By Julie Ha Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi
As Simon Yoon speaks in Korean about his father, he motions toward his heart with the left hand that usually rests on his cane and squints his eyes as if in pain. His father was an activist who fought for Korean independence from Japanese colonization, he explains, and at age 43, was caught by the Japanese and executed.
When Yoon, then a university student in Japan studying agriculture, heard the news, he returned to Korea to bury his father, with hatred in his heart for everyone and everything Japanese.
More than 60 years later, Yoon calls one of the oldest and largest Japantowns in the United States home. He regularly speaks the tongue of his historic colonizers with the immigrant and Nisei (American-born Japanese) residents of his Little Tokyo Towers apartment building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. In fact, he mixes so easily with the Japanese residents that many look to him as a leader to approach with various tenant issues.
On a recent June afternoon, Yoon visits with three Japanese ladies assembling a 1,000-piece puzzle in the lobby and within minutes, he has them giggling.
If there is any hatred left in this 86-year-old, there is no trace of it now.
“I am the first and last generation who witnessed what happened during Japanese occupation and Korea’s struggle for independence,” says Yoon through a translator. “If I cannot give this forgiveness to the next generation, it will make more trouble for the second generation of Koreans and Japanese. This is my mission as a Korean who witnessed that era of Japanese occupation and as a Christian.”
Yoon is trying to be a good neighbor in his adopted home.
And that is a gesture especially welcome now in a neighborhood that is experiencing dramatic changes on multiple fronts. Over the last several years, Little Tokyo, bordered by Los Angeles, First, Alameda and Third streets in downtown L.A., has been hot property. The downtown real estate boom has transformed the once-depressed ethnic hub into an attractive place for not only Korean American seniors, but also young professionals lured by new market-rate condos and apartments, as well as small businesses and large property investors looking for economic opportunities.
Although they are not the sole force behind these changes, Korean Americans have emerged as the most noticeable new neighbors entering this space, in perhaps the largest numbers and in a variety of capacities. Informal estimates posit that as many as 30 percent of the small businesses in Little Tokyo today could be Korean-run. The waiting lists for the area’s two major low-income housing complexes for seniors are dominated by Korean Americans. And in recent years, Korean American investors have purchased some major pieces of property in Little Tokyo.
In fact, the most recent sale of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center (formerly, Yaohan Plaza) prompted headlines like, “Is Little Tokyo Big Enough for Koreans?” in a Los Angeles Times blog, and “Sushi to Kimchi: Koreans Replace Japanese in Little Tokyo” in the Los Angeles Business Journal.
The sensational banners focused on the prospect of a three-story shopping center on the outskirts of Little Tokyo, currently anchored by a Mitsuwa market and littered with Japanese eateries and shops, being converted to a Korean-themed plaza, with a Korean supermarket, a full-service spa and an electronics store — a possible option announced by brokers representing the new owners, a group of six Korean American investors. The owners were also considering, as a second option, bringing in a mainstream supermarket to cater to the increasingly non-Japanese population.
The announcement of such dramatic conversions to a symbolic Little Tokyo property was received as a slap in the face to some community members who could not help but react with unbridled emotion.
Frances Hashimoto, owner of the nearly 100-year-old Mikawaya confectionary in Little Tokyo, was quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal as saying, “If they’re going to make it into a Korean shopping center, then why don’t they go to Koreatown?”
Hashimoto, the immediate past president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, has since clarified publicly at community meetings and also tells KoreAm Journal that she welcomes “all new residents and businesses to the area.” She just wants to make sure Little Tokyo “maintains its unique cultural identity.”
But perhaps, her earlier comment reveals what many in the community could not help but think or whisper: The Koreans are taking over.
A Changing Landscape
At its peak, before the start of World War II, the ethnic Japanese population in Little Tokyo boasted 30,000 residents and its southern border extended to Ninth Street. It was a bustling ethnic hub that was suddenly emptied after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that sent Japanese Americans on the West Coast to internment camps. After World War II ended, some Japanese Americans returned to Little Tokyo, which in the interim, a new African American population from the South had anointed “Bronzeville,” and tried to rebuild. But the sense of community had been damaged.
