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Does Race Play a Role in the Struggle to Save Little Tokyo?

Pacific Citizen, News report , Lynda Lin Posted: Jul 19, 2008

The sale of yet another landmark in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo didn't surprise Keizo Shimamoto. The Shin Nisei from Diamond Bar, Calif. knew a different, more vibrant Nihonmachi of the past, so it wasn't a shock to hear that investors had snatched up the Little Tokyo Shopping Center and plan to change its ethnic identity.

"I always expected something like this to happen, especially with the increasing Korean population living in the newly developed housing in the area," said Shimamoto, 30.

The shopping center's new Korean American owners reportedly plan to convert the three-story structure located at 333 South Alameda Street into a Korean-themed or more mainstream center, the group's real estate broker told the Los Angeles Times.

And almost overnight it was all about race and ethnicity - like the community's struggle to maintain its historic character became a symbol of the area's interethnic tension. An article in the Los Angeles Business Journal attempted to illustrate the friction with its headline, "Sushi to Kimchi." And Angelenic.com took it a step further with their online entry titled, "Little Seoul Mall? New owners to evict Japanese businesses."

But for many community members like Shimamoto, it wasn't a surprise that the once thriving shopping center - a monolithic gray structure better known as its old name Yaohan Plaza - needed a change. The once popular destination has become a shadow of its former self with seemingly more vacant retail space and "For Lease" signs than patrons.

Seeing the shopping center return to its glory would be nice, said Shimamoto, but not at the cost of abolishing its Japanese roots.

On the heels of other controversial landmark sales in both Los Angeles' and San Francisco's J-Towns, many see this sale as another possible threat to Little Tokyo's identity. But how big of a role does race really play in the current struggle for space?

Spotlight on Ethnicity

In business, sales like these happen all the time, said Shimamoto. "To sit here and say that it is totally unacceptable for this Korean American company to come in and do what they want with the plaza they purchased would be a bit selfish don't you think?"

In the last few years, JA community members have grappled with shifting identities. 3D Investment, a private Beverly Hill, Calif.-based real estate developer, scooped up holdings in both Los Angeles' and San Francisco's J-Towns. Coffee giant Starbucks was prevented from inhabiting space between San Francisco's manju and origami paper shops. But in Los Angeles, Starbucks anchors Little Tokyo in two spots. In between, other retail chains like Subway and Pinkberry have also staked their claim.

The shopping center's $35.5 million sale is like an extra straw on the camel's back, said Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.

With 3D, much of the controversy focused on the company's huge presence in two of the last three J-Towns in California. Petitions were launched to demand accountability from 3D. Amidst the fray there was no mention - at least not on the surface - of 3D's ethnicity.

In contrast, the Korean heritage of the shopping center's new owners has been a focus point.
"That's the worst part of this whole thing," said Craig Ishii, JACL PSW regional director. "Everyone is saying, 'did you hear that the mall was bought out by Koreans?' When in reality people should be saying, 'did you hear the mall was bought out?'"

With 3D, the focus was not on ethnicity but on their commitment to the community, said Ishii. "It should be the same for this situation as well."

But Watanabe said ethnicity is not a factor here either. Developer Richard Meruelo, who bought the shopping center in 2000, was not JA.

"It's the same concern the community had back then - will [the new owners] be sensitive to the community?"

And so far, the new owners have been far from sensitive.

The group apparently refused to identify itself publicly and announced plans to possibly convert the plaza's ethnic identity through its real estate agent in a newspaper article.

"We were surprised," said Chris Aihara, chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. 
"We're hoping to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with the new owners and give them some background on Little Tokyo."

Representatives from Coldwell Bankers Commercial did not respond to the Pacific Citizen's request for comment.

The move also left many tenants wondering about their future in the shopping center. Other than an official notice about where to send the rent check, Frances Hashimoto has not heard from the new owners. Hashimoto owns Mikawaya, a Japanese pastry shop located in front of Mitsuwa Market on the shopping center's first floor.

She worries about Little Tokyo's cultural identity.

"I welcome all the new residents and businesses regardless of their ethnicity but this area has been Little Tokyo for 124 years," said Hashimoto. "In a diverse Los Angeles, being Little Tokyo makes this area unique and identifiable. Why would anyone try to change that?"

Korean Americans in J-Towns

Korean American presence in J-Towns is nothing new. Today, Korean American businesses share space in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Many of the Korean Americans who have bought the properties in J-Towns are post-1965 immigrants, said Dr. Sachiko Kotani from Kyoto University.

Kotani, who researched the role of Korean Americans in San Francisco's J-Town, also attributes the trend to Korea's postcolonial association with Japan. Although most of today's Korean American business owners are not directly influenced by Japan's past colonization of Korea, Kotani found that linguistic and cultural familiarity with Japan have been passed onto the next generations.

"So, I am seeing Korean merchants in Japantown as deterritorializing and reterritorializing postcolonial agents who are part of constructing the world's contemporary Japanese marketing space," said Kotani.
Korean tenants she interviewed in San Francisco's Nihonmachi said they wanted to do business in J-Town, but had no intention of changing its symbolic images to take over the space.

"One of their repeated phrases was 'Japantown is Japantown,'" said Kotani.

The trend will continue, she said about Korean Americans in J-Towns. But other new trends are burgeoning in the JA communities - including the multicultural draw of Japanese pop culture like Anime to preserve and revitalize J-Towns.

Preserving Nihonmachi

"I think it's complicated honestly," said Aihara about the role of race in the shopping center sale. "There is a deep relationship ... there are a lot of shared experiences both positive and strained."

But other businesses in Little Tokyo have changed ownership very quietly over the years including the Japanese Village Plaza, which was purchased last year by Malibu-based American Commercial Equities.

"I think change is here. Little Tokyo is a more multicultural community with new tenants and residents that are not Japanese. But there it's still an important historical neighborhood with a lot of meaning," said Aihara.

The small community has a lot of personal meaning for Sansei Jenni Kuida, whose connection stretches back to post-war Little Tokyo when her father's family returned from the Gila River internment camp to find their farmhouse torn down. They lived at Koyasan Buddhist Temple for three weeks.

Now Kuida is a constant presence in Little Tokyo. She works here, plays here and sends her daughter Maiya Kuida-Osumi to a nearby preschool to learn JA culture, and occasionally walks down First Street for a mochi indulgence at the 105-year-old Fugetsu-Do.

J-Town goes hand in hand with what it means to be Japanese American, said Kuida. "And even if we don't live in Little Tokyo, it is still meaningful and symbolizes a part of my family's and the community's history; and that's kind of what I want to share with my daughter, Maiya."

Although the shopping center is a part of Little Tokyo, its isolated location on the corner of Third and Alameda Streets has also made it exempt from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency design guidelines - which requires buildings in this neighborhood to reflect its historic JA theme.

Community leaders are working with the city to create a Community Design Overlay (CDO) that may include the site of the shopping center, said Karen Yamamoto of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

But the proposed CDO would likely not be put in place until 2010, added Aihara. 
For now, community leaders say they are in a wait-and-see mode with the new shopping center's owners.

"We are going to invite them to come to community forums," said Watanabe. "We'll start there. If they blow us off then we'll go from there."

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