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Where to Enjoy Japanese American Culture in L.A.

Tanabata festival lanterns | Chenjack/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

According to the local legend, in 1884, a sailor named Hamanosuke Shigeta arrived in downtown Los Angeles and opened Little Tokyo's first business, an American-style cafe, thus establishing the beginnings of Los Angeles' vibrant enclave of professional services and businesses to serve fellow Japanese. Over the years, Little Tokyo has remained the cultural and symbolic home of Southern California's Japanese American community and the country's largest Japantown. Ethnic neighborhoods like these were developed, in part, because of discriminatory laws that limited where immigrants and people of color could live and work, yet as the Japanese Americans set down roots in L.A. County, they brought new innovations to the agricultural, fishing, import and even the arts and design industries, carrying on cultural traditions while creating new ones. By December 1941, there were some 37,000 ethnic Japanese living in Los Angeles, and with the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Roosevelt, this massive community completely disappeared overnight, banished for the duration of the war in ten American concentration camps. After the war and the return of Japanese Americans to L.A., a spirit of resilience and hope enabled the community to evolve. Here are some places and experiences where you can witness the impact the Japanese American community has had on Los Angeles, where both traditions and contemporary cultural experiments thrive.

Japanese American Cultural & Community Center's Kotohajime + “Thank You Very Mochi” book by Kizuna

In early January, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center hosts Kotohajime, to bring an auspicious and artistic start to the new year (celebrated on January 1st, on the Gregorian calendar). Curated by JACCC's Master Artist in Residence, Hirokazu Kosaka, Kotohajime features stunning traditional and contemporary arts performances and live music, including ritual shooting of the arrow, breaking the sake barrel, and an array of elegant dances and theatrical performances.

Mochi making (mochitsuki) and eating are also a big part of celebrating Japanese New Year. For younger audiences new to the tradition of making mochi, children's book “Thank You Very Mochi” is the perfect introduction. “Thank You Very Mochi” was written and published by Kizuna, an intergenerational organization that was founded and largely led by fourth and fifth-generation Japanese Americans to address the need for cultural connection and leadership for the next generation. The book, filled with details on making sticky New Year mochi at grandma and grandpa's house using a stone usu and wooden kine mallets, is a tribute to family gatherings and offers important lessons on the importance of carrying on traditions and historical memory.

Nisei Week Grand Parade featuring the Nebuta Festival floats

Nebuta float during Nisei week Festival | Christopher Lance/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Nebuta float during Nisei week Festival | Christopher Lance/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For seven days and seven nights every August, Nisei Week (Nisei meaning second-generation) becomes the center of attention in downtown Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood, featuring Japanese car shows, exhibitions of traditional arts, musical performances, a gyoza eating contest, and the crowning of a Nisei Week queen. Nisei Week first debuted in 1934, as a way for the community to enliven the retail businesses of the area post-Depression by attracting younger crowds in the district and supporting stagnating businesses. The Nisei Week Grand Parade is scheduled for the first Sunday of the week, and usually includes local marching bands, ondo dancing groups, pageant queens, and taiko drummers.

In 2007, the parade unveiled a spectacular Nebuta lantern float, a vision of painted washi paper over wire lit from inside, that was designed and built in Japan and shipped to Los Angeles. The 17-foot-tall Nebuta float in the shape of a fierce samurai warrior, was designed by artist Hiroo Takenami,  illuminated by more than 600 lights and accompanied by more than 200 “haneto” dancers, taiko drummers and Japanese flute players, all dressed in authentic festival costumes from Japan's Aomori prefecture. Smaller "kodomo nebuta" and other lantern floats were later built in L.A. and added in subsequent years, where they continue to light the streets as they wend their way through Little Tokyo.

Tanabata Festival

Tanabata festival lanterns | Chenjack/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Tanabata festival lanterns | Chenjack/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

According to the myth, over 2000 years ago, two stars, Orihime (a weaver) and Hikoboshi (a herder) fell in love and were secretly married. However, Orihime's father, the Sky King, unhappy that the couple no longer carried out their respective duties of weaving fabrics and tending to the herd, separated the lovers on opposite sides of the Milky Way river. Only once a year, a bridge of magpies was conjured to form a bridge that Vega and Altair could cross and be reunited. The Tanabata or "star" festival originated in Sendai, Japan and is known for its spectacular nanatsu kazari, or washi paper decorations. Another custom of the Tanabata festival is to write one's wishes or short poems on a Tanzaku decoration and decorate it in hopes of having either the wish come true.

