Japanese in Monterey Park : ‘Golden Ghetto’ Erodes as Young Move Away

Times Staff Writer

In 1958, the Higashi family moved into a handsome, shingle-topped house in the hills of Monterey Park. There was a view from their block that, on clear days, stretched all the way to Long Beach. There was a sweet hilltop park just a few blocks from the house, with basketball courts and picnic tables and stretches of green lawn that covered the slope like a tablecloth.

And there was a rare integrated mix of neighbors.

Although as many as a third of the residents of their area were also Japanese-American, there was in this brand-new hillside neighborhood of rambling homes and manicured gardens a generous leavening of Latinos, Chinese and Anglos, too.

Most important, in this new subdivision Japanese families didn’t have to contend with restrictive covenants, such as deed restrictions, that barred Asians from buying homes in other suburban communities.


“We had been living on the Westside of Los Angeles,” recalled Keiji Higashi, who owns a Monterey Park furniture manufacturing company. “But then there were these new homes available in a new area, and the houses were really moderately priced for that kind of house. We had been renting, but we wanted to buy.”

Like dozens of other Japanese-Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s--who were part of a large-scale migration from neighborhoods in the western part of Los Angeles--the Higashis made their down payment and moved to Monterey Park.

They were among the first handful of Asians to arrive in the San Gabriel Valley.

‘Golden Ghetto’

The Japanese occupy a unique place in the constellation of Asian communities in the valley. Most have been here much longer than members of other Asian groups, some of them having roots in the United States that go back to the turn of the century. And their concerns are frequently different from those of other Asians. While many of the recent immigrants worry about finding a way to fit into a new society, the Japanese fret about being assimilated out of existence by the steamroller of American popular culture.

“For the Japanese, Monterey Park was the golden ghetto,” said one resident.

Weary of the cramped life style of the big city, displaced in their neighborhoods by other ethnic groups and many of them still haunted by cruel memories of forcible World War II relocation, the Japanese had been looking for a special place. In Monterey Park, they found one that offered all the civilized comforts of the suburbs as well as freedom from racism. It was part of the dream of America, they said.

But a lot has changed since those early years.

The Monterey Park of today has been transformed by a flood of Taiwanese and other Asian immigrants. The demand for housing has driven real estate prices sky high, and many younger Japanese have moved on to other “golden ghettos,” in the more eastern regions of the San Gabriel Valley and in Orange County, leaving behind a community of the middle-aged and the elderly. The cultural life of the city’s Japanese community is now concentrated largely in the Langley Senior Citizens Center on Emerson Street, where the Japanese Senior Citizens Club gathers for everything from ethnic meals to ballroom dancing.

“There aren’t too many of the original homeowners left on our block,” said Higashi, who is 63. “Of the 22 homes on the block, there are eight of us left now. Five Japanese families, one Chinese and two Caucasian. We call


ourselves the aborigines.”

Although there are no official demographic statistics available, many residents of Monterey Park say that in the early 1960s, almost all of the Asian population in the city was Japanese. Now, they say, only about 10% of the Monterey Park Asians are Japanese, while about 80% are Chinese. The city Planning Commission agrees, estimating that between 10% and 15% of the Asian population in the city is now Japanese, down from about 40% in 1980.

Of Two Minds

Those Japanese who remain in Monterey Park are apparently of two minds about the sudden transformation of their city by a flood of newcomers.

On the one hand, they can appreciate the economic benefits to downtown Monterey Park, which just a few years ago was a down-at-the-heels commercial center with some boarded-up shop windows.

“The new people have resurrected Garvey-Garfield,” marveled George Ige, the Japanese-American treasurer of Monterey Park, referring to the main intersection downtown. “It used to be that after 6 p.m., you’d never see anyone walking around down there. Now there are no empty stores, and you see plenty of people walking around. They contribute a lot to the coffers of the city.”

But some Japanese also respond with occasional flashes of resentment toward this new group of fellow Asians, many of whom they see as “clannish” and determined to pursue success on their own terms. Many Japanese complain about a reversion in Monterey Park to the brusque, ghettoized life that they had tried to escape when they fled Los Angeles.

“When I moved to this community, I thought we were getting away from this business of segregation,” said one longtime Japanese-American resident. “But it’s not working out that way now.”


Proposition 63, the November ballot measure that made English the official language of the state, got a lot of support from Monterey Park Japanese, according to members of the community. “I think if you interviewed most of the older Japanese people, you’d find they were inclined to support the official-language initiative,” said Higashi. “Many of us have been here for many years and feel that the immigrants have a responsibility to learn English. Our parents had to.”

The litany of complaints about the new Chinese in Monterey Park is familiar.

“They keep building masses of houses, businesses, condominiums,” said one Japanese resident. “They’ve just made our city look so ugly.”

According to some of the city’s Japanese residents, the new Asians in town drive recklessly, are brusque with non-Taiwanese and don’t understand American customs. “These people don’t know how to drive,” said one woman. “I’ve been into their Oriental markets. You don’t see any courtesy there. They don’t know how to relate to the public. And they don’t mingle in the community the way they’re supposed to.”

