By J. Matsuoka

At a hurriedly-called community meeting held at the Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo on May 12, 2003, officials of the City of Los Angeles, laid out their plans for a new Parker Center (police headquarter, detention center/jail, fire station and emergency center (bomb squad and anti-terror units). Considering that this Monday night meeting was publicized through word of mouth, the turnout of over two hundred citizens of Little Tokyo and the adjacent Art District reflected the serious concern of the community.

It was clear that the vast majority of those in the audience had doubts about the project. When a speaker asked for a show of hands of those who stood in opposition, the entire audience seemed to have their hands raised. City officials and architects appeared to deflate like punctured balls when it became apparent that community members were not buying what was being sold.

Initially, the apparent crux of the problem was that the proposed center would isolate the venerable Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple from the rest of Little Tokyo. With parking spaces in short supply and with all the activities (including a child care center) that this temple engages in, a major police center, with all of its security and access restrictions, would isolate Nishi from the body of Little Tokyo. The positioning of the jail next door to the Buddhist temple and their Child Care Programs sent a disquieting message to the parents and teachers of the children.

For members of the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and long time residents of Little Tokyo, a deeper and more compelling reason to oppose this city-imposed erosion of Little Tokyo is one steeped in our history. Many of us remember that a concerted effort was made to destroy and disperse the Japanese American community of Los Angeles during the 1940’s. In the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, Little Tokyo was “ethnically cleansed” as part of a plan to remove all “potential subversives” from the West Coast of America. Although some apologists for the government’s action would contend that this was militarily necessary, no such removal involving the German and Italian populations along the Eastern seaboard took place.

The government further followed it’s desire to destroy and disperse the Little Tokyos and Nihonmachis by encouraging people leaving the camps after the war to scatter to the Midwest and East Coast. The hope was that a concentration of Japanese would not again develop on the West Coast of America. The late Senator Hayakawa mirrored the thoughts of our government when he openly stated that the internment had its positive side because it broke up ethnic communities and forced people to assimilate with the general population. Hayakawa, being Canadian in origin, also mirrored the Canadian government’s view, which was clearly antagonistic toward any Japanese Canadians returning to Vancouver on the West Coast, and forbid them to do so for years following the end of the war.

This effort to destroy Little Tokyo during the war and immediately postwar worked to a limited degree. The community is nothing like it was during its “heyday” in the 1930’s. Gone are the residential areas of Little Tokyo that stretched south all the way to the produce markets along Eighth Street. Thousands of Japanese Americans used to call this area of Los Angeles “home.” “Little Tokyo” was an enclave of small houses, apartments and little hotels that were interspersed within the commercial areas. The case can be made that the Japanese living in Boyle Heights were a spillover of the larger Japanese community centered around Little Tokyo.

Planned or not, a major move that played into the desire to eliminate ethnic communities was the destruction of the “Northside” of Little Tokyo to make way for the Parker Center. This was a logical extension to the pattern of dismemberment that was fostered by those who felt threaten by a “Japanese,” enclave on American soil. Were it not for Japanese Americans’ renewed awareness of “community” and a movement to save what was left of Little Tokyo during the redevelopment years of the 1970’s, the effort to destroy and disperse our community would have been totally successful.

We are proud of the fact that our Issei pioneers chose to settle in this area of Los Angeles and that we lay claim to a history of some one hundred years as a “Little Tokyo,” one of the few remaining “hearts and souls” of Japanese American community in America. We need and want a center for Japanese American activities now and for the future. Not being exclusive, but inclusive, we invite all other Angelenos to participate and partake of our activities as part of their heritage also. We celebrate our culture and background as part of a multicultural society, a country that springs from many different origins but nonetheless is able to find itself as a single nation.

We do not want to be reduced to a small strip of commercial activities like an Olvera Street for the sake of the tourist industry. We must have a total living community! We need more residential housing! We need more affordable housing! We need activities that can attract and bring out our younger generation now scattered throughout Southern California back to Little Tokyo. We need a recreation center! We don’t need or want jails, nor do we want any institution in and around this community that is not compatible with it. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 partially redressed our lost liberties and rights as American citizens; we need to call upon the City of Los Angeles to help restore our Little Tokyo to its former prominence!

The Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress is firmly against any use of land in and around Little Tokyo that does not contribute to or enhance the prospects for the survival of this community! NCRR supports the Little Tokyo Community Council’s Vision of Little Tokyo as: 1) A Gathering Place/Destination for Japanese American community and culture 2) A Living and Thriving downtown Community 3) A Spiritual Place for Japanese Americans throughout Southern California 4) A Bridge to downtown. We call upon all our friends and supporters to help oppose the City’s proposed use of this land! We call upon Councilwoman Jan Perry to support the community’s demand that no jail be built next to the Nishi Hongwanji Temple.

Statement by the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (formerly the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations) a civil rights and redress organization founded in 1980.

Update from the Public Meeting on July 27

The community won an important victory when City Councilwoman Jan Perry announced at the “charett” on July 27 that the jail would not be built on the First and Alameda site next to the Nishi Hongwanji Temple; however, the majority of the community participants still insisted that not only the jail but also the police headquarters be placed together on another site, preferably the current Parker Center. The community voiced it strong preference for the area on First and Alameda to be a link for Little Tokyo, Nishi and the Arts District. The community also asked for involvement and input in every step of the city’s planning.