Los Angeles adopted its own version of the Tanabata Festival in Little Tokyo in 2008 and sponsors an annual kazari contest as well as two-days of music, dance, and festival food such as shave ice, Fugetsu-do manju, takoyaki grilled balls, and cold tofu. Rows and rows of paper kazari are hung in front of MOCA/Geffen Museum, their eight-foot streamers filling the summer skies with their brilliant colors. Vote for your favorite kazari and write your wish on a scrap of paper, then tie it to one of the bamboo branches that will be scattered throughout the festival on the weekend when all the stars align.

Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Temple

Originally, the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple stood on the corner of East 1st Street and Central Street. Built by Japanese immigrants in 1925, it was the first structure designed in Los Angeles to specifically house a Buddhist place of worship, combining Japanese and Middle Eastern influences in its architectural design. The temple served as a house of worship, social hall and rental office space. During the forced removal of all Japanese Americans during World War II, it was used to store the belongings of the families sent to live in U.S. concentration camps. Following their return to L.A. post-war, the temple decided to move and construct a new temple, prompted by city plans to redevelop Little Tokyo and demolish the north side of 1st Street. Eventually, the Japanese American National Museum renovated the building and opened in the former Buddhist temple in 1992,  and in 2018, another Japanese American non-profit, Go for Broke, moved into the former Nishi Hongwanji building, mere steps away from the Go for Broke monument, which is dedicated to Japanese American veterans of World War II.

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Nishi Hongwanji temple at their second location, at 815 E. First Street, just a few blocks from the first temple, where it has served the community with weekly Sunday dharma services, special services, weekly Buddhist study classes, memorial services, weddings, funerals, Obon festivals, Kohaku Utagassen, temple affiliated organization meetings, weekly temple youth programs (Jr YBA, Sr YBA, Sangha Teens, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts), temple sports programs (judo, basketball), cultural classes, and community meetings and events.

In late July, Nishi Hongwanji sponsors an obon festival, or day of honoring the ancestors, with a special Buddhist service and the lighting of lanterns to remember the deceased, plus carnival games, bingo, a crafts and plants sale, food vendors, and of course, folk dancing in traditional cotton yukata on the streets at dusk.

L.A. Matsuri Taiko drum group during 2016 Nishi Hongwanji Obon Festival | V.T. Polywoda/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
L.A. Matsuri Taiko drum group during 2016 Nishi Hongwanji Obon Festival | V.T. Polywoda/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Evergreen Cemetery + Otomisan restaurant

East of Little Tokyo and Downtown Los Angeles lies Boyle Heights, a neighborhood with a rich reputation for its historic ethnic and religious diversity, that was in part, enforced due to housing racial covenants. Boyle Heights is also home to Los Angeles' oldest nondenominational burial ground, Evergreen Cemetery, a place that holds some of L.A.'s most influential social history. There are over 30,000 individuals interred here, with veterans abound: from soldiers from the Mexican American War, to both Union and Confederate armed forces, to those lost in the Vietnam and Iran-Iraq War. In Evergreen's Section A, Lot 2720 lies the 1949 monument dedicated to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team: the all-Japanese American batallion and most decorated unit for its size in U.S. history. The 442nd Infantry would be remarkable for their service alone, but that they were drafted and fought for the U.S. while being incarcerated in World War II American concentration camps is mind boggling. Despite the fact that they were forcibly removed from their homes across California and parts of Oregon and Washington, then put into government camps for years, these second-generation Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in a segregated unit of the Army to fight fascism, both in Europe and Asia, and at home in the United States. Evergreen Cemetery is filled with such remarkable stories of activists, actors, city-builders and business people, and well worth exploring.

