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Little Tokyo Community Profiles

The Aihara Family

Doug Aihara, a third generation Japanese American, considers his family to be a “J-town family.” When he lived in Boyle Heights as a child, he and his family went into Little Tokyo at least once a week to buy their groceries and enjoy the community’s company and festivities. “You couldn’t even get rice outside of Little Tokyo, except for Uncle Ben’s… but that just doesn’t hold well for sushi” says Doug. Little Tokyo was the center of Japanese culture in Los Angeles. Japanese products and businesses couldn’t be found elsewhere. Doug Aihara and his family have been a part of Little Tokyo since 1948 when Doug’s father, Luis K. Aihara, started his family insurance business: Aihara Insurance Agency, Inc. Since then, all four generations of the Aihara family have seen and felt Little Tokyo’s growth and hardships.

Luis K. Aihara, a Nisei, was born in a Japanese farming family in Garden Grove, California. During World War II when America forced all Japanese, immigrants as well as U.S. citizens, to live in relocation camps, Luis and his family were sent to Arizona. Luis stayed in the camp with his family for a little over a year before he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After the war, the Aihara family farm was still in good working condition because a gracious neighbor tended it while the Aihara family was interned. After returning home, Luis decided he was not interested in working at the family farm and wanted to experience city life, so he went to Little Tokyo and started his own business.

After the war, Japanese Americans returned to Little Tokyo because the Buddhist temples still remained intact. These temples functioned as meeting places for the Japanese, and became the foundation for the newly re-started Little Tokyo community. In fact, Luis met his wife at a Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, and continued to bring his children to the temple regularly as they grew up. Luis’s wife, who is from Seattle, Washington, came to Little Tokyo with her family after the war. Her family had lost their small market while they were interned in the Crystal City relocation camp; many Japanese Americans lost their businesses and farms during the war.

Luis Aihara’s insurance agency was one of two in Little Tokyo when it started. Being fluent in both Japanese and English, Luis was at the forefront of his fellow Nisei and businessmen. His agency contributed significantly to Little Tokyo and the Japanese community by insuring local businesses. Luis even insured Yamaha Corp. before they went national. In the late 1980’s Luis’s son, Doug, who had done some of his own insurance work in the 80s, joined him at Aihara Insurance Agency under the life and health sector of the company. Today, Doug Aihara is the president of Aihara Insurance Agency.

“The mix in J-town now has really changed” says Doug. After the war Little Tokyo was filled with Japanese, Japanese American, and a few Chinese businesses and markets. Today, only about 10% of business is Japanese-American. Doug’s father, Luis Aihara, also saw a change in clientele; in the 1950’s, 90% of Aihara Insurance Agency’s customers were Japanese. Today, Doug’s clients are roughly 60% Japanese American. “The mix started to change in the late 80’s” says Doug, “the first big thing was when the hotel came in.” As large companies began to buy Little Tokyo land, tear down old buildings, and bring in new business, Little Tokyo’s community began to change. The new developments split the community and created some political unrest. Today Doug says Little Tokyo is “afraid it is going to lose its identity.”

Southern California used to have three large Japanese communities: Crenshaw, Boyle Heights, and Gardena. Today, Japanese Americans have spread to multiple communities, including Orange County and Torrance, where Doug Aihara and his family currently reside. “Now you can find Japanese ingredients in your local grocery” says Doug, “ and unless your employer is in downtown Los Angeles, there is no need to come here.” Many Aihara Insurance Japanese clients live outside of Downtown Los Angeles, and hardly come to Little Tokyo as they did a few decades earlier. Traditionally it was expected that Aihara Insurance Agency would make personal visits to their customers, but today “they’re lucky to see me one time” says Doug. The traffic in Los Angeles and expansion of Japanese Americans to other areas outside Little Tokyo, have coupled in forcing Doug and Aihara Insurance to resort to e-mails and phone calls to reach their customers.

“Never in the history of Little Tokyo have people been seen walking around with their dogs,” says Doug “and now a day doesn’t go by where you don’t see one.” In the past three years new housing developments have been built in Little Tokyo, but not many of the residents are Japanese American. The foot traffic in Little Tokyo helps local restaurants, however, which in turn helps the Aihara Insurance Agency who has local restaurant clientele. The Los Angeles city hall lunch-hour crowd especially supports Little Tokyo restaurants, which helps them to get through the current economic crisis; “but it’s nothing they can’t handle” says Doug.

Doug and his family still remain active in the Little Tokyo community. He and his wife, Christine, who is the executive director at the Little Tokyo Community Center, attend the monthly Little Tokyo Council meeting with fellow Little Tokyo business owners. The council discusses current Little Tokyo conditions and issues. Doug enjoys the Aihara Insurance Agency and hopes that it, and its name, will continue in the family.

* Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the Spring 2009 seminar "Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism" on a meaningful community-based documentation project. The students interviewed owners of five long-time Little Tokyo businesses to create Nikkei Album collections and articles.

View the Nikkei Album collection: Aihara & Associates Insurance Services

© 2009 Deborah Southern

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Sobre esta serie

Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the Spring 2009 seminar "Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism" on a meaningful community-based documentation project. The students interviewed owners of five long-time Little Tokyo businesses to create Nikkei Album collections and articles.