LOS ANGELES — Is Little Tokyo in dire straits?
Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and also a member of the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC), doesn’t think so.
“Generally speaking, I think the foot traffic and level of business seem to be going pretty well,” Watanabe said. “Evening events are well attended by visitors. That’s been holding up very well.”
More visitors coming to Little Tokyo is “a good thing,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t want a lot of … national chain stores [to] start to come in. I think we have to stay alert for that. We want success, but we don’t want some of the negative things that success often brings.”
It’s been a struggle for all the nonprofit organizations, he added, “but it looks like they’re OK, at least for another year … As far as LTSC goes, things are a lot better than they were three or four months ago. I think everybody is hoping we’ll have a turnaround.”
The planned Nikkei Center residential and commercial project at First and Alameda, a partnership between LTSC and individual investors, is “on hold,” Watanabe revealed. “The economy has slowed everything down as far as that development goes.”
Meanwhile, Budokan, the community recreation center, finally received the draft of the ground lease from the City of Los Angeles, Watanabe reported. “We’re hoping we can get an approved ground lease by early 2011 so that we can start fundraising for the Budokan itself. And if we can get Nikkei Center going again, then both of those things, I think, will help insure the future of Little Tokyo.”
The renovations made to Japanese Village Plaza by its new owners, American Commercial Equities of Malibu, are “pretty complete now,” Watanabe observed. “It looks very pleasant, with places to sit, and the tower is finished. We’re trying to keep an eye on potential rent increases.”
Business is still down
Kiyoshi “Skip” Kawaratani, proprietor of Rafu Bussan gift store on Second Street, offered a pessimistic view on the financial health of Little Tokyo businesses. “I think everybody’s still down, more than last year. Our store is down too.”
“It’s going to take another two or three years before it fully recovers; it doesn’t look too good to me,” he said. “The city, state and federal governments, no one’s got any money. So I believe things are going to get worse before they get better.”
Chris Komai, public information officer for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), noted that JANM, along with fellow nonprofit organizations such as the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), LTSC, East West Players and the Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District (JACL-PSW), as well as the churches and temples, “are hanging in there pretty good, too.”
There are many small businesses — a lot of them are mom-and-pop businesses like Aoi, Suehiro, even Kouraku and other restaurants and shops — that still have a connection to Little Tokyo, Komai said.
But without a big source of funding, Little Tokyo’s future is a question mark, he stated. “Every nonprofit in Little Tokyo owes a huge debt to George Aratani, businessman and philanthropist. There is no replacement for him and some of the other people who are big donors.”
The question for the community is whether someone will take the place of the Nisei, Komai said. “The Sansei are not coming in like their Nisei parents did, because they’re getting married at an older age and having children at an older age. They’re having to pay for their kids’ education while supporting their aging parents.”
The Nikkei lived close together in communities from the early 20th century until the 1970s because of the racial climate and discriminatory housing restrictions, Komai pointed out. “Japanese Americans went to Little Tokyo for the markets. In those days, you couldn’t get tofu or shoyu anywhere else. Also, if you wanted sushi you came to Little Tokyo. And, even Japanese electronics were not sold in a lot of department stores, so you had to come to Little Tokyo, to places like Ginza Gift.”
When restrictive housing covenants were lifted, Nikkei could live anywhere they could afford, so many moved out to the suburbs, and Little Tokyo suffered, he said. “So that’s why I think Little Tokyo went flat in the ’80s.”
The good news for Little Tokyo is that there is a vibrant nightlife now, much more than it’s been in years, Komai noted. “The general impression 20 years ago was that Little Tokyo was unsafe, there were a lot of vagrants and petty crime. Much to the credit of Brian Kito and the koban (police), they helped clean that up.”
Influx of new people
A lot of new people have come into Little Tokyo the last 10 years, observed Rinban Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. “You see a lot of people walking the streets, frequenting the restaurants and shops on a daily basis as opposed to just on weekends.”
Higashi Honganji is also getting new people, Ito reported. “We are starting to diversify a little bit more. We see one Hispanic family come in once a week, and we have other non-Nikkei families coming in. Our challenge is how to get the word out to the people in the new residential units, to let them know we’re here.”
A significant number of civic-minded Yonsei are interested in the preservation of Little Tokyo, Komai said. “You know that Little Tokyo has hope when you see young people coming here. They are a combination of … Japanese nationals, a lot of Asian Pacific Americans and just young people in general cruising around Little Tokyo at night, so the restaurants and some of the bars have a reason to stay open.”
What happens in the next 10 years could go a long way in deciding the fate of Little Tokyo, Komai continued. “I think the strength of Little Tokyo is that nonprofits have so many people dedicated to keeping it alive in some real fashion … We still have a living community.”
