Clinging to a culture

Times Staff Writer

For nearly a century, Frances Hashimoto’s family lovingly crafted traditional Japanese pastries in Little Tokyo. For funerals and weddings, tea ceremonies and New Year’s festivities, the little shop helped mark major community moments with soft rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste, baked chestnut buns, delicate sweets colored and shaped like spring blossoms or fall maple leaves.

But two months ago, Hashimoto remodeled her Little Tokyo store, Mikawaya. She placed her pastries in the back, giving more prominent space to Italian gelato and what has now become her signature product, mochi ice cream. She is introducing decidedly Western flavors into her sweets, including peanut butter, blueberry and orange.

“The Japanese community has always known us for Japanese pastries,” Hashimoto said. “But all of a sudden, the crowd in Little Tokyo was changing and we wanted to show we were changing, too.”


As goes Mikawaya, so goes Little Tokyo. A new wave of multicultural investors, residents and visitors is transforming the area, the largest of three major Japantowns left in California.

New housing projects could bring in hundreds of new multicultural residents during the next few years. Mainstream retailers, including Robeks and Pinkberry, are entering the market.

Many of Little Tokyo’s major properties have changed hands to non-Japanese owners -- including the controversial sale in August of the New Otani Hotel and Gardens to a Beverly Hills-based real estate firm.

Now the community’s eyes are trained on the city’s request for proposals to buy and develop its last large land parcel in the Little Tokyo area at 1st and Alameda streets, known as the Mangrove site. The competition, whose bid deadline is Friday, is seen as a major test of the area’s future direction.

The rapid changes have touched off anxiety -- but also a collective effort to figure out ways to embrace the newcomers while preserving the ethnic culture and identity of Japanese America’s historic heart.

“The whole demographic of Little Tokyo will change,” said Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum. “The question for us and Little Tokyo generally is how much influence will we have on this influx of new people? Will they come and just go to Quiznos and Starbucks? Or will they say they like Little Tokyo’s culture and history and want it to stay that way?”

The tale of Little Tokyo’s transformation isn’t unique. It’s an enduring story continually repeated in California’s ethnic enclaves, places of layered histories and ever-shifting demographics.

In South Los Angeles, Latinos are transforming historic African American neighborhoods. What is Chinatown today was once Little Italy, and Vietnamese Chinese merchants there are supplanting the longtime Cantonese.

In largely Latino Boyle Heights, the Breed Street Shul and Otomisan Japanese restaurant are ethnic markers of a more diverse era. In the MacArthur Park area, no sooner have Central Americans organized to press for a historic ethnic designation when, they say, Koreans have begun to increase there.

But experts say that Japanese Americans have exerted more collective community energy than most to try to influence the inexorable neighborhood changes.

In 2001, for instance, the community successfully lobbied for state legislation to help preserve California’s remaining Japantowns, in L.A., San Francisco and San Jose. More recently, they worked with Los Angeles city redevelopment officials to develop planning guidelines favoring a Japanese aesthetic in Little Tokyo projects.

Community leaders have forged close relations with Councilwoman Jan Perry, who said she intends to remain “vigilant” to keep Little Tokyo’s cultural cohesion. During the past few years, Perry has worked with the community to redirect a proposed jail away from the area, find space for a community gym, limit bail bonds shops and develop plans for an art park, among other things.

“What’s different about Japantowns is that there is a lot of political energy, activism and clout to support thinking about how and what you can do to save these communities,” said Donna Graves, a preservationist expert who directs the state’s Preserving California’s Japantowns project and recently documented Richmond’s diverse World War II workforce.

The efforts come none too soon, she said, since the state’s Japantowns have plummeted from more than 40 to three.

At present, much of the community’s attention is focused on the Mangrove development project. Earlier this month, the influential Little Tokyo Community Council, a group of about 100 area businesses, nonprofit agencies, religious institutions and residents, voted to support a Japanese American-led development team in the bidding process.

The team is proposing an urban complex of affordable and market-rate housing, artists’ lofts, office space and retail shops showcasing Japan’s fashionable modern face of anime, technology, apparel, design and electronics. Proposed features include a media court with giant outdoor screens reminiscent of Shinjuku and other hip Tokyo neighborhoods.

