The Little Tokyo Historic District is a historic Japanese commercial district in downtown Los Angeles spanning from the 110 Freeway on the West to the LA River on the East, from the 101 Freeway on the north boundary to East 3rd Street on the south.
Japanese immigrants began settling in the district in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was the largest Japanese community in the United States. Today, the Little Tokyo Historic District represents the original commercial heart of the community.
Little Tokyo merges with the DTLA Arts District on its east side, creating a rich overlap of arts, community, and experiences. This timeline aims to thread together the historical events, activism, culture, politics, architecture, arts, and resilience that have shaped and defined the historic Little Tokyo neighborhood.
The area known as Little Tokyo was first settled in 1885, when a former sailor, Hamanosuke "Charles Hama" Shigeta, opened Kame Restaurant, the first-known Japanese-owned business in LA. It sat on East First Street between San Pedro Street and S. Central Ave and was enjoyed by the large numbers of Japanese immigrants that had concentrated in boarding houses around East First Street.
Centenary UMC was founded as “The Japanese Methodist Episcopal Mission of Los Angeles” by first-generation Issei immigrants in a house at 252 Winston Street. By 1925, the church was forced to relocate outside of Little Tokyo due to restrictive property ownership covenants. In the mid-1980s, Centenary returned to its home in Little Tokyo by securing property on Central Avenue and 3rd Street.Centenary DTLA
The Rafu Shimpo supported the small but growing Japanese community of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo. Before the Pacific War of 1941, it generally represented the views and interests of urban Issei (Japanese Immigrants to North America), creating a central place for the ethnic community's internal politics. Today, The Rafu Shimpo is the longest-running Japanese American newspaper in the United States.Rafu Shrimpo
The oldest business in Little Tokyo, Fugetsu-do Confectionary, continues to preserve the tradition of Japanese food culture in the U.S. by serving a range of Japanese sweets, including traditional mochi (rice cakes) and manju (steamed cakes). The origin of Fugetsu-do and Rafu Shimpo Newspaper are linked through mutual support of one another early in their establishment.Fugetsu-do Confectionery
Higashi Honganji, Hompa Hongwanji, St. Frances Xavier, Koyasan, Union Church, and Zenshuji Soto Mission Temple are founded during this period. The significance of ethnic churches is that they served as social centers and places of religious worship for the community.Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin
Characterized by four Ionic columns and three stained glass windows, The Union Church on 120 N. San Pedro Street was established to house the merger of three L.A.-based faith groups in the Japanese American community. Throughout its history, The Union Church benefitted the entire Japanese American community through its many programs.Union Church DTLA
Every August since 1934, this annual week-long festival organized by JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) celebrates Japanese American culture and heritage specific to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Initially established to attract the Nisei (2nd generation Japanese Americans), it features a Grand Parade, exhibits, food, and other festivities.Nisei Week
Amid the Great Depression, two cousins opened the Far East Cafe serving the finest Cantonese cuisine known as Chop Suey, from lunch to dinner to late evening. Their customers enjoyed a cozy dining atmosphere, including high ceilings, cherry wood booths, Shanghai cigarette girl posters, and a festive mezzanine. After World War II ended, Japanese Americans were freed from internment camps. Those returning to Little Tokyo were welcomed back by the Far East Cafe who offered room, board, and meals on credits. Having lost most, if not all of their possessions during the internment, this goodwill helped make the Far East cafe the most popular and well-known restaurant in the Japanese American community.History of Far East Cafe
Japanese internment during WWII changed Little Tokyo forever, with only 1/3 of its community remaining after the war. Property acquired by the city at this time would play roles in successive waves of development.
Feb 19, 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment camps were established with a sweeping Executive Order. With less than two weeks notice, all people of Japanese descent in the US were isolated to remote parts of the country, losing their personal freedoms, homes, businesses, possessions, and property.
Bronzeville refers to a brief three-year period when an influx of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south moved in and transformed Little Tokyo from an abandoned ghost town into a thriving, nocturnal neighborhood that fostered African American culture steeped in jazz and the arts. With the defense industry demanding workers in daytime and graveyard shifts, Little Tokyo/Bronzeville was bustling 24 hours a day. Many nightlife clubs stayed open well into the morning hours, giving rise to the term Breakfast Clubs.
Los Angeles and Bronzeville/Little Tokyo were rocked by a race riot spurred in part by racially tinged articles in mainstream newspapers targeting Latino youths wearing zoot suits. The 5-day rampage became known as the Zoot Suit Riots and turned the zoot suit fashion movement into the unofficial uniform of Mexican resistance among Latino youth.
As WWII ended, the fear of Japanese American citizens lifted. The Japanese internees were freed and left to rebuild their lives as best they could. Still, they faced two disadvantages: impoverishment — many had lost their businesses, occupations, and property — and lingering prejudice.
