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A Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo

In the 1970s, the debates around who and what the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) would represent demonstrated a generational rift between Nisei and Sansei, who had different conceptions of community and culture. While the Nisei leaders imagined that the JACCC would promote Japanese high culture, Sansei activists envisioned a center that would celebrate the immigrant roots of their community.

A proposed community center figured prominently in redevelopment plans for Little Tokyo, and was greeted with much optimism across the spectrum. In the words of a young Nisei activist: “[The] JACCC, when it first started out, was envisioned as a total community effort. So that meant, not just the rich guys but everyone was part of that.”1 An op-ed in the Asian American activist publication Gidra explained: “The cultural-community center will represent the major symbolic thrust of the Japanese people.” It further asserted that the center should represent “the old as well as the young, the professional and nonprofessional, the artist and the layman.”2 Plans for the complex included a theater, gymnasium, and office building, with an initial price tag of about $3.5 million.3 The final price tag was nearly double the initial estimate.4

Though both the community center and affordable senior housing received broad community support as Japanese Americans planned the redevelopment of Little Tokyo, they were different in one crucial aspect. While senior housing could utilize government subsidies and direct federal assistance, there existed far fewer federal or city programs for subsidizing cultural and community centers. Though HUD grants would provide about $75,000 for the center, the rest had to be fundraised.5 While the Japanese American community did not have direct federal support, they did have something else: their ethnicity.

In early March of 1970, Japanese Vice-Consul to Los Angeles Miyoko Iida kick-started the fundraiser for the cultural and community center with a $100 donation.6 A year later, in March of 1971, the JACCC was incorporated as a community corporation with prominent lawyer Katsuma Mukaeda as its president.7 8 Mukaeda was famous within the community for helping Japanese Americans in LA fight against the alien land laws. In November of 1971, he declared the beginning of a “massive fundraising drive” that would “probably reach international proportions.”9 Optimistically, the new board of the JACCC predicted that fundraising and construction would be finished in two years—by 1972.10 In fact, it would take until May of 1980 for the first phase of construction to be completed.11

The board of directors’ mission to raise a large amount of money—including money from Japanese corporations—led them, from the beginning, to have an inherent bias toward businessmen and those with connections to Japan. A cursory glance at the original directors reveals a president of the Japan America Society; a president of Japanese American Republicans; a vice president of Kajima International; a president of Toyota Motor Distributors, Inc.; a chair of the LA-Nagoya sister city affiliation; a president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce (JCC); a Nissan executive; and a slew of Japanese American businessmen.12

Therefore, due to structural issues with the funding of urban renewal as it related to community institutions, the JACCC’s board was inherently biased to represent the interests of Japanese corporate sponsors as well as the business elite of the community. As one anti-redevelopment activist put it: “[The board] was heavily stacked for both Japanese Americans and Japanese who had influence or money or both. And so a person who is maybe a local calligraphy teacher who can gather up ten cultural instructors still won’t get on the board.”13

Three groups of stakeholders emerged from the JACCC board: Japanese governmental and corporate representatives, or “Japan, Inc.”; Nisei civic and business leaders; and Sansei activists, who held the minority position. Each of these stakeholders had their own agenda for what “cultural and community center” meant.

As Lon Kurashige has pointed out, many activists felt that Japan, Inc.’s interest in Little Tokyo came from a desire to facilitate acceptance of Japanese culture and goods: “Japanese corporate types and the local heavyweight corporation representatives... feel that the JACCC’s role should be to serve [as] the ‘Japan House of the West,’ and help cement relations between business and government leaders of both nations.”14 For the Japanese corporate representatives then, the emphasis was on a “cultural” rather than “community” center, as they engaged in an expensive PR strategy for Japanese goods. Speaking on the future redevelopment of Little Tokyo, Nagahisa Ono, a Japanese national who worked at the East West Development corporation, said: “Since we are sort of representing Japan, we should give the American public good quality merchandise in this area.”15