Project leader Jon Kaji said the Nikkei Center -- a name that connotes both ethnic Japanese and the Japanese economy -- would aim to revive the Japanese presence in Little Tokyo. That presence boomed in the 1970s and ‘80s but dramatically dropped off in the 1990s amid a prolonged Japanese recession and the Los Angeles riots.

Kaji is working with the Little Tokyo Service Center and Japanese American architect Ted Tokio Tajima, along with such prominent mainstream players as the Jerde architectural firm, developers Urban Partners and Related, and L.A. Cares, a health organization committed to occupying the project’s office space.

Kaji, who headed the state’s Tokyo trade office under the Pete Wilson administration, said the Mangrove project was the last best chance for the community to control its own development destiny. Attempts by Japanese Americans to buy various Little Tokyo properties in recent years, he said, have been rejected in favor of non-Japanese owners, including the current Office Depot site on 2nd and Central and the New Otani Hotel.

“It’s our last chance to do something,” said Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center. “There is this tide going in one direction, that Little Tokyo is gradually losing its ethnic character. But it has history and characteristics that are irreplaceable.”

At the same time, however, community leaders say that Little Tokyo can no longer depend solely on ethnic Japanese for survival -- even if it wanted to.

Many Japanese firms now prefer the South Bay and Orange County, and most Japanese Americans long ago left the city’s central core in favor of the suburbs.

Mark Hong, first vice president of brokerage services for CB Richard Ellis, said he has been “beating the bushes” to find Japanese retailers and restaurants to fill the Japanese Village Plaza, which recently was purchased by Malibu-based American Commercial Equities. But he said they’ve shown no interest -- while non-Japanese retailers have.

“The new owners are committed to revitalizing the Japanese Village Plaza to its former prominence and retaining its ethnic flair, but we’re not getting support from the [Japanese] community,” Hong said, adding that the plaza soon will undergo a multimillion-dollar face-lift. “Are we swimming upstream? The impression I’m getting is yes.”

Faced with such realities, Little Tokyo institutions are scrambling to broaden their reach.

“Many people call me up and say, ‘Don’t change Little Tokyo,’ ” Tom Kamei, a prominent business leader, said at a recent community meeting. “But it’s obvious we have to change with the times. We have to open our arms to newcomers, whether Japanese or not, so we have a vibrant Little Tokyo.”

The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center is supplementing such traditional fare as the recent bunraku puppet performance with multicultural shows pairing, for instance, Latino musicians with Japanese American taiko drummers, according to executive director Chris Aihara.

The Japanese American National Museum also is reaching beyond its core audience of second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, most of whom are in their 80s and older. An exhibit exploring multiracialism was a huge hit, spokesman Komai said, and an art exhibit organized by the founder of Giant Robot, an Asian American pop culture magazine, will open Saturday.

At the Little Tokyo Service Center, the growing influx of Korean residents prompted the staff this year to organize a Japanese Korean film series to begin bridging linguistic and cultural differences, Watanabe said.

Some of the area’s religious institutions also are aiming to diversify. The Rev. Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple said he hoped to attract some of the area’s new residents with brochures about his program and nonreligious seminars on healthcare and other issues. Other Buddhist temples, such as Higashi Hongwanji and Zenshuji, have appointed non-Japanese ministers.

With such strong Japanese American institutions in place, Ito said he was confident the area could retain its ethnic character regardless of its changing demographics.

And not only Japanese Americans seem to share that desire.

Back at Hashimoto’s pastry shop, Cuban American artist Gloria Longval said she has been coming to Little Tokyo at least twice a month for years to enjoy sushi and shopping -- on this day, her daughter was hunting for a kimono. But she lamented the area’s rapid changes.

“I’ve been so disappointed,” Longval said. “It used to have such a homey quality of Japanese mom and pop shops. Now you look around and see Pinkberrys.”

Outside the shop, downtown art dealer Rebecca O’Leary and business consultant Seth Silverstein said they came to Little Tokyo for a shiatsu massage, then topped it off with a ramen lunch and red bean doughnut. The shiatsu was painful and the doughnut was different, they said, but a unique cultural experience is what they came for.

“We want to maintain Little Tokyo, rather than have a couple of Starbucks and a Borders,” Silverstein said. “You can have that anywhere. But if you lose a place like this, no one will ever be exposed to it.”