Despite its prevalence in sushi culture, the history of the California Roll is enigmatic, but not many people will argue that it originated here in Little Tokyo in the 1960s.History of the California Roll
East West Players was founded by nine Asian American artists seeking to create roles beyond the stereotypical parts offered by mainstream Hollywood. Today, they are one of three arts organizations housed in the Union Center for the Arts.East West Players
A revolutionary monthly newspaper-magazine that ran from 1969 to 1974, Girda was started by a group of Asian American students at UCLA as a platform to discuss Asian American interests on campus, later expanding to address the entire Los Angeles Asian American community.Gidra Media
The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) adopts the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project (LTRP). Throughout this relationship, Little Tokyo transformed into what we see today. The LTRP promised housing, a community center, office buildings, and a recreational center and extended Little Tokyo's boundaries to Los Angeles Street on the west and Alameda Street on the east, Third Street on the south, and just past First Street on the north.
A nonprofit visual arts and media organization, Visual Communications' mission is to develop and support the voices of Asian American & Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives. In 2020, it is one of three arts organizations currently housed in The Union Center for the Arts.Visual Communications
The Friends of Little Tokyo Arts (FOLTA) formed to promote the integration of art in the redevelopment of Little Tokyo. The first public art piece was installed in the New Otani Hotel, fulfilling a provision in the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project requiring developers to commit a half percent of the cost of new projects for landscaping or public art. Because of FOLTA, public art became a regular part of urban renewal in Little Tokyo.
The Japanese Village Plaza was a community effort to revitalize Little Tokyo after a period of decay. Since its inception, the outdoor mall, lined with cherry blossoms, has been filled with shops and eateries, most of them small business owners. The iconic tower at the plaza’s entrance is a replica of a traditional fire lookout tower in rural Japan. These towers played an important role in the identity of small Japanese communities since they were often the tallest and most visible structure in the area.Japanese Village Plaza
A group of Japanese Americans activists wanting to form a social service center to support multiple services formed Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) - an organization that aimed to provide linguistically and culturally sensitive social services to the communities of Little Tokyo and Japanese Americans in Southern California. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, LTSC began advocating for the housing rights of low-income residents.Little Tokyo Service Center
Founded by Japanese American artist and former UCLA art professor Lydia Takeshita in 1979, LA Artcore is an organization that focuses on providing exhibition space for emerging and unknown artists. They have hosted over 1,600 exhibits, established an in-house publication, Visions Art Quarterly, and created an International Exchange Program, among other work.LA Artcore
Japanese American Cultural & Community Center was the dream of visionary Issei and Nisei (first and second-generation) Japanese American pioneers to create a permanent center for the community where arts and culture come alive and can flourish for future generations. Completed in 1983, it features The George J. Doizaki Gallery, Japanese Cultural Room, conference and meeting rooms, office space for more than 20 nonprofit tenant organizations, and the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center, the 880-seat Aratani Theatre, the JACCC Plaza designed by Isamu Noguchi, and the award-winning James Irvine Japanese Garden.JACCC
Japanese American artists move into 800 Traction as some of the first live-work artist lofts in Downtown Los Angeles, continuing for decades to serve as an incubator for Japanese American artists, including Matsumi "Mike" Kanemitsu and brothers and video artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto.
Known as Seiryu-en or “Garden of the Clear Stream,” the garden is a hidden gem of Downtown Los Angeles. The award-winning garden features a 170 ft. stream flowing from a waterfall at the upper reaches of the garden, with blooming trees, foliage, and sounds of cascading water. Completed in 1980, the garden was constructed for the centennial celebration of the Japanese American community.James Irvine Garden
Shinkichi Tajiri’s Friendship Knot, which represents unity between two cultures, sits prominently at the entrance of Weller court on E. 2nd Street. The 18-foot tall fiberglass sculpture was jointly purchased by Friends of Little Tokyo Arts and the East West Development Corporation, whose portion of the contribution allowed them to meet their CRA/LA’s Percent for Art requirement. While the contemporary form of the Friendship Knot stands in stark contrast to the many of the retrospective public art pieces along historic East 1st Street, it reflects the community’s value of unity and looking to the future while not forgetting its past.Friendship Knot
A former police car warehouse in L.A.'s Little Tokyo Historic District and renovated by the noted California architect Frank Gehry, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (formerly The Temporary Contemporary) opened in 1983, offering 40,000 square feet of exhibition space.The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
The center opened in 1985 and became popular among Japanese American residents and Japanese visitors who patronized its popular supermarket, Japanese restaurants, a two-screen movie theater, and bowling alley.
First Street North is added to the National Registry of Historic Places for its statewide importance and is elevated to a National Historic Landmark in 1995 for its national importance.