The Nisei elites, in turn, saw the center as an opportunity to bridge two cultures: Japanese and American. In the opening ceremonies for the JACCC, Ernest Doizaki, one of the chief fundraisers for the center, said: “Our Japanese heritage and traditions will be transplanted here to introduce its culture and the beauty of the arts.” He further called the project a “bridge between Japan and the United States... where we can preserve and promote the rich Japanese culture into the Western United States... in LA, gateway to the great Pacific.”16 Defending the redevelopment project at a City Hall meeting, Kenji Ito, a Nisei lawyer, defined the future JACCC in similar terms: “This center is intended to bring together all persons without regard to race, nationality, or color, so that better understanding might be established [between] various ethnic groups and the general American community.”17

Regardless of their personal beliefs, the rhetoric of these Nisei elites framed the proposed community center as a vehicle for transferring an essentialized Japanese culture to the United States. In their vision of the JACCC, “culture” is Japanese high culture and “community” is the multicultural population of Los Angeles.

Judged from a contemporary scholar’s point of view, the rhetoric of the Nisei elites around “culture” and “community” seems simplistic at best. Further, their active fetishization of  an essentialized Japanese culture problematically erased the cultural nuances of the larger Japanese American community. At its worst, their argument reduces racial discrimination to a function of foreignness and misunderstanding, without examining it as an ingrained political, social, and economic institution. However, while recognizing this, I still believe that the desire to promote understanding and cultural exchange between the United States and Japan is better comprehended on its own terms, as coming from a generation of Japanese Americans who experienced incarceration as a direct result of “misunderstanding” between Japan and America.

Don Nakanishi’s 1973 interviews with LA’s Nisei leaders demonstrate how conscious they were of Japanese Americans’ dependence on the relationship between Japan and the United States. One commented: “Many writers, when they look at us, don’t see any difference between us and the kaisha [literally ‘company’] people... Their attitudes are affected by the times. If they are favorable toward Japan, then they are favorable towards us. If not, then it is the other way.”18 Another Nisei put it more bluntly: “We are what other people say we are. Being visible Asians in America, we are not only representatives of ourselves but of Japan. We have to come to grips with it. We are caught in it. And we should recognize it and work it through.”19

Seen from the perspective of the Nisei—a generation that experienced intense racialization culminating in the American concentration camp experience—calls for “understanding” and “cultural bridges” make sense. They demonstrate an understanding of multiculturalism and a concept of racial harmony based on their specific lived experience of racism in the US. However, in constructing this symbolic bridge between an essentialized high “Japanese culture” and the United States, the Nisei leaders obscured the history of working-class Japanese culture in America, arousing the ire of Sansei activists.

As scholar Daryl Maeda has demonstrated, what mattered to Sansei activists was not Japanese culture per se, but rather a uniquely Japanese American culture, born of immigration and the experience of racism. In response to a notorious statement by prominent integrationist S.I. Hayakawa that ethnic studies are unnecessary since “Sansei can always relate back to Japan if he is dissatisfied with American Society,” young activists responded, “This is our country!! Ethnic studies is the study of the culture and history of this country, our country.”20 In Maeda’s own words: “Activists found the cultural significance of Little Tokyo not in any connection to Japan, but rather in the continued existence of the culture of the working-class immigrants along with the more recent cultural mixings that characterized the neighborhood.”21

In fact, informal community-initiated cultural centers abounded in Little Tokyo, lurking in the old brick buildings that redevelopment was so keen on demolishing. These centers nurtured the Sansei vision of culture and community; the Japanese American Community Services-Asian Involvement (JACS-AI) office and the Pioneer Center, for example, provided crucial social services to Little Tokyo’s aging Issei residents.

In addition to such spaces, Sansei activists were also building new cultural centers that embraced their liminal status as both “American” and “Japanese.” Amerasia Bookstore, which opened in Little Tokyo on August 15, 1971, is a prime example of this new type of space. Originally intended to meet the needs of students in nascent Asian American Studies courses, Amerasia Bookstore became a total community arts and culture center. The list of activities centered at Amerasia were varied and eclectic; as one worker said, “We’ve had workshops during the summer for neighborhood youth corps. We’ve had workshops in leather, silkscreen, music. We’ve done things like film showings, we’ve sponsored concerts of new music like Hiroshima.22 We’ve had speakers like Frank Chin and poets that come and talk.”23

Speaking about the goals of the store, he elaborated that young activists “wanted to begin to develop an alternative lifestyle…[to] get involved in projects that we’re interested in... to have a place [where] writers and craftspeople could show what they’re involved in making.”24 Not only was Amerasia Bookstore a shop that spoke to the Asian American experience, it was also a living community of artists, poets, and musicians creating a culture that defied narrow and essentialist definitions of “Japanese” culture.

