Mixing commercial and community interests, old-world nostalgia and cultural consumption, the Japanese Village Plaza project presented a unique vision of the place of Japan and Japanese Americans in America. Now a highlight of Little Tokyo, the mall was constructed after two failed attempts by an association of 22 “local” businesses/merchants in 1978.1 The mall presented itself as a guardian of Japanese American culture by providing a place for the enclave’s mom-and-pop stores while at the same time playing up exotic images of Japan to attract non-Japanese—mainly White—shoppers.
A key strategy of the plaza was “theme” or “specialty” shopping, then an emerging trend in retail. This strategy focused on creating a pleasing environment, evocative of a different time or culture, filled with relatively small stores and restaurants, which were themselves a source of entertainment as passersby watched, say, sushi being prepared.2
Original promotional materials for the mall exhorted potential shoppers to “Experience Japan without the fear of flying!” and less subtly, “Experience Japan in Japanese Village Plaza.”3 Civic Center News declared: “If you feel as if you have stepped into a time warp, you have come to Japanese Village Plaza.”4 Sunset Magazine, a West Coast home improvement magazine, encouraged shoppers to “Stop to watch sushi being made in a sidewalk window or marvel at the speed with which a young cook flips hockey-puck-sized bean cakes [imagawayaki].”5 Most significantly, the architectural style of the Japanese Village Plaza harkened back to that of a street market in an actual Japanese village.6 The imported Sanshu blue roof tiles and the five-story yagura (traditional fire tower) further linked this mall to a vision of “traditional” Japan.7
The Japanese Village Plaza is a prime example of a “themed space.” The themed experience however, only captures one dimension of the mall’s existence: its relation to white consumers. It does not get at what a mall reminiscent of old Japan could mean for Japanese Americans. In order to understand the complex relationship between “community” and mall, it is useful to compare the Japanese Village Plaza to the more controversial Weller Court shopping center that was being developed down the street by Kajima Corporation at the same time. The Japanese Village Plaza was conceived, designed, and owned by the self-styled “Mama and Papa” stores of Little Tokyo;8 the Weller Court mall, by contrast, was conceived as an extension of the New Otani luxury hotel and therefore housed major department stores such as Matsuzakaya.9
The financing and rent structure of the Japanese Village Plaza further reflected a community orientation, aimed at supporting the mom-and-pop stores of Little Tokyo. With pre-redevelopment ground-story rents going from as cheap as $.17 to $.54 per square foot, the plaza’s developers proposed setting the rent at $.50 per square foot including utilities, which was cheaper than the $.70 being asked by Kajima in their new developments.10 Other benefits included a $20,000 rental subsidy for tenants displaced by redevelopment projects, a five-year rent cap set at $.54 (including property tax, insurance, and maintenance), and free tenant improvements.11 The initial capital ($1.4 million) for the project was raised from professionals and merchants within the Japanese community, who invested anywhere from $1,000 to a quarter million.12 In this way, the financing and rental structure of the shopping center was a “community” effort on the part of the Little Tokyo businesses.
Additionally, the Japanese Village Plaza evoked the images held by Japanese Americans of their “ancestral home.” Referring to Don Nakanishi’s interviews with Nisei and Sansei leaders, we see that their image of Japan is a romanticized and abstracted image of pre-modern Japan. One Nisei interviewee found an image of the village life his parents left behind in a visit to the Japanese countryside: “My parents had a lot to do with my image of Japan… they made us appreciate the old Japan. When I went to Japan—the scenery, the old homes, the natural setting, and the Japanese gardens—they were all a reality now.”13
Though the Sansei interviewed by Nakanishi were in general more critical of the negative aspects of Japan—such as its treatment of minorities, its class structure, and its uncritical acceptance of Westernization—some still saw something redeeming in old Japan.14 One related to the samurai movies of Toshiro Mifune and said: “The rural Japan turns me on with its serenity... I relate to Toshiro Mifune and the samurai because those were Japanese and they had an identity...When I see samurai movies I see a characterization that is really human. We’ve never been depicted as such here.”15 Another Sansei kendō champion talked about how he had a “hard time relating” to American historical landmarks, but “when I went to Japan I visited the shrines and temples, and I could relate to those things. That’s where my ancestors came from.”16
In light of these interviews, the “traditional” architectural program of the Japanese Village Plaza cannot be seen as a mere ethnic marketing ploy. Certainly that is part of the narrative, but this space of commercialized Japanese-ness was also a reflection of the image of Japan that Japanese Americans felt the most connected to.
The Japanese Village Plaza as landscape of the “old country” was furthered by its selection as the site for numerous cultural festivals. In promotional materials for the mall, architect and developer David Hyun said that the plaza would “not just be a shopping center” but also “the scene of many colorful events which harkened back to the culture of the Old Country.”17 In 1979, the new shopping mall hosted three major community events: the Nisei Week Japanese Festival opening ceremonies,18 the HanamatsuriFestival in honor of Buddha’s birthday, and a Christmas celebration with a Japanese Santa Claus carried in a mikoshi (a type of divine Shintō sedan chair).19 Through these events, the Japanese Village Plaza provided a space for the expression of Japanese American identity through celebrations and conscious performances of Japanese ethnicity. Though promotion and profits must have been considered in the staging of these celebrations, the shopping mall did provide a communal space for the reification of the “Japanese” side of Japanese American identity.
