed as the site of the Obayashi Employment Agency in the 1939 Sun Yearbook, a directory published by San Francisco newspaper New World Sun, although it is unclear how long the employment agency operated there.
Perez, who serves as the unofficial family historian, presented the rationale for the HCM designation to the commissioners. “My father and his brother and cousins spent much of their childhoods at the boarding house as my grandmother and my great-aunt staffed it. They cooked 30 meals, three times a day for, roughly 40 years.”
She explained, “It is part of larger story of Japanese immigrants at the turn of the last century. Functioning as a first stop for recent immigrants without family ties in the U.S., it housed, fed and through its extension building, served as an employment agency, sought placement and the advancement of more recent immigrants from Japan.
“Later, (the Virgil home) would become a place of refuge, community, support and economic advancement for the Japanese American community…when our families were released from incarceration. This support and assistance were central to our collective survival, as formal employment for Japanese Americans was extremely limited due to discrimination.”
According to Dr. Ozawa, in the late 1950s, the Virgil area was known as J-Flats, a name that stemmed from the large concentration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the neighborhood and the presence of an Asian American gang known as the Black Juans.
Next step for the Cultural Heritage Commission decision is a site visit, after which the commissioners will vote on whether to approve the HCM designation.