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Little Tokyo Community Profiles

Community Connections: Aihara Insurance’s 61-Year Commitment to Little Tokyo

Upon his return to Little Tokyo after World War II, veteran Luis K. Aihara found the community much changed. Though his own family had been uprooted and incarcerated in internment camps, they, and many other families of Japanese descent, flocked back to Little Tokyo where the majority of Buddhist temples and Japanese markets were located. Even after the chaos and displacement of war, Little Tokyo’s sense of community reemerged, and it was here in 1948 that Aihara founded his company, the Aihara Insurance Agency.

Aihara’s life insurance business, initially located on San Pedro Street in the heart of the Japanese community, emerged at a time when only one insurance company was willing to offer policies to Americans of Japanese descent. However, the Japanese Americans that did purchase policies were charged significantly higher rates than the ones offered to Caucasian clients – a practice which Aihara, a Nisei, strongly opposed.

“Back in those times there was a lot of animosity towards Japanese Americans because of the war,” explains Douglas Aihara, son of the late Luis Aihara and current president of Aihara and Associates Insurance Services. “It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that insurance carriers started finding out the Japanese American business was good business.”

Luis Aihara used his vocation to promote equality for Japanese Americans by partnering with ten other Japanese American insurance agencies to form the Japanese Casualty Association, which still exists today. The association pooled money and resources in order to approach insurance carriers on behalf of their clients.

“Back then, ninety percent of the clientele [of Little Tokyo insurance companies] was of Japanese descent. In the 1950s and 60s, all the Japanese corporations you know today were insured by one of these ten agencies [in the Japanese Casualty Association],” explains Doug Aihara. “Yamaha was insured by my father before it went national. Hitachi, Epson, Sony, Pioneer, Suzuki, Kajima - the who’s who of Japanese corporations - came to J-town.”

The Aihara Insurance Agency was a member of the Japanese Casualty Association until the year 2000, when they merged with another agency and relocated to Pasadena. In 2005 they returned to the Kajima building in Little Tokyo, of which Luis Aihara was an original tenant. The return to the Little Tokyo area has been a happy event for Doug Aihara, whose personal life reflects his business’s commitment to the community. Doug’s wife, Christine, is president of the Little Tokyo Community Council, which operates to conserve Little Tokyo’s unique history. Aihara, as a business owner in the area, attends the Council’s monthly meetings.

“There is concern that [Little Tokyo] is going to lose its identity, if you let too many big companies in. What has come out of that is the Little Tokyo Community Council,” explains Aihara. “Any business owner is free to come in and listen. It [the council] has kind of become the spokesperson organization of J-town. If developers want to come into the area and do something, they will make a presentation to the council.”

Today, Little Tokyo is rapidly changing. Less than ten percent of the business and property here are owned by Japanese Americans, and the Japanese American population in California has spread out across the state.

“There used to be a whole bunch of J-towns all over the country, and now there are only three – and they are all in California,” says Aihara. “And Japanese Americans in California now live all over the state. Because of that, it is even harder to do business, or at least see people face to face. Back in the old days, they expected to see you at least a couple times a year.”

Currently, about sixty percent of Aihara and Associates Insurance Services employees can trace their ancestry back to Japan. And while Niseis like Doug Aihara’s father were bilingual, Japanese language skills are becoming much less necessary in the Little Tokyo community. The historic area is becoming more diverse and complex through the processes of gentrification and development.

“A lot of people are moving to downtown, and as time goes on, that is going to help support the community. Sadly, though, not a lot of Japanese Americans,” Aihara continues. “I think there’s a reluctance to move here into the city.”

While Aihara expresses interest in passing down the business to his children, who would be the third generation to run Aihara Insurance, he doubts that the niche his business occupies will last much longer.

“In our industry, I think agencies of this size are going to disappear in the next ten years,” he explains. “Carriers have quotas and they want you to sell so much new business, and this agency represents maybe 15 companies. We have pretty loyal clients - but loyalty can only take you so far. Either that, or we have to really grow.”

Still, the community that Luis K. Aihara and his son, Doug, have served for over sixty years continues to sustain itself. Restaurants are a huge draw for the employees at Los Angeles City Hall - and as long as there is business, Japanese American business owners will continue to thrive within their historic community centre.

“Since I was born, my family came to J-town at least once a week,” says Aihara, whose parents met in Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo. “I consider my family a Little Tokyo 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 Brittany-Marie Swanson

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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.