The Japanese Village Plaza also sought to redefine the relationship between Japan, Japanese American history, and Little Tokyo. The mall’s promoters marketed the enclave as an important, historic home for its mom-and-pop stores, which they called the “backbone of Little Tokyo for three generations” and guardians of a “historical way of life.”20 For them, the significance of Little Tokyo was in its small businesses, which preserved and sold an essentialized Japanese-ness, embodied in both the products themselves as well as the authenticity imparted to them by their homegrown proprietors.
The yagura symbolized another new narrative adopted by the Little Tokyo community. According to the original promotional materials: “Just as the Fire Tower, which stands at the entrance on First St., is a proud testimony to the Issei, Japanese Pioneers who first settled in this area, so it is also a testimony to the opportunity this country offers to all. Japanese Village Plaza is a rich ingredient to the American melting pot.”21 In this valiant image of what it means to be Japanese American, Little Tokyo’s small business owners are depicted as heirs to a rich tradition that they share with all Americans: the dream of upward mobility.
In rearticulating the meanings of enclave, culture, and identity, the Japanese Village Plaza celebrated the “traditional” Japanese roots of the Little Tokyo community while simultaneously commodifying those roots into a shopping experience. And in this process, some of the grittier roots of Little Tokyo were erased: the gambling dens, the nomiyas (taverns or saloons), and the prostitution that were characteristic of the neighborhood’s old bachelor lifestyle22 gave way to the trappings of an upwardly mobile ethnic community. If the Sansei saw Little Tokyo as an essentialized symbol of past and present discrimination against the Japanese in America, the Nisei developers of the Japanese Village Plaza saw its importance as the site of past and present promoters of Japanese culture whose activities brought acceptance for the culture and, by extension, the people.
1 Japanese Village Plaza. “A Community Owned Shopping Center for Cultural Exchanges.” c. 1978–79. 2.
2 Levander, Partridge, and Anderson, Inc. “Market Feasibility Analysis.” 1975. 31.
3 Japanese Village Plaza, “Japanese Village Plaza: Award-Winning Shopping Center of Little Tokyo,” 1980.
4 “Japanese Village Comes to Life.” Civic Center News. October 10, 1978.
5 Craig Aurness, “New Tower Looks Down on L.A.’s Changing Little Tokyo,” Sunset Magazine. August 1980: 57.
6 Japanese Village Plaza, “A Community Owned Shopping Center for Cultural Exchanges,” c. 1978–79: 6.
7 Japanese Village Plaza, “Fact Sheet,” Undated, c. 1977.
8 Frank Chuman and David Hyun, “Dear Mr. Mitchell and CRA Board,” c 1974–75.
9 Nancy Yoshihara, “NEW LUXURY STORE: Little Tokyo Is Given a Taste of Rodeo.” Los Angeles Times. October 3, 1980.
10 Partridge Levander and Anderson, Inc., “Market Feasibility Analysis: Little Tokyo Specialty Center Site,” 1975. David Huyn, Letter to Sachiye Hirotsu. February 4, 1976.
11 Japanese Village Plaza, “A Community Owned Shopping Center for Cultural Exchanges,” c. 1978–79:12.
12. David Hyun, “Japanese Village Plaza: Response to Delinquency,” October 7, 1976.
13 Don Toshiaki Nakanishi, “The Visual Panacea: Japanese Americans in the City of Smog,” Amerasia Journal 2, no. 1 (October 1, 1973): 109.
14 Nakanishi. 1973: 118.
15 Nakanishi. 1973: 118.
16 Nakanishi. 1973: 119.
17 Japanese Village Plaza, “Japanese Village Plaza, Award Winning Shopping Center of Little Tokyo.”
18 Nisei Week is an annual summer festival designed to promote Japanese and Japanese American culture as well as the businesses of Little Tokyo. For more information see Lon Kurashige, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict, 2002.
19 Japanese Village Plaza, “A Community Owned Shopping Center for Cultural Exchanges,” c. 1978–79: 5.
20 Japanese Village Plaza, “Japanese Village Plaza: Award-Winning Shopping Center of Little Tokyo,” 1980.
21 Llynda Taketa, Grand Opening of Japanese Village Plaza, October 24, 1978.
22 Nishida, 2015. Roots Asian American Reader.
* This article is an excerpt from Samuel Mori's senior thesis, “Saving Furusato: Japanese American Imaginings of Community, Culture, and History through the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Projects,” submitted to the Department of History, Swarthmore College, on April 29, 2016. It was revised for publication on Discover Nikkei.