And as with many ethnic communities settled in America for two or more generations, Japanese American families soon dispersed to various greater Los Angeles suburbs, including one of the most popular major residential hubs for the community today, the South Bay.
Although Little Tokyo still welcomes immigrant Japanese or Nisei seniors who call it home, the neighborhood serves as a cultural magnet for most Japanese Americans who may still want to attend Nisei Week events or the popular Tofu Festival, both of which are hosted in the area. Cultural institutions like the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, as well as some churches and temples, also anchor the area.
But the changes at a nearly 100-year-old Japanese American confectionary perhaps reflect the ushering in of a new era. Mikawaya, known traditionally for its selection of Japanese rice cakes, now showcases Italian gelato and mochi ice cream at the front of the store, with the rice cakes in the back. It also stays open three to four hours later than just a few years ago.
Familiar haunts like the mochi-making Fugetsu-do and Mitsuru Grill are also still standing in Little Tokyo, but the landscape, even the skyline, has changed.
The most recognizable newcomers are chains like Pinkberry on Second Street and Starbucks, Robek’s and Quiznos on Central Avenue. Johnny Rocket’s is on the way.
A tall red crane hovering at the corner of Second and San Pedro streets signals the other big change. The new condominium and apartment buildings that have been or are in the process of being erected are not only welcoming a stream of new residents, but also a new kind of resident. For decades, Little Tokyo was home to roughly 1,000 Japanese American senior citizens, mostly Japanese-speaking or American-born Nisei who lived in the area’s low-income or affordable housing.
However, thanks to the real estate boom downtown, this area is seeing well-off young professionals, couples and seniors of various racial backgrounds taking up residence at the Savoy building at First and Alameda streets and the 128-unit Hikaru complex on East Second Street. With the completion of other new housing, the residential population is expected to double in the next few years.
Given this, some predict the future will see Japanese American residents outnumbered by Koreans. Already, Korean seniors are outnumbering the Japanese in one senior complex.
Community Elders Lead the Way
About five years ago, the rumblings started. “People would say stuff like, ‘There are a lot of Koreans moving into the Little Tokyo Towers and Miyako Gardens,” recalls Evelyn Yoshimura, director of community organizing at the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), referring to the two major low-income senior housing complexes in the area.
In fact, on days when the senior housing waiting lists were opened, Korean seniors were seen arriving on buses reportedly organized by their churches.
The tone of comments from Japanese seniors soon turned to “the Koreans are taking over,” according to LTSC staff.
That’s when the agency began to survey some of the local buildings to find out exactly how many Koreans had moved in.
According to the agency’s 2005 survey, out of 300 units at the Little Tokyo Towers, about 100 were Korean-occupied units, with the remainder mostly Japanese and a few Taiwanese. At the Miyako Gardens, out of 100 units, 15 were Japanese units, and out of the 85 remaining units, 80 percent were Korean-occupied. That Miyako Gardens figure is now believed to be 90-percent Korean units, says Yoshimura.
The survey, conducted in Korean, found that among reasons for moving to Little Tokyo, seniors at these two buildings were attracted to the good quality, the desire to live with other Asians and the affordability. Previous residences included Koreatown, Glendale and other mostly Southern California suburbs.
Notably, the purpose of LTSC’s survey of the Korean residents at the senior apartments was not only to find out how sizable this new population was, but to understand its members’ needs so that the agency, which administers a number of services for the elderly, could better serve it.
Although its roots are in the Japanese American community, LTSC, under the leadership of the highly-regarded executive director Bill Watanabe, has a reputation for embracing the increasingly multicultural population in its service area. The nonprofit’s community development arm built an affordable housing complex called Casa Heiwa in 1997 that welcomes multigenerational, multicultural residents, reflecting the agency’s inclusive mission and adaption to change.
“Our mission is to serve the needs of the underserved people in the community,” says Yoshimura. “That means low-income people, non-English-speaking seniors, different people in the community who don’t have a voice and who have needs not being met elsewhere.
