“Unless somebody records what happened, it will be gone,” explained Ansho Mas Uchima, who along with Minoru Shinmoto co-authored “Seinan, Southwest Los Angeles: Stories and Experiences from Residents of Japanese Ancestry.” For the two friends, life in Seinan before the war that mostly centered on Japanese school and church was filled with the social interaction that invigorated their youth.
Although neither Mas nor Min returned after the war, their affinity with and memories of the Seinan neighborhood remain strong. They both returned to their old neighborhood, piecing together the historic fabric of a prewar era that was pulsating with promise and growth, and all too quickly changed with the onset of World War II.
Early in their research process, Uchima, the avid historian, contacted Preserving California’s Japantowns to inquire about the inclusion of the Seinan community in its statewide research. While the project selected 43 pre-war Japantown communities for study, those interested in exploring other historic communities were provided with survey tools and encouraged to document their hometown. As the suburbs of downtown Los Angeles enveloped with the listings of Little Tokyo in the 1941 Rafu Shimpo community directory, the neighborhood located west of the University of Southern California campus was not easy to differentiate. Combing through a stack of pages from the directory, Uchima identified more than 750 residential listings in the area southwest of downtown Los Angeles, primarily contained within the borders of Western and Vermont avenues on the west and east, and Jefferson and Exposition boulevards on the north and south.
As Little Tokyo expanded in the 1920s, Japanese seeking family housing moved to the suburbs, limited and defined by restrictive covenant ordinances for minorities by the City of Los Angeles. With the settling in of families, the Seinan neighborhood expanded north of Jefferson Boulevard to 27th Street. By 1941, just before the forced evacuation at the onset of World War II, there were more than 1,000 Japanese residents in Seinan.
During the early formation of Japantown communities, the churches were essential in providing religious guidance, fellowship and social services for the Japanese immigrants in adapting to American society. The Los Angeles Holiness Church first gathered in a residence on 35th Place in 1921. Centenary Methodist Church, fondly known as “Miikyokai” from its early roots as the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Mission in Little Tokyo, built its church site and began Japanese language instruction at 35th Street and Normandie Avenue in 1925. Senshin Buddhist Temple and the Senshin Gakuin began its services on 36th Place in 1928. Other churches followed, with the establishment of The Church of Christ located on 37th Place, and Tenrikyo Church on 36th Street. As the Nisei children grew up, the Japanese schools and churches offered cultural and social anchors for the youth, with activities such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and sports leagues.
Larry Kobayashi reminisced, “President Hoover was in the White House, gasoline was 10 cents a gallon, bread was two cents a loaf, and one could buy a judo gi” — a judo uniform — “for only two dollars in 1930.” From its modest beginnings on old mattresses set in the basement of the Centenary Methodist Church, Seinan Judo raised funds to set up its dojo (arena) in the back of a house on 36th Place. During the war, Seinan Dojo was placed under the leadership of second-degree black belt Jack Sergel, who continued to teach the Caucasian students. During the war, Sergel brought a group of judo students to Manzanar, Calif. to work out with the former dojo members. Regrettably, this effort and his loyal friendship with the Japanese of Seinan may have caused him to lose his job with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Like other pre-war Japantowns, Seinan was nearly self-sufficient, with more than 40 Japanese-owned local businesses from grocery stores, barbershops, drug stores, jewelers, cleaners, gas stations, to a dozen nurseries and florists. Prominent businesses such as Iba Nursery on 36th Place that expanded with a retail store in Glendale, and Western Avenue Park Nursery that occupied an entire city block behind Forshay Junior High School, provided jobs for others in the neighborhood. Smaller “backyard nurseries” also sprouted throughout the area. Fujisaka Drug Store, on the corner of Normandie Avenue and 35th Street, not only provided medicine and sundries, but also featured the best banana split at its fountain.
New Fashion Cleaners boldly began in the affluent Adams district by Issei entrepreneurs Iwao Wada and Tsunetaro Shima, with support from Toraichi Ambo. In a personal profile of the business, Wada reflected with earnestness and amusement, “My first encounter was with Mrs. Adams, who slammed the door in my face shouting ‘Get out, you Jap!’ I felt like crying and quitting right there, but instead said, ‘Thank you,’ and left with a smile on my face. The following week, ‘Never-Say-Die Wada’ called on Mrs. Adams again, but this time with less anti-Japanese remarks.” His persistence and patience proved profitable, as his friendship with Mrs. Adams opened the door to other wealthy clients. The corner mainstay, New Fashion Cleaners and Dye Works, was re-established at Western Avenue and 36th Street in 1924 and continued to prosper through the postwar era.
