California is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the United States of America, only second to Hawaii, with a non-white majority and nearly 15% Asian population. The diverse demographic rose from humble beginnings in ethnic enclaves. Typically, immigrant minorities formed ethnic enclaves in response to various socioeconomic reasons, including immigrants’ low initial startup capital and racial prejudice from pre-existing communities. The close proximity in ethnic enclaves create networks and resources that foster both social and economic growth for members of the enclave.
Eventually, some enclaves reach a point where they become self-sustaining, expand, and assimilate. One such enclave is Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles.
Little Tokyo, which now encompasses approximately four acres in downtown Los Angeles, is the largest Japanese American population in America. It was founded in 1885 when a Japanese seaman started a restaurant on First Street, Los Angeles. The Japanese population grew relatively slowly over the next few years, until the 20th century, when over thirty thousand Japanese immigrated to the United States in search of a better life.
Many settled in the Little Tokyo area, until concerns over immigrant numbers and their supposed unwillingness to assimilate led to the Immigration Act of 1924 being signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge. The law essentially halted further Japanese immigration.
In 1942, following the events of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans, draining the population of Little Tokyo. The enclave temporarily filled with African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos, and became known as Bronzeville.
During this time, many buildings in Bronzeville fell into disrepair due to overpopulation and rising crime rates. After World War II, the Japanese were released from their internment camps and returned to Little Tokyo, which the African American population had already mostly evacuated, although some Japanese had to settle in the surrounding areas such as Boyle Heights. Japanese Americans formed associations to aid the rebuilding and redevelopment of Little Tokyo.
In the 1970s, Japanese corporations began expanding overseas, with many headquartering in Los Angeles. This new money influx resulted in massive wave of developmental work in Little Tokyo. New shopping plazas, business centers, hotels, and restaurants were built, replacing some of the original buildings and restaurants.
Little Tokyo is home to many Japanese cultural attractions. There is the Japanese American National Museum (img) which covers over 130 years of Japanese American history. Right in front of it is the OOMO (Out of Many, One) Cube (img) which is a public artwork by Nicole Maloney supporting human oneness. Across the street from that is the Little Tokyo Watchtower (img), which leads into the Japanese Village Plaza (img), a small mall with many restaurants and services. There is a monument (img) to the Japanese American astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, a specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger that disintegrated during takeoff in the 1986 Challenger disaster. Near the monument is Weller Court, a small shopping center (img) with a neon tunnel (img) that is a popular photography spot for tourists.
The shopping centers in Little Tokyo provide a diverse selection of foods and products. Many restaurants specialize in one specific type of food, such as udon (img), curry, sushi, or shabu-shabu. Additionally, there are shops that serve desserts such as mochi ice cream, matcha ice cream, and taiyaki. There are shops that specialize in Japanese books, anime and manga (img), magazines, and movies. Then there are stores that sell high end products like handbags and shoes, but also bargain stores with inexpensive yet quality inventory like skincare products and stationery.
In recent years, Little Tokyo has become less of a residential area and is more of a cultural and civic area. Most Japanese Americans today live in the surrounding cities such as Monterey Park and Torrance. The demographic of Little Tokyo is mainly elderly individuals not part of the workforce living below the Federal Poverty Level, with the average household income being around $15,000. According to the 2010 Census, Little Tokyo is 39.6% Asian, 25.9% Black, 19.5% Hispanic, and 12.2% White.
Despite the high rate of poverty in Little Tokyo, the economy points upward for Little Tokyo. The nature of Little Tokyo with its cultural attractions and many shopping and dining areas, as well as the increasing interest in Japanese culture by the general public leads to increasing property values and may secure an economic future for Little Tokyo and its residents.