“Of course, also part of that mission is to preserve Little Tokyo and its cultural and historic roots, but Little Tokyo has always been a multicultural community. And (serving this new population of Korean American seniors) seemed to fit into that mission.”
Even as LTSC set up a program to respond to the growing number of monolingual Korean seniors in the area, agency staff also recognized the need to head off tensions between the Japanese seniors and their new Korean neighbors.
As with most people living in intimate quarters, there are bound to be some points of conflict or misunderstanding. In this case, they would often blame ethnicity first.
Social workers at LTSC would hear stories of small spats, like the case of the Korean resident who said hello to a Japanese neighbor in the elevator, but the Japanese person did not respond. “The Korean person got so mad, but later we found out that the Japanese person had a severe hearing problem,” explains Hongsun Kim, a Korean American social worker at LTSC, fluent in Korean and Japanese. “But the Korean side of it was: ‘It’s because I’m Korean.’”
Or there would be the case of Japanese residents complaining of Koreans using the trash chute at inappropriate times. The Japanese would complain that Koreans don’t follow rules, but the reason was rooted in the fact that apartment regulations were posted in Japanese and monolingual Korean residents could not understand them.
“They assume things about each other,” says Kim, who never imagined when he came to LTSC nine years ago that he would be serving Korean clients. He believes the history of conflict between Korea and Japan plays a role. “They think they know each other so well, but they don’t. Their information is based on stereotypes and (biased) education from their [home] countries.”
Yoon also thinks historic animosities may feed modern-day interactions between the ethnic groups. “Absolutely that’s relevant because whenever they see misbehavior or a small thing, the next sentence is always, ‘This apartment was built by Japanese and was built for Japanese Americans, but you, Korean Americans, come here and break the rules and that’s not acceptable,’” he says.
Yoon tries to use the Korean tenants’ group he founded two years ago as a tool to break down such barriers. Joeun I-ut, which translates to “Good Neighbors,” has invited Japanese neighbors to its karaoke nights (Their karaoke machine has 2,000 Japanese songs, notes Yoon). It also uses its newsletter to pass on messages like this one: “Living under the same roof, we’re all one family. Even little things like saying hello to each other and asking ‘how are you’ go a long way in keeping a good atmosphere that’s beneficial for everyone. Rather than expecting the other person to greet you first, let’s try to take the initiative.”
LTSC is trying to buttress such efforts.
In the spring of 2007, the agency sponsored screenings of Japanese movies with Korean subtitles and Korean films with Japanese subtitles to promote good relations among the seniors. The events were considered a success, with about 80 seniors attending one screening in April at the Japanese American National Museum.
The film series has interesting origins.
“We were trying to figure out what to do to bring people together,” says Yoshimura. “We noticed that Japanese residents — mainly women — were obsessed with Korean [TV] dramas. There was one woman who used to say weird things about Korean residents — like, there are too many Koreans moving in and they don’t speak Japanese and they don’t say hello — but in her room, she has this huge picture of [South Korean drama star] Bae Yong Jun. It seemed like an opening.
“The funny thing about race or ethnicity is that some of the people who would make those off-the-wall comments, we would see them, like one lady in particular, walking around with her Korean neighbor,” adds Yoshimura. “They would go places together. I noticed there’s a pattern where people can bunch a group of people together and say things, but when they come face to face, it’s different. It’s the exception in their minds. It’s weirdly hopeful.”
Hope is also being placed on the formation of the Japanese Korean Better Relations Committee, a volunteer group of about 10 senior citizens from Little Tokyo Towers who meet monthly to discuss common issues and plan activities to bring their communities together. The meetings are conducted in Japanese, as all of the current Korean members are Japanese-speaking, and mediated by LTSC staff.
It is around this table that misunderstandings often get cleared up.
“Before it’s too late, we want to set up this foundation of communication,” says committee member Kimie Takahashi, 73, a Towers resident of four years. “That’s why I’m here.”