While Rafu Shimpo will always be linked to Little Tokyo, the Komai family will always be linked to the Rafu Shimpo and to the Seinan neighborhood. In 1914, Henry Toyosaku “H.T.” Komai became the manager of the Rafu Shimpo and eight years later, the president. His son Akira Komai would restart the publication in 1946, and his grandson Michael Komai would continue operations for the family from 1983. In the 1930s, H.T. Komai had a grand two-story home moved from the affluent Adams district to 37th Street and it remains the only house of its stature for blocks, perched proudly across the street from the Senshin Buddhist Temple.
Chris Komai recalled visiting the family home: “When I was a kid, not only did I think it was the coolest house because it was so large, my grandfather’s house had chickens in the backyard and a source of eggs.” On a more somber note, he relayed the family’s building tension in 1941, when the FBI planted themselves in their home and retained each family member until H.T. returned. “My Uncle Ray said he remembered coming home and seeing his father in the back of the car being taken away. No one knew where he was for some time and he was held by the government until 1946.” Shortly after H.T. was taken away by the FBI, his son Akira hid the Japanese printing plates in the floorboards of the Little Tokyo office, not knowing this would secure the start up of the Rafu Shimpo presses after the war.
With a deeply engrained fondness for the Seinan neighborhood, Momo Nagano has memorialized the 30th Street families in her tapestry “American Families,” created in 2001. Biding her time imprisioned at the Manzanar concentration camp before the schools were set up, 16-year-old Momo spent time weaving camouflage nets to support the war efforts. “Though the project did not last long, I found that I loved the process of weaving burlap strips through the netting,” she told the Los Angeles Times in an Aug. 14, 1994 article. In the shape of the American flag, the tapestry displays the names of the concentration camps depicted as the stars, and the 197 family names are stitched and woven in the stripes. While her powerful weaving meditation was inspired by the numerous youth from her neighborhood that served in the military, it serves as a tribute to all the families disrupted by the wartime hysteria and racism. The artwork is currently featured in “American Tapestry: 25 Stories from the Collection” at the Japanese American National Museum through April 17, 2011.
After the war, Senshin Buddhist Temple, under the care of first Caucasian Jodo Shinshu minister Rev. Julius Goldwater, opened the first Buddhist hostel in the United States. The hostel at Senshin housed more than 100 returning Japanese and served as a model for other churches. With the influx of wartime workers from the South migrating west to work in the shipyards, the available housing in Seinan, as in other deserted Japantown communities, became a magnet. The Southwest Los Angeles neighborhood was dramatically transformed during the war and has faced many challenges in the decades that followed.
Today, the only remaining vestige in the historic neighborhood is the Senshin Buddhist Temple, which throughout more than 40 years under the leadership of the Rev. Mas Kodani has maintained its community pulse, despite the fact that most of the Japanese American families moved out of the area by the 1970s. When asked about the changing face of Seinan, Kodani quipped, “We’re still here,” and explained, “The old Japanese American neighborhoods are gone. Yet the weekend neighborhood continues.” While Buddhist churches were first established in Japanese farming towns, the urban neighborhood transitions with each generation and even more often today.
Instead of following the flight to the suburbs of its members, Senshin Buddhist Temple serves as a beacon, calling commuters back to the “weekend neighborhood.” He insisted that “It’s more than trying to preserve what used to be. It’s experiencing Japanese culture, understanding its meaning, and returning again.” He surmised, “We provide a living Japanese culture.”
To purchase the book “Seinan, Southwest Los Angeles: Stories and Experiences from Residents of Japanese Ancestry,” send $25 plus $5 handling to Nikkei Writer’s Guild, 504 Faye Lane, Redondo Beach, CA 90277.
Jill Shiraki serves as the project manager for Preserving California’s Japantowns, a statewide effort to advocate and encourage preservation and local stewardship of the historic resources of pre-World War II Japantown communities.