In 1986, on its tenth mission, the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger blew apart some 73 seconds after lifting off. All seven astronauts aboard died in the explosion, including Ellison S. Onizuka, NASA's first Asian and Japanese American Astronaut who was 39. To commemorate the first Japanese American astronaut, the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Board raised funds and civic support to create a monument which was erected in 1990 in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court. The 1/10th scale model of the Challenger now stands 27 feet tall on the street of his namesake.Ellison S. Onizuka Monument
The Go For Broke Monument stands as a tribute to the 33,000 Japanese Americans soldiers who fought during World War II while their friends, family and communities were imprisoned during the Japanese Internment. The black granite monument located adjacent to the Japanese American National Museum commemorates these soldiers, signifying the sacrifices they made to prove their loyalty to the United States and to secure the rights and freedoms of future generations.Go For Broke Monument
The Japanese American National Museum was created to preserve the positive aspects, full history and culture of Japanese Americans in the United States. It’s mission is to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience. In 1992, the museum opened in the historic Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, helping to anchor the historic commercial district. Its new building was completed in 1999.Japanese American National Museum
A sculpture of a camera inviting visitors to peer inside sits in the plaza west of the Japanese American National Museum, on the path to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. It's plaque explains:
“First-generation Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake (1895) opened his photography studio in Little Tokyo in 1923 and spent the rest of his life documenting his community's life on film. When Miyatake, his family and 120,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II, Miyatake bravely smuggled a camera lens and a film plate, considered contraband, into the Manzanar concentration camp in California. Using a secretly-constructed camera, he captured everyday life in Manzanar. Artist Nobuho Nagasawa created a three-times-as-large bronze replica of the Miyatake camera in homage to Toyo Miyatake. The sculpture projects slides of Miyatake's work onto a window of the Japanese American National museum each evening.”
The landmarked area consists of thirteen buildings from the original pre-World War II commercial heart of Little Tokyo located along E. 1st Street between San Pedro Street and Central Ave, anchored between the Union Church and the Japanese American National Museum.
The entire stretch of sidewalk designated as Historic Little Tokyo along E. 1st Street features a 1030 x 8ft public art piece created by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in collaboration with Sonya Ishii. The sidewalk is embedded with images, text, and names of vanished businesses, documenting memories of the neighborhood collected from the residents who lived there. Some of these include an image of an apple pie, a stack of suitcases, a mail package, a bamboo basket, a wood crate, a detention packet, a cloth-tied bundle, names of old businesses, and written memories. While the Japanese American experience is often discussed as a whole, this piece documents real memories that are individualized, personalized, and transformed into a symbolic and textual record of experiences that shaped the community.Omoide No Shotokyo
Since its construction in 1923, this building at the northwesternmost end of the Little Tokyo Historic District has worn many hats. The Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation completed a multi-million dollar renovation of the building in 1998 funded by the City of Los Angeles, making it the Union Center for the Arts. It now houses three arts organizations, EastWest Players, Visual Communications, and LA Artcore, and is a successful example of adaptive reuse.Union Center for the Arts
Little Tokyo Community Council founded The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO), established in 1999 to revitalize the downtown center and bring much-needed housing to the area. By providing development incentives to convert existing, economically obsolete buildings into apartments, condos, and hotel rooms, developers were encouraged to invest in downtown, leading to its resurgence.
The colorful 40ft x 16ft mural on the corner of Central Ave and 1st Street is titled Home is Little Tokyo. It acts as a visual metaphor of Little Tokyo’s history. A little girl stands in the forefront, banging a guard tower from WWII internment camps. Charlie Parker plays the saxophone beside taiko drummers to represent the arrival of African American culture in the ‘40s. The central image is of an older woman lighting candles with two children, noting a tradition to remember the unjust treatment of marginalized groups throughout world history. Ideas for the mural came directly from community members who later painted alongside muralists Tony Osumi, Sergio Diaz, and Jorge Diaz.Home is Little Tokyo
Sustainable Little Tokyo began in 2013 as a community outreach and engagement effort in response to the LA Metro’s Regional Connector project. Continuing today, it is a community-driven initiative focusing on environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability to ensure a healthy, equitable, and culturally rich Little Tokyo for generations to come.Sustainable Little Tokyo
OOMO, meaning "Out of Many, One," is a public sculpture on Central Avenue at East 1st Street by artist Nicole Maloney. A steel and aluminum pole-mounted Rubik's Cube with photographic panels and internal lighting features the faces of 30 Angelenos. The focus on the eyes, noses, and mouths as individual pieces is intended to emphasize the basic similarities among all people. The oversized interactive art piece represents the oneness of humanity and encourages people to "stand in awe instead of in judgment."Oomo Cube
Little Tokyo is named a California Cultural District by the California Arts Council, calling it “a vital Los Angeles cultural community with more than 130 years of profound history.” The 150-acre district is among the ranks of cultural districts that are recognized for their distinct cultural diversity and vibrant experiences.