Old Temple, Church Symbolize Efforts to Preserve Little Tokyo

Times Staff Writer

The old Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo has stood empty for years, its windows boarded and pigeon droppings defiling its imitation thatched-roof entryway. Nearby, the old Union Church stands similarly ghostly.

For years, a sentence of death hung over these city-owned buildings that once were the centers of social and religious life for Southern California’s Japanese-American community. Similarly doomed, it seemed, were the small shops, restaurants and residential hotels nearby. All were to be torn down for street widening and redevelopment.

But resistance by Japanese-Americans and changed attitudes in Los Angeles’ city government have brought a reprieve to this historic strip along 1st Street from San Pedro Street to Central Avenue, which more than any other surviving part of Little Tokyo preserves the past.

An emerging consensus would turn the Buddhist temple into a Japanese-American museum. The Union Church would be saved for community use--possibly as the new home of the East West Players, one of the leading Asian-American theater groups in the country. The commercial strip along 1st Street between the temple and church--with the possible exception of two corner buildings--would be preserved. As part of the same set of plans, ambitious development is proposed for adjacent city-owned property.

“The community feels that the entire north side (of 1st Street) should remain intact, and the turn-of-the-century buildings should be retained,” said Bruce Kaji, president of Merit Savings Bank and head of the committee that hopes to establish a museum in the old temple.


“The rest of Little Tokyo is developing into a very modern-design complex of offices, churches, cultural buildings, etc. This would preserve what Little Tokyo used to look like, and remind us of our roots in the area.”

Roots run deep along 1st Street.

“I grew up here--I’m a Little Tokyo brat,” commented Brian Kito, 28, the third-generation proprietor of the Fugetsudo candy shop, located in one of the privately owned buildings along the north side of 1st Street. “My grandfather started this business in 1903.”

Kito said his goal is to ensure that the family business lasts a century.

For long-time customers now scattered throughout the Southland who still drop by to pick up sweets, Kito’s hand-made confections are a reminder of the past. Based on recipes his grandfather used, most are comprised of sweet sticky rice and a paste made of red azuki beans and sugar.

Various candies, Kito explained, are associated with different holidays: sweets for the Boy’s Day festival are wrapped in oak leaves, while the Girl’s Day confections come in cherry leaves.

“The cherry leaf is supposed to symbolize being pretty and soft, just like the oak leaf symbolizes being sturdy and strong,” Kito said.

A different tradition is preserved a few doors down, at the Asahi Shoe & Dry Goods Store, founded in 1908 a block away from its present site by Mitsuhiko Shimizu, who at 96 is still active in the business. Here, the Shimizu family sells hard-to-find small shoes.

“In men’s shoes, we start from size 4,” said Dennis Shimizu, 67. “We have customers who come from all over for that special size.”

The store also markets humorous bilingual T-shirts. One shows a grinning fish half-reclining on a chopping block, with the message: “Sashimi--Raw Is Better.”

Little Tokyo has always assumed an importance that extended far beyond its boundaries and continues today for the more than 150,000 ethnic Japanese in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“The San Fernando Valley farmer didn’t relate to the San Pedro fisherman, but they did both relate to Little Tokyo,” said H. Cooke Sunoo, project manager in the Little Tokyo office of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. “Because of that historic role--which continues today--the historic buildings become very important. The buildings themselves, with the exception of the two religious buildings, are probably not architecturally significant. But taken as a block, they become both architecturally and historically significant.”

Many of the memories of Little Tokyo old-timers center on the Nishi Hongwanji temple.

Archie Miyatake, a prominent Little Tokyo photo shop owner temporarily located in San Gabriel while rebuilding on his land on the south side of 1st Street, recalled the temple’s importance in the pre-World War II social life of the Japanese-American community.

“They used the facility like a theater,” Miyatake said. “I remember going to see things there--singers, things like that. Union Church was used too.”

Nishi Hongwanji, built in 1925, is a brick building that resembles a temple only in its entryway. Its Central Avenue facade utilizes Egyptian motifs, while commercial space was included on the 1st Street side to ease the financial burden on the congregation.

Union Church, a brick building in the Classical Revival style built in 1923, had a movie projector booth in the sanctuary, and the altar area served as a stage for drama productions. The social hall was sometimes used as a gymnasium.

Both Nishi Hongwanji and Union Church became assembly centers when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and a subsequent wave of resentment against ethnic Japanese led to evacuation and internment of all West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry.

Kaji said that the Japanese American National Museum, established this spring as a nonprofit corporation, has rented a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 941 East 3rd St., where organizers hope to open a museum next year. Housing the facility in Nishi Hongwanji is the group’s ultimate goal, he said.

The museum’s exhibits would “embrace the whole Japanese-American experience here in the United States,” Kaji said. It would include material about the internment camps and Japanese-American service in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, he said.

Variety of Subjects

Manuscripts, books, photographs, artifacts, collections and oral histories would cover Japanese-American contributions in such fields as agriculture, horticulture, mining, forestry, fishing, railroads and the arts, he added.

The temple and church properties--purchased by the city about a decade ago when the religious institutions rebuilt a few blocks away--would be leased out by the city for nominal sums.

The Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Tom Bradley formally expressed support for the Japanese-American museum proposal in May. They have yet to make an equivalent statement on leasing the Union Church to the East West Players, but the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee has endorsed the use of the site by the theater troupe.