Patricia Wakida's father at Evergreen Cemetery's 442nd Monument | Courtesy of Patricia Wakida
Patricia Wakida's father at Evergreen Cemetery's 442nd Monument | Courtesy of Patricia Wakida

Walking distance from Evergreen is another Boyle Heights gem that harkens to its Japanese American past: Otomisan on East 1st Street, two blocks south of Soto (and just a stone's throw from the Metro Gold Line Soto station), purportedly to be Boyle Height's last Japanese restaurant. Founded in 1956, Otomisan offers Japanese comfort foods such as pork katsudon (fried cutlet over rice), soba noodles, and curry rice, in a cozy space that is reminiscent of a 1950s lunch counter crossed with a Japanese American grandparent's living room. The walls are hung with good luck talismans and a collection of ukiyo-e inspired noren curtains, and there almost always seems to be a copy of the LA Times resting on the front counter top, begging to be leafed through over a plate of hot tempura.

Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, deeply established Los Angeles Japanese Americans were given little to no warning to settle their accounts, sell businesses and inventory, pack and clean all belongings, and bundle up what few items they could carry to their unknown destinations.  Additionally, Japanese Americans were told to meet at particular locations to board the buses that would led them to their banishment, wearing tags bearing the government numbers issued them in exchange for their family names.  To commemorate the site where some 1,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu lined up to be transported to Manzanar War Relocation Center in April 1942, the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument was built on the northwest corner of Venice and Lincoln Boulevards. The 9′ 6″ tall solid black granite obelisk is a reminder of this gross loss of civil liberties in the name of national security, to remember those who once stood there, and then were suddenly gone.

Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery

Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery | Carmen/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery | Carmen/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Angelenos who have lived in the city for a few generations will be familiar with West L.A. as a major enclave of Japanese Americans, both pre- and post-war, populated with beloved bakeries, nurseries, Japanese gift stores and temples. More recently, a cluster of Japanese restaurants, markets, karaoke joints, and an anchoring art gallery/cultural institution known as Giant Robot helped petition to officially change the Sawtelle neighborhood to "Sawtelle Japantown," hoping to preserve some of the area's cultural identity, both past and present. One such establishment is the Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery, one of three remaining Japanese nurseries that still exist in the neighborhood. Established by George Yamaguchi in 1949, Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery was first located on Sawtelle Blvd. and Olympic Blvd before it moved and expanded in 1956 to its current location at 1905 Sawtelle Blvd. While nursery offers a myriad range of Japanese vegetable and herb seedlings such as kabocha squash, shishito peppers, green and purple shiso herbs, soybean edamame, and suyo cucumbers, it’s the bonsai selection that draw its specialty clientele. Yamaguchi Nursery carries all the supplies, nutrients, and tools to keep your miniature trees and shrubs healthy, but more importantly, they have the expertise to teach bonsai practitioners the fine art of exposing the essence of the tree.

White Point and Furusato fishing villages

In 1898, Ramon Sepulveda built housing and leased land in San Pedro to a group of 12 Japanese American fishermen, who began harvesting abalone. The Japanese called it the Furasato village, and they fished and harvested abundant sea life from the waters until the abalone supply diminished and the operation closed in 1906. The discovery of a sulfur hot spring led two brothers named Tojuro and Tamiji Tagami to build a Japanese-style ofuro, or bathhouse with Sepuleveda, building roads and digging out the springs, which would become the base of a major beach resort they named White Point Hot Springs. By 1925, the resort included a hotel, restaurant, salt water swimming pool and an enclosed boating area. The Tagamis continued to run the resort, were never granted ownership of the land due to California laws that prohibited Asian aliens to become citizens or to own land. The White Point Hot Springs resort finally closed in the late 1930s, and in February 1942, federal agents raided the surrounding Japanese fishing community in the wake of World War II. A few months later, all of the Japanese American residents had been rounded up and incarcerated in American concentration camps. The resort's buildings were torn down and became part of the nearby Fort MacArthur military defense complex.  In 1960, the state of California purchased the beach and it became the Royal Palms State Beach. There are but a few wind and sea wracked remains left of the White Point Hot Spring and hotel remaining on the rocky shores of Royal Palms beach, which still harbors excellent tidepools, surfing, and a children's playground.

Top Image: Tanabata festival lanterns | Chenjack/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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