“We’re not kicking anyone out,” insists Ryan Oh, one of three Coldwell Banker brokers involved in the Little Tokyo Shopping Center deal. “We need every single tenant to work together to come up with a better business plan.”
The high-profile sale came at the tail end of a string of major property purchases, not just involving Korean Americans. In 2005, Kajima Corporation sold the former New Otani Hotel to Persian investors. Jamison Services, owned by a Korean American, has acquired three Little Tokyo properties, including the Brunswiq and a medical building on Second Street. American Commercial Equities purchased the outdoor Japanese Village Plaza in 2007.
With each sale, this neighborhood in transition seems to hold its breath, wondering if the new owners will respect the historic and cultural roots of the area or choose wholesale conversion.
But respecting the community you’re entering and not alienating your base only makes financial sense, too, according to Mark Hong, vice president of commercial properties for CB Richard Ellis, who is in charge of leasing for the Japanese Village Plaza.
“It is Little Tokyo,” says Hong, a 1.5-generation Korean American. “To disregard that is a mistake. It’s a financial [mistake], but also a cultural mistake.”
Such issues of shifting demographics and community transformation are not unique to J-town. But more often, one sees the old community exit and the new one take over, end of story. That was what happened with Chinatown, which was once an Italian enclave, notes Chris Aihara, executive director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
But Little Tokyo is different.
The neighborhood has a long history of confronting change. About 1,000 tenants were evicted from the area to make room for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Parker Center headquarters in the 1950s. The city launched redevelopment efforts in the 1970s, destroying affordable housing and forcing some Japanese American mom-and-pop businesses out to make room for overseas Japanese businesses and to cater to Japanese tourism.
By the 1990s, the combination of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the plummeting economy in Japan led to the exit or closure of large and small businesses. In the mid-‘90s, Skid Row, with a ballooning homeless population, at times seemed to be inside Little Tokyo or at least just on its outskirts on Los Angeles and Third streets.
Throughout these struggles, there have always been voices raised in the community to fight for the rights of existing residents and mom-and-pop businesses, and to try to and preserve many of the organic qualities that make Little Tokyo unique.
Voices still speak out today. In 2001, the Japanese American community successfully pushed for legislation to help preserve California’s three Japantowns, the other two of which are in San Francisco and San Jose.
A few years ago, a group of about 100 businesses, nonprofits, religious institutions and others who consider themselves stakeholders in the community formed the Little Tokyo Community Council, which convenes regularly to discuss and plan Little Tokyo’s future. Similarly, a progressive-minded volunteer group called J-Town Voice, made up of Asian Pacific Americans involved in various Little Tokyo organizations, emerged in 2004 to advocate on behalf of the community’s interests.
Little Tokyo is a community in deep contemplation over its present and future, wrestling with what the right thing to do is.
“It’s really a matter of how do we pay honor to a historical and cultural area, but also grow with the change because change is very much a part of the process,” says Aihara, who also serves as chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council.
“To me it’s how we can keep Little Tokyo, the historical legacy, what presence there is with some key institutions, businesses, nonprofits, churches and temples, the historic district. Isn’t it important to preserve in the context of an American story? Isn’t the story of ethnic people important? We need to make sure that’s there. Why should we be swallowed up by downtown development and just become condos and chain stores? To me, it’s not focused on who (is entering Little Tokyo) necessarily; it’s trying to maintain some identity in all of this change.”
A third-generation Japanese American on his mother’s side and a third-generation Korean American on his father’ side, Grant Sunoo may never have called Little Tokyo home, but he is engaged in helping shape its future. The J-Town Voice member admits he has been a little offended by some of the focus on the Korean influx into the area.
“It doesn’t have to be a ‘keep Little Tokyo Japanese’ kind of thing,” says Sunoo. “We want to push Little Tokyo’s history as a multiethnic community, but also as a community that’s had very working-class roots, and so when I get concerned about change, I worry more about really expensive apartments coming in that nobody can afford to live in, the lack of opportunity to build senior or low-income housing, the displacement of small businesses, whether they are Japansese- or Korean-owned. You see a lot of influx of chain retail — that’s a lot more worrisome to me.”