J-Town survey results
Evelyn Yoshimura and LTSC conducted a survey of 280 businesses and found that a majority — 190, or two-thirds — of the businesses in Little Tokyo were owned and operated by Japanese or Japanese Americans. The second-largest group, at 14 percent, was Korean Americans; 17 percent were a combination of Chinese, African American, White, Iranian and others.
An overwhelming majority of those businesses had opened since 1991, and especially in the last five years, she interpreted. “What that says is even though now it’s two-thirds Nikkei, that’s not the trend. It’s going toward less Nikkei, because the newer businesses are not overwhelmingly Japanese, but more mixed, more non-Japanese.”
According to Yoshimura, 95 percent of the businesses are small, family-owned enterprises, but between 8 and 10 percent are chains — some of them are small chains with 10 or less stores. Then there are the big chains with 10 or more stores like Starbucks or Johnny Rockets and others.
There are about 1,200 units of affordable low-income housing, mostly for seniors, in Little Tokyo, she reported. “There are probably close to that many new market-rate units. Teramachi Homes has about 127 units, the Hikari apartments have 100-plus, Sakura Crossing has about 100-plus, and the Savoy condominiums have 700 units. Some of those people there are getting involved in Little Tokyo … Most of the Asians seem to be non-Japanese, many seem to be Korean. Teramachi is largely Japanese.”
The survey was done mainly by LTSC, with LTCC and Nikkei students from USC, UCLA and other schools, Yoshimura said. “That’s something that’s very hopeful. It’s amazing that so many young people are now interested in Little Tokyo.”
The LTCC, comprised of nonprofit groups, religious institutions, businesses and community activists, is trying to make an impact by pressuring landowners and developers coming into Little Tokyo to “do the right thing,” Yoshimura said.
When people come to Councilwoman Jan Perry for permits, Yoshimura recounted, “She would say, ‘Have you checked with the Little Tokyo Community Council, and if not, you should check with them.’ She’s the one who helped us get rid of the [proposed] jail and police headquarters next to Nishi Hongwanji in 2003. It’s because we developed a relationship with her … She understands the value of Little Tokyo.”
That’s why the people at the Korean-owned Little Tokyo Marketplace have been very cooperative with the community, she opined. “They work with us, they’ve joined the Community Council … They’re participating in the community a lot more than some Japanese and Japanese American businesses.”
Little Tokyo has never been all Japanese, she stressed. “There have always been Chinese restaurants and other things. In order to keep that Japanese flavor, we have to work with people.”
The L.A. County Metro board in October selected the fully-underground option for the controversial Regional Connector rail, which will run through Little Tokyo under Second Street and west to the heart of downtown. That is the alternative the LTCC and most local groups supported, Watanabe said. “There are still worries about what the impact of construction might be … There are concerns about possible compensation, how do we try to ameliorate the potential impact.”
Ito remarked, “One of the things we’re most worried about is that it’s going to disrupt businesses on Second Street and maybe throughout Little Tokyo once they start construction.”
If the rail goes through, things are going to be “much worse,” Kawaratani cautioned. “Metro voted to make it fully underground, but they’re still going to haul out a lot of dirt. I’m afraid the place is going to be pretty dusty, and I understand they’re going to need air holes too. It’s going to directly impact my business.”
Kyoto Grand Hotel and
According to published reports, the hotel and Weller Court properties would continue to be owned by Century City-based 3D Investments, but operations of the 21-story hotel would be taken over by Doubletree by Hilton, if the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approves the plan that was filed Nov. 4. The deal would bring the Little Tokyo properties out of bankruptcy.
The new reorganization plan commits $8 million to the property, for renovations, maintenance and to settle an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit brought against the hotel.
In 2006 3D Investments also purchased two hotels, two malls and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas property in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Addressing those reports, Watanabe said, “LTCC will be monitoring that … We would like to meet with representatives of this new arrangement to make sure they understand they’re coming into a historic ethnic neighborhood where people very much want to keep the hotel as part of their community.”
Rafu Bussan’s Kawaratani interjected, “The hotel deal will probably go through. I hate the idea of not having a Japanese name there, but such are the times. We’ll have to learn to live with it.”
Ito is “pretty optimistic” about Little Tokyo’s future. “It’s definitely going to change, and I’m grateful for the young people like Craig Ishii of JACL who are really involved and who, I’m sure, will make sure Little Tokyo stays Little Tokyo … As long as we’ve got the Yonsei and Gosei coming, and with the building of the Rec Center eventually, that’s going to bring people back to Little Tokyo.”