Little Tokyo is just south of Union Station on the other side of the Santa Ana Freeway and southeast of the Civic Center district. In the early 20th century, thousands of Japanese laborers and farmers poured into California to work in landscaping and gardening, the same trade that supported them in their native country. A Japanese community in the present day Little Tokyo district in Downtown LA had developed by the 1920s. Little Tokyo was lined with shops where Japanese immigrants could buy kitchen items and produce like the ones back home. The Japanese got along quite well with the rest of LA until the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything.
In February, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. to primitive internment camps. It didn’t matter that most of the Japanese interned were full-fledged citizens and second-generation Americans. Few Americans protested the order at the time and the executive order has only been decried cruel and ignorant after the fact. Nevertheless, it left Little Tokyo reeling. The district was left devoid of people after thousands were relocated to camps hundreds of miles away. After the war ended in 1945, the Japanese were released. While some of them returned to the Little Tokyo neighborhood, most migrated to the suburbs.
Today, Little Tokyo remains an ethnic Japanese community. Its streets are busy and decorated with architecturally innovative buildings and towering high rises. The neighborhood is a center of commerce and business, bustling with prosperity. The name “Little Tokyo” seems appropriate for this district, as most of the buildings are modern and clean-lined, resembling the look of the city of its namesake in Japan. Everywhere you look in Little Tokyo, you’ll see reminders of Japan – the restaurants, street signs, and even in the exquisite arrangement of flowers on a businessman’s desk in the office buildings.
Japanese American Cultural and Community Center
The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center is located at 224 S. San Pedro Street. It is a symbol of the resurgence of the community. This ethnic center cost $15 million to build. Inside, the Franklin D. Murphy Library boasts over 15,000 publications related to Japan and Japanese Americans. The offices of the community center are occupied by nonprofit community service organizations. The classrooms hold community classes that teach traditional Japanese cultural arts, including calligraphy, flower arrangement, haiku reading and writing, and tea-drinking. The main centerpiece of the complex is an accessible serene garden.
Within the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center complex, the George J. Doizaki Gallery is the main venue for culture exhibits. It shows traditional as well as contemporary Japanese calligraphy and drawings, along with sculptures, costumes, and various other art forms.
Japanese America Theater
The Japanese America Theatre is an 880 seat theatre within the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. The theatre hosts Asian performing arts productions as well as performances by the Grand Kabuki Company of Japan. The presentations can be enjoyed by everyone, thanks to a simultaneous translation system.
Outdoors is the community center’s plaza, the design of world-famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Plaza is an open public area. It becomes the center of attention during the annual Nisei Week Festival when folk dancing, taiko drumming feasts, informal parties and concerts, and street fairs for artists take place. The plaza’s focal point is the stone sculpture impressively crafted by Noguchi. Called “To the Issei”, the sculptor dedicated it to the city’s first-generation American Japanese.
James Irvine Garden
The James Irvine Garden is also located within the community center. It is a 170 foot stream that runs along the sloping hillside – a cultural treasure. It was named after its financial contributor.
Garden in the Sky
Near the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center is the Garden in the Sky at 120 S. Los Angeles Street. It is on the third-floor terrace of the New Otani Hotel. Its half-acre garden employs local materials native to Japan.
Japanese Village Plaza
The Japanese Village Plaza is an outdoor mall near Central Avenue and First Street. It is the most active section of Little Tokyo and is lined with retail shops, sushi bars, and Zen gardens. Its highlight is the Fire Tower, a canopy that sits on top of slender wooden beams.
Japanese American National Museum
The Japanese American National Museum is located between Temple and First Street, a block away from the Garden in the Sky. It is inside a former Buddhist temple that was built in 1925. The museum is dedicated to the Japanese pioneers and to the history of Japanese internment during WWII.
The Geffen Contemporary at First Street and Central Avenue is located in an old 1940s warehouse. It was opened in 1983 initially as a temporary museum, an extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at Bunker Hill. It was so popular and successful that MOCA decided to maintain its lease and exhibition there. Today, it continues to exhibit the contemporary art work of lesser known artists, its collection dates from the 1940s to the present.
The Freight Depot at 960 E. Third Street features more intriguing art exhibits than the Geffen Contemporary. It is located at the old 1907 train depot which used to serve the Topeka, Atchison, and Santa Fe railroads. The gallery exhibits avant-garde works by students, from computer models and futuristic structures, to pipes, stairways, and ladders.
St Vibiana’s Cathedral
The St Vibiana’s Cathedral sits at 114 E. Second Street and is a replica of the San Miguel del Mar in Barcelona. It has a white Italianate design and was completed in 1871. It was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and subsequently abandoned by the local bishop for the newer Our Lady of the Angels church in the Civic Center district. It is now home to the Little Tokyo branch library.
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