He points out that there has long been a multicultural flavor to this community. Notably, a Korean American architect, David Hyun, was the developer behind the Japanese Village Plaza. The photo editor at the Little Tokyo-based Japanese American daily, the Rafu Shimpo, who has spent the last two decades documenting the community’s evolution, is a Mexican American.
The expression of an old but not forgotten sadness that blankets Simon Yoon’s face is familiar. It is not unlike what was seen earlier when he spoke about his father’s killing at the hands of the Japanese. This time the 86-year-old is recalling the death of another influential figure in his life: ironically, a Japanese military doctor.
After his father’s death, Yoon met Dr. Sawada who came into his village in what is now North Korea, not far from a military base, and to his surprise, treated Korean villagers’ illnesses, including Yoon’s turberculosis.
“One by one, he cured everyone in the village,” recalls Yoon. The 32-year-old doctor would often use his own money to purchase medication for the Koreans.
“I was so moved by this person,” says Yoon, who admits he initially hated the military doctor at first sight. “Dr. Sawada told me one day that he thinks that Japan should have not started this war [against Korea]. I was so surprised he, as a member of the military, would say something like this.”
Yoon and Sawada struck up a unique relationship, as the doctor would ask Yoon, then an elementary school teacher, to take him to various Korean cultural sites so he could photograph them and take down notes on their history and significance. They shared this unlikely friendship for one year, until liberation day came August 15, 1945.
Fearing Koreans were administering their own brand of street justice against their colonizers, Yoon urged Sawada to wear his father’s old clothes so he could blend in with the Koreans and travel south, which he thought would be less risky. But Sawada did not want to abandon his military post and headed north instead.
Yoon would later travel to Japan and looked for Sawada, but found out the doctor had died in the Soviet Union. He never made it home.
Yoon admits, he still has the impulse sometimes to have negative feelings toward Japan or the Japanese, but then he remembers the humanity of Sawada Sensei. It is perhaps that humanity that channels Yoon’s cross-cultural gestures, such as growing shiso plants and then placing a bowl of such leaves in the building lobby because he knows his Japanese neighbors like to eat and cook with them. The leaves are gone in 10 minutes, he reports grinning.
Yoshimura thinks efforts like these are helping in the relationship between Japanese and Koreans, citing as evidence the recent election of Korean members to the Little Tokyo Towers tenants’ council. She also points out that Yoon, a member of the Japanese Korean Better Relations Committee, has emerged as a key point person for Towers residents, even the Japanese. Some of them have asked him to teach a Korean-language class.
“[Japanese residents] really respect him a lot,” says Yoshimura. “That’s promising, that people can see beyond ethnicity.”
Although Yoshimura, third-generation Japanese American, admits she too has that instinct to react with anxiety and alarm at the dramatic changes facing Little Tokyo, she, for one, does not want to see the area return to vacant storefronts nor does she want to see the community become exclusionary.
“You know, there was this J-Town Voice rally recently. The theme of the rally really hit it on the nose,” says Yoshimura. “[The organizers] said, ‘Anyone can come into Little Tokyo, but you have to take your shoes off before you come in.’ There’s this historic community already here, and you have to recognize that and be open to being a part of that. That’s a really good analogy. It’s all about respect and wanting to help the community and build the community.”
Yoshimura talked about some of the new Korean American proprietors she’s met. There are the owners of Tenno Sushi on Central who told her that they deliberately chose to make to open a sushi restaurant versus anything else because this is Little Tokyo. And there’s the Korean American pharmacist who donated an unsolicited $50 to a local residents’ assocation for a New Year’s party.
And there’s Simon Yoon.
Says Yoshimura, “Those people are good neighbors.”
Perhaps, it bodes well for Little Tokyo’s future that the group that may become permanent neighbors is already well-schooled in taking their shoes off before entering someone’s home.
KoreAm reporting intern Lola Pak contributed to this story.