Measure of Resentment

There is also some resentment among the Japanese about suddenly being thrown into the same category as recent immigrants, because of their skin and facial characteristics. “Everybody gets lumped together,” fumed one young woman. “We’re all grouped as ‘Asians.’ ” There have been some reports instances of Japanese teen-agers being mistaken for Chinese and being beaten up by young toughs from other ethnic groups.

But most Japanese community leaders tend to dismiss the peevishness of some Monterey Park Japanese as misinformed gossip. “People get unhappy because it takes them 10 minutes to get to the grocery store instead of the five minutes that it used to take,” said Higashi with a laugh.

Some say that the complaints of their compatriots are feeding a wave of xenophobia in the city. “The thing that keeps hitting me between the eyes lately is this outcry of ‘Go back home!’ ” said Wes Wamaka, a printer and part-time minister for the Japanese congregation at the United Methodist Church on Garfield Boulevard. “For me, that would mean going back to Seattle. There’s this sense of ownership in our society, especially among whites. Any group that speaks another language or that looks different revives this racist attitude.”


But many Japanese worry as much about the loss of those very characteristics as about the problems they cause.

Most Saturday mornings for the past 21 years, dozens of Japanese children have gathered in the long, barracks-like building behind the United Methodist Church to take Japanese lessons. “We are teaching Japanese as a foreign language here,” said Eiko Chatel, principal of the Monterey Park United Methodist Language School. “Most of our children are fourth- or fifth-generation whose basic language is English.”

Like any other American children, these young Japanese-Americans, ranging in age from 5 to 17, can find themselves tongue-tied by the unfamiliar pronunciations and baffled by the thousands of ideograms they’re called upon to learn.

Why do they come?

“Basically, it’s because our parents make us come,” said 17-year-old Grace Yuko Sato, looking up from a Japanese textbook in the school’s advanced class. “I’m thinking about college now. Of course, an application from someone who is trilingual--I speak Spanish, too--has a real advantage.”

‘Be American, Be American’

But the need goes deeper than that, said Chatel, who teaches Japanese at UCLA as well. “During the Second World War, the Japanese language was not very popular, of course,” she said. “Our first-generation parents would always say, ‘Be American. Be American. Forget about being Japanese.’ Things are much more peaceful now, and the second-generation parents realize what they missed out on.”

The school has grown from the initial class of eight students 21 years ago to 120 today. But because Monterey Park’s Japanese community is shrinking, the trend is now in the other direction, acknowledges Yoshito Fujimoto, the school’s chairman. Enrollment peaked at about 160 five years ago, he said, when most of the students were from Monterey Park. But the present student body includes students from all over the area, including some from as far away as Hacienda Heights and Cerritos.


“Even I fear this loss of identity,” said Fujimoto, a retired accountant. “I have four children, two of whom have married Caucasians. I’m hoping that one of the two unmarried ones will marry a Japanese.”

Others, especially the elderly, try to maintain Japanese ties in other ways. Mae Ozeki, for example, serves as president of a sister-city association that works to send worthy American high school students to Nachikatsuura in southern Japan, while students from there come to Monterey Park. “It’s people-to-people,” said Ozeki. “It’s a way of sharing and understanding each other.”

Frances Kai is, at 65, a whirlwind of volunteer activity, serving as an officer of the Japanese Senior Citizens Club, a member of the city’s arts and culture commission and a Girl Scouts official, as well as a member of the board of the sister city association. Maintaining ties with Japan is important, she says, because it demonstrates the similarities between peoples.

“It’s a way of showing that we’re compatible,” she said. “We can show that we’re friends and can live in peace.”

But there are few young Japanese waiting to take their places in Monterey Park. The problem has much to do with their success, most acknowledge.

Hopes for Future

For example, Ozeki and her late husband bought a large, pastel-hued house, hoping that their children would eventually settle down with them.


“I had hoped that they’d come back here after college,” she said, sitting in the living room. “But my son graduated from Berkeley as a mechanical engineer and settled in New York. My daughter trained as a designer. She said there was no future here in the designing field. Now she’s working for an insurance company in New York.”

Those who are inclined to return to their parents’ community usually find that housing costs have priced them out of the market.

“My idea was to get a house like the one my parents live in,” said Higashi’s 33-year-old son Kent, an officer in his father’s furniture company. But he settled in Walnut, where he was able to buy a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home for slightly more than a much smaller house was going for in Monterey Park. “It was basically a matter of getting my money’s worth,” Kent Higashi said.

The remaining Japanese in Monterey Park seem to accept their role as just one element in, as one of them put it, “an ethnic salad.”

Mae Ozeki summed it up stoically. “My mother used to say that, as times change, you must go with the ideas of the young people,” she said.

Recently, the young people’s idea about Monterey Park has been, for the most part, to move on.