By BILL WATANABE
Little Tokyo traces its beginnings back to the year 1884, when a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Sugita jumped ship in San Diego and made his way to the small but growing city of Los Angeles. Sugita opened a Western-style restaurant around that time on First Street; he was about the only Japanese person 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 its own right since it recently celebrated 75 years in business in Little Tokyo! The plaque was installed by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in May of this year.
Sugita’s restaurant on First Street flourished and news spread about his financial success; people in Japan and in other Japanese American enclaves got the message that Los Angeles was a place of opportunity for Nikkei who were courageous enough to come and start something new. From that spark – Japanese people began arriving and the Little Tokyo community continued to grow and prosper until the start of World War II. In 1942, approximately 35,000 Nikkei lived in or adjacent to Little Tokyo.
Shops like Fugetsudo and businesses like The Rafu Shimpo got their start in the early 1900s and have been around for over a century! People are often surprised to learn that foods like ramen, the California roll, the 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 transformed practically overnight from a Japanese American community into an African American community when all the Japanese were rounded up and forcibly removed into incarceration centers. At the same time, there were many new jobs created in L.A. due to the war effort and Black folks were coming in droves from the South; however, Black people were red-lined out of most residential areas. Little Tokyo was not a red-lined district and lo and behold, tens of thousands of Blacks moved into the empty housing and shops in Little Tokyo.
Almost overnight, Little Tokyo became known from 1942 to 1946 as “Bronzeville,” which became a center for African American culture – as evidenced by the establishment of an energetic jazz scene that featured greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, and Miles Davis.
After the war ended, Nikkei rebuilt their lives and many returned to Little Tokyo but many did not. Little Tokyo became a collection of aging buildings, populated by monolingual, low-income Japanese elderly men and women who called it their home. Later came community redevelopment and revitalization efforts that 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 Downtown, but now Little Tokyo is seeing a major resurgence of inner-city life as upwardly mobile people have returned to live, work, and visit the area. Little Tokyo is now faced with challenges that come with gentrification and is even looking at its possible demise as a Nikkei cultural and historic district.
There are so many interesting stories of people and places that have arisen during the almost 140 years since the intrepid pioneer Sugita came and started his restaurant business. Some colleagues and I have given many Little Tokyo tours this summer — if your group would be interested in taking a walking tour of historic Little Tokyo, let me know and we will try to accommodate your request.
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.