Little Tokyo: A Community of Fading Tradition
By Anjelina Nieto and Anabel Howery, AAJA JCamp 2022 — Los Angeles
Up a narrow stairway, hidden above the street bustle of Little Tokyo, lies a largely unexplored corner of this popular Los Angeles tourist district. That is where Dane Ishibashi, surrounded by book-lined shelves of Japanese literature, displays the treasures of his heritage.
Sitting at a small wooden desk, Ishibashi started telling his story. It’s a story of generations. A story of immigration. A story that honors the very same ancestors immortalized in black and white photos surrounding him. He’s the latest generation to work in the Japanese gift shop that has been in his family for decades.
Little Tokyo, home to hundreds of Japanese family-owned shops, is changing quickly and in drastic ways, business owners said. It is one of three remaining historic Japantowns left in the nation, according to the Little Tokyo community council, emerging at a time when Japanese immigrants were pushed into ethnic enclaves because of racism and to survive.
The community and business district have long attracted tourists and non-Japanese intrigued by the culture, its food, entertainment, and billion-dollar comic book and animation media. They come in droves to explore the tiny shops, where millions of customers pour into its narrow streets to buy everything from figurines to video games. The community has prospered.
But all that popularity has also brought many non-Japanese national brands into their streets seeking to take advantage of the location, its atmosphere, and cash in. All of a sudden, the little Japanese gift shop disappears, replaced by a bigger company that can pay rising rents and sell expensive merchandise. Natives said they are concerned that the changing business landscape is beginning to erase the established culture created and nourished by Little Tokyo’s original shop owners, who settled in the town 135 years earlier.
And what is lost are the stories, the culture forged in adversity, and the cohesion that has for more than a century defined Little Tokyo and helped it weather its worst moments.
“In a lot of ways, it’s cool to see a Jamaican restaurant or Korean barbeque restaurant,” Ishibashi said. “But I understand my grandma’s generation, they’re like, ‘What happened,’ you know?”
Gentrification yields no easy answers, he said. It’s a fact of life, but for Ishibashi who is wedged between generations, it’s a tension he’s learned to live with. He said he wondered if there is not some way to achieve a better symbiosis between the new and the old in Los Angeles.
“There’s a balance that I think could be kept between, maintaining the spirit of Little Tokyo, versus, progressing into new businesses,” Ishibashi said. “I don’t think certain businesses care much about that aspect of it.”
On the opposite side of Ishibashi’s shop, a tunnel takes visitors to the Little Tokyo Mall, where Dreamland Maid Cafe, a pop-up business, opened on June 10. They offer unique Japanese-style food and desserts to customers while entertaining them in elaborate maid costumes — a commercialized version of a Japanese experience.
Set inside a cafe of vibrant pinks, customers are surrounded by flashing lights, booming music, and balloons. The cafe has attracted a large audience in a short amount of time. Groups of maids perform cutesy dances and wave neon light sticks to music, which come along with the dining experience. The shop’s style is influenced by all things adorably Japanese known as kawaii culture.
Marina Young-Meyers is the founder, owner, and CEO of Dreamland Café, where she sought a community that would accept her unique business and allow it to prosper.
“[W]e’re in Little Tokyo, which is the hub for Japanese American culture in LA, if not in the entire state. So it made a lot of sense to be here,” she said. “And I knew that the people here were going to be the ones to understand what’s going on and to appreciate what we’re doing.”
Young-Meyers’ business represents a new kind of Japanese-adjacent business co-opting the culture and place to introduce experiences customers rarely find in Los Angeles.
“If I did this 5 years ago, it might have been a completely different audience or reaction, but nowadays… people are really into this stuff and they’re open to it,” she added. “People are starting to understand kawaii culture. It’s family-friendly, it’s not sexual. It’s just fun and cute.”
What once would’ve been odd is now an appreciated part of Japanese trends and culture. The cafe mirrors how the culture has evolved but is often not considered traditional to Little Tokyo and Japanese American life, Ishibashi said.
Looking past the fun trinkets and delicious food, gentrification has arrived in Little Tokyo. Decades of endurance and tenacity from the Japanese family-owned businesses were recognized by a wave of Japanese culture enthusiasts in recent years. Due to this sudden popularity, other enterprises have taken interest in seizing a share of the profit, piggybacking off of the success of the town’s founders. Although this surge of businesses foreign to the community allows for diversity, it can also displace numerous Japanese-owned stores.
Back at the gift shop, Ishibashi walked down the same stairway to Bunkado’s entrance. There, he grabbed three picture postcards of the same ancestors who hovered above him upstairs. He pointed at the picture of a young Japanese couple — the first generation in Little Tokyo. Another photo showed the second generation, a young Japanese man with a simple, yet somber expression in a military uniform and beret. The last postcard was of his auntie, smiling softly with bold red lipstick and holding a vintage Japanese vinyl.
Ishibashi sells these postcards from his trinket store so customers can leave with a piece of Little Tokyo history.