They arrived in the awkward time after World War II, the trauma of the internment camps still a fresh wound for many, and gradually began settling into single-family homes in the all-white neighborhoods west of Arlington Boulevard and north of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
In doing so, they not only helped dismantle the ethnic barriers that demarcated Los Angeles’ housing market, they built from scratch one of the city’s largest Japanese-American communities.
Forty years later, that once-thriving community is dwindling away quietly. Except for an occasional faded sign advertising a bygone business, little remains to commemorate the Japanese-American community that at its peak boasted commerce and a culture to rival those found in the better-known enclaves of Boyle Heights, Gardena and Sawtelle.
The hardy contingent of older Niseis (immigrants’ second-generation descendants) who live, tend their homes and retain their communal bonds in Crenshaw do so in neighborhoods that have long been predominantly black and increasingly Latino.
And the landmarks that do remain--the Seinan Senior Citizens Center, the L.A. Southwest Japanese Credit Union--are notable today because of their uniqueness to the area.
“It was huge in its day,” said Suzanne Totsubo Toji, 45, who remembers the Japanese groceries, bakeries and fabric stores that once dominated Jefferson Boulevard, and the Japanese-American businesses that filled the Crenshaw Square Shopping Plaza. “It was the place to move to.”
Despite their thinning ranks, the Japanese-Americans in Crenshaw are not dormant, nor is their significance lost on local historians. Unlike their sons and daughters who moved away, the older Japanese-Americans in Crenshaw evince a stubborn pride and loyalty to their community, which grew out of prewar neighborhoods surrounding USC, where many of the first-generation immigrants worked as gardeners. And despite problems such as the area’s rising crime, Crenshaw’s remaining residents have a surprising, unflinching openness to the changes their community has undergone and little desire to leave.
“I wouldn’t think of moving out,” said Mabel Ota, now in her 70s, who moved to Crenshaw in 1954 and then saw both of her white neighbors leave within the year. “Every week, a Realtor calls me up and asks me if I want to sell my house. I always tell them, ‘No, I’m happy here.’ ”
Much of the comfort older Japanese-Americans feel in the area, and toward their neighbors who are not Asian-Americans, derives from a shared sense of discrimination. The Rev. Mas Kodani of the Senshin Buddhist Church near USC recalls that when the city’s Japanese-Americans were about to be interned, one of the few organizations that offered help was a black Baptist church. Similarly, after the war, when most shopkeepers refused to sell goods to Japanese-Americans, the only market that would sell food to the Buddhist church was a black-owned grocery. Kodani said that almost half a century later, some of the older church members are still trying to locate the store owner to thank him.
“You’d be surprised how many Japanese-Americans grew up very closely with African-Americans,” said Yuji Ichioka, a UCLA associate professor of history, who cites the role both communities played in integrating the Westside after 1950, when the Supreme Court outlawed racial housing covenants that prevented owners from selling to “non-Caucasians.” “The old-timers on my block are either African-Americans or Japanese-Americans,” Ichioka said.
Even in the wake of last year’s riots, during which some Asian-Americans were subject to attack, many of Crenshaw’s Japanese-Americans expressed sympathy for the causes underlying the disturbance and decried what they viewed as unfair stereotyping of the black community’s role in the riots.
“When you consider all the areas in which blacks are living, to try and lump them together and say, ‘That’s the community that had the gangs and the rioting,’ that’s not true,” said Yo Takagaki, a real estate agent who moved to the area in the early 1950s and who was one of the developers of Crenshaw Square. “There’s more blacks moving out of L.A. than anyone else. If (Japanese-Americans) are afraid, blacks are too.”
Suzanne Toji remembers her childhood as a time of living in a Japanese-oriented community while participating in the typical all-American rites of youth. On Saturdays, she attended the Dai-Ichi Gakuen Japanese Language School--which was nearly mandatory for Toji and her friends so that their generation would not forget the ancestral tongue--but weekend nights were devoted to seeing movies at the Baldwin Theater and hanging out at the Holiday Bowl bowling alley. Most of all, Toji said, diversity and harmony characterized her youth.
“In my day, it was really well mixed,” said Toji, as she displayed her 1966 Dorsey High School yearbook with photos of black student body officers, Japanese-American athletes and white cheerleaders. Ichioka said: “In the late ‘60s, you could go to Holiday Bowl on a Saturday night and see African-Americans . . . coming to eat Japanese noodles with chopsticks. In that sense, it was an extraordinary situation.”
However, by the 1970s the exodus of Japanese-Americans from Crenshaw began. Much of it was due, said longtime resident Jimmy Jike, 82, to the community’s sons and daughters leaving the community for college and not returning. Gradually, the Dai-Ichi Gakuen saw its enrollment decline from a peak of 700 students to about 15 today. Similarly, the businesses that used to cater to the Japanese-American community began packing up and relocating, some say in belated response to the 1965 Watts riots that caused an earlier wave of white flight. And several residents say a wave of anti-Japanese-American sentiment began cropping up in the area, prompting further departures.
For Toji’s parents, the decision to move out of the community they had lived in for more than 15 years came in 1972, when their son and other Japanese-American students were targeted for abuse at Audubon Junior High School, which Toji and her sister had attended peacefully several years earlier. Residents today are hesitant to talk about the backlash and say they cannot explain why it occurred. Ichioka only offers a partial hypothesis, surmising that strong feelings of racial pride among the area’s other minorities may have “spilled over” into anti-Japanese-American feelings.
Whatever the reason for the exodus, by 1980, according to Jerry Wong of the U.S. Census Bureau, a former Crenshaw resident, the area’s Japanese-American population declined by half, from one of the largest in Southern California to about 4,000 residents. The 1990 U.S. Census figures put the population at about 2,500, mostly older residents. "(Our children) leave the area and they have no intention of coming back,” Jike said.
Usually they opt for the quiet and safety of the suburbs, a pull that some older residents also feel. Mitsuji Okada’s Kinokuni sweet shop has been a fixture in Crenshaw for 35 years. But he plans to retire soon. “This is a bad area and everybody’s scared,” said Okada, whose store windows were broken in the riots. “Every year, my business goes down, down, down.”
But while Crenshaw’s Japanese-Americans acknowledge that crime and tensions have increased in their area, they shrug them off as phenomena that occur citywide.
“Our members don’t think of it as a dangerous place,” said Kodani, the Buddhist minister, who adds that relations between those who attend his church and the black community have improved since the riots. “We were on pretty good terms with our neighbors, but it was mostly waving. Now we have much more contact.”
Still, those of Kodani’s generation and older say their grown children frequently ask if they will move from Crenshaw. “They don’t say leave ,” said an amused Takagaki. “They ask, ‘When are you going to get a home somewhere else?’ ”
Kodani, who has lived in the community for 25 years and who grew up as one of the few Japanese-Americans in the otherwise all-black Willowbrook area, is less sanguine.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” he said. “But some of us do forget our camp experience and are guilty of the same kind of attitudes that put us in the camps.”