The Sun Building, which housed the JACS-AI office and the Pioneer Center, was also an important center.25 The unassuming brick building, which was destroyed by redevelopment in 1977, contained a critical mass of cultural, service, and community institutions. One Sansei activist remembers how it housed the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and Visual Communications (VC), a group of activist filmmakers who documented the redevelopment struggle; there was also the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) and the Japanese Welfare Rights Organization (JWRO). In addition, the building was home to instructors in a variety of cultural arts, including Japanese-style wax dyeing, traditional koto, and shamisen. Another Little Tokyo activist remembers two gokaidō (clubs for Go players), one for the rich and another for the “regular guys.” Speaking about the difference between the Sun Building and the new JACCC, Nishida said: “It was us. Nothing so pretentious as the JACCC building now.”26

The Sun Building was already hosting the intercultural exchange that the Nisei leaders were so effusive about in their proposals—a fact that was demonstrated by a key moment in VC’s archived redevelopment videos. At a contentious meeting between the Community Redevelopment Agency and activists to discuss the relocation of the tenants of the Sun Building, a middle-aged Jewish man stood up to ask about the future of the gokaidō: “My name is Sidney Plotnik and I’m a Gostudent—that’s a Japanese game27 that’s as complicated as chess and I study it in the Sun Building.” He continued: “I don’t want to see my teachers scattered to the four winds to be gathered later because these Issei are a living cultural continuity.”28

In this small instance of solidarity, we see how the Sun Building provided a Jewish man with a space to learn an Asian game “as complicated as chess,” and to develop respect for the people and culture behind the game. I believe this is what the activists were fighting for: a space for community and cultural exchange that respected the older generations as teachers and “living cultural continuities” who deserve decent spaces where they could live, work, and play.

Note: 

1. Transcript, Mo Nishida Oral History Interview, August 2015 by Samuel Mori.

2. Yuki, “Little Tokyo.” Gidra,Volume 1, edition 8. October 1969.

3. LTCDAC. Little Tokyo. November 1971.

4. Suga 2004, 242. She estimates a final price tag around $6.4 million. 

5. Suga 2004, 242.

6. LTCDAC, Little Tokyo, April 1970.

7. LTCDAC, Little Tokyo, June 14, 1971.

8. Nishida 2015.

9. LTCDAC, Little Tokyo, November 1971.

10. LTCDAC, Little Tokyo,April 1970.

11. Ray Hebert, “Little Tokyo Center Building Completed: $4.5-Million Structure Is Part of Japanese-American Project First Part of Little Tokyo Cultural Center Finished,” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), March 10, 1980.

12. LTCDAC, Little Tokyo, June 14, 1971.

13. Transcript, Mike Murase Oral History Interview, August 2015 by Samuel Mori.

14. LTPRO from Kurashige 2002, 202–3.

15. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1191.

16. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1269.

17. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1200.

18. Don Toshiaki Nakanishi, “The Visual Panacea: Japanese Americans in The City of Smog,” Amerasia Journal 2, no. 1 (October 1, 1973): 112.

19. Nakanishi, “The Visual Panacea,” 113.

20. “S.I. RIPS GIDRA!” Gidra Volume 1, Ed. 2, May 1969.

21. Maeda 2012, 70.

22. Hiroshima is an important Japanese American jazz-fusion band that is still active in the community.

23. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1170.

24. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1170.

25. Maeda 2012, 70.

26. Nishida 2015. Murase 2015. Transcript, Evelyn Yoshimura Oral History Interview, August 2015 by Samuel Mori. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1214.

27. Go was invented by the Chinese and is played throughout Asia. It is not exclusively Japanese.

28. Little Tokyo Redevelopment Collection, Disc 1219. 

 

* This article is an except 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.

 

© 2016 Samuel Mori

culture heritage identity JACCC nisei sansei traditions