Both buildings must be refurbished and brought up to earthquake safety codes before they can be used.

Cost of $1 Million

The Community Redevelopment Agency envisions spending about $1 million on rehabilitation of the temple and about $500,000 for work on the church, Sunoo said.

A bill that has won state Senate approval and is currently before the Assembly would provide $750,000 more for work on converting the temple into a museum. The Legislature already approved these funds once this year, but Gov. George Deukmejian eliminated them from the budget along with money for other museum projects.

Bob Taylor, a Deukmejian spokesman, said that the state Resource Agency and Department of Finance have opposed the proposed expenditure, but that if the Legislature approves the bill, Deukmejian “would certainly consider it and make a decision based on the arguments and merits of the proposal.”

East West Players is seeking a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which would be used with private contributions for work on the church, said Janet Mitsui, the group’s administrative director. A 199-seat theater is envisioned, she said.

Earthquake Safety

The redevelopment agency also would provide 1st Street property owners about $500,000 in low-interest loans for earthquake-safety rehabilitation work and restoration of the facades to their pre-World War II appearance.

The Los Angeles Conservancy is preparing a request to the National Register of Historic Places to list the two religious buildings and the commercial structures between them as a historic district--a designation that could bring additional tax incentives for restoration work.

Preservation of the historic buildings would be part of a redevelopment plan for the entire “superblock” bounded by 1st, Alameda, Temple and San Pedro streets. The city has already acquired all the land in the block except for the strip of privately owned commercial buildings between the temple and the church.

Number of Projects

The Little Tokyo office of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency is putting the finishing touches on a proposal for the block that, in addition to preserving Nishi Hongwanji, Union Church and the 11 buildings in between, calls for:

- Permanent status for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Temporary Contemporary” at its present site in a converted warehouse near Nishi Hongwanji.

- Creation of a plaza in the area in front of the art museum and behind the temple.

- Two 200,000-square-foot office buildings--a 14-story building in the northwest corner of the block and a six-story building in the southeast corner.

- A two-foot widening of 1st Street along the entire block, and extensive widening from Central Avenue to Alameda Street to allow for right- and left-turn lanes at that intersection.

- Two-hundred mixed-income condominiums, new retail space and about 1,800 parking spaces.

The proposal would be implemented in phases over a period of eight years.

Preservation Stressed

Calvin Hamilton, city planning director, said that at a recent meeting of staff members from various city departments, there was general consensus on the preservation aspects of the redevelopment agency proposal, with the exception that some departments favor demolition of the two buildings on 1st Street closest to San Pedro Street to allow for construction of a southbound left-turn lane at that intersection.

Hamilton also said that while there was general agreement that there would be office, commercial and parking facilities in the rest of the block, there was no citywide staff agreement on the redevelopment agency proposal.

City planners have discussed tearing down buildings to widen 1st Street since the early 1960s, a proposal that was incorporated in a community plan adopted in 1974, Hamilton said.

Important to Community

But the strip is now seen as “very important psychologically and emotionally to the Japanese community,” said Hamilton, who added, “I think the city has come to realize they must honor those very strong feelings on the part of the Japanese community and its citizens’ advisory group.”

Hamilton attributed the impetus for preserving the buildings to Little Tokyo’s “high degree of identity and . . . a very active citizen participation program.”

But in addition, he said, “there has definitely been a change in attitude in the city toward retaining and rehabilitating historic structures to be integrated into new developments.”

Sunoo of the redevelopment agency called the strip of historic buildings “a tremendous resource” in planning for adjacent new development.

“It provides street lights, pedestrian access, warmth, real maturity,” he said. “These are all elements that are very important to making a new development work.”

Non-Japanese Support

Owners of the properties along the north side of 1st Street--the majority of them non-Japanese--have generally supported the preservation effort.

“I was outspoken from the start that I would not sell it,” said Tim Sperl, who displayed a deed showing that his grandfather paid $1,250 to buy a 1st Street lot on May 3, 1882. “I felt the building was as good an investment as anything, and it had both a citywide and a personal historical significance. . . . My grandfather put the second floor on in 1901. His blacksmith shop was on the ground floor.”

Los Angeles “is a city of people who were not born here,” Sperl said. “They don’t know what we had. Our children don’t know what we had. By preserving these little pockets--and that’s all they are--(we preserve) a little bit of old Los Angeles as our fathers and grandfathers knew it. This is important to show our young people that we did have more than these glass monstrosities.”

While the character of the street is predominantly Japanese-American, one of its leading landmarks is a Chinese-American institution: the Far East Cafe.

Earlier Era Recalled

An eatery that serves authentic Chinese food unashamedly labeled with the American title of “chop suey,” the Far East Cafe is a throwback to an era of high wood-paneled booths that provide informal but private family dining.

The cafe was established in 1935 by Look Mar and several relatives. Mar, 73, is still active in the business, but his son, Do Mar, 35, now manages it.

Look Mar said he and his relatives picked a Little Tokyo location for the cafe because in the mid-1930s there were more Japanese than Chinese in Los Angeles, and “Japanese people like Chinese food.”

Look Mar said he hopes the city will preserve the block.

The restaurant is still very much a family affair, with about six members working there now, Do Mar said.

“I’d like to keep it going.”