Growing up J-Town #JT-010

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n the summer of 2004, Dad died. Mom had passed on two years earlier in 2002, and now, there is really no compelling reason for me to return to Los Angeles. My brother still lives in LA and works at a museum dedicated to Japanese American history, but I am reluctant to disturb his seikatsu (activities of everyday life) rhythm. He has his own life, and I don’t want to just “drop in” as I used to when I visited my parents. Our collective home is not the same as our individual ones.

In any event, I was conscious of the fact that I would no longer be returning to LA with any great frequency and spent time visiting places I used to frequent: Atlantic Square, Santa Monica beach, the UCLA campus. However, the one place I wanted to spend quality time was an area near the LA Civic Center, Lil’ Tokyo.

In its heyday, the Japanese Americans–JAs or Buddha-heads, as we used to call ourselves–referred to the area as J-Town. The only one’s who called it Lil’ Tokyo were the Chamber of Commerce and the tourists that it relentlessly tried to attract. For us JAs, it was always J-Town, an abbreviation of Japanese Town, the term referring to our heritage and nothing else. Monikers such as Lil’ Tokyo or Japan Town, as the Japanese community is called in San Francisco, sounded too much like an attempt to recreate Japan. This was not where we hung out. J-Town was a community created by immigrant Japanese for themselves and for their descendants. It was our own little subculture in which we could feel safe, empowered. It was our place.

So I walked around the streets with my family, and visited some stores that have been in business since my own youth. But they were few and far between. I visited Bunkado–a shop filled with Japanese trinkets that also sold Japanese CDs–back in the day, it was 45s and LPs. I said “Hello” to the owner, Mrs. T, but she no longer recognized me and it seemed too much trouble to try to jog her memory for a mere thirty seconds of satisfaction. We also went to the former Yaohan–now called Mitsuwa, I think–but the entire second floor was closed and it was only a shell of its former self. I even visited the Japanese confection store where I had worked for so many years, but was chagrined to find not a single recognizable face. (It was later that I learned that Mrs. H had been feeling ill and visited her for the last time at her home.)

While it was a bit sad that there was little of the J-Town I remembered, I would be the first to recognize that things change, that nothing stays the same. However, it was distressing that the feel of the place had changed drastically. It seemed to have actually changed into “Lil’ Tokyo”. Virtually every store was owned by Japanese nationals who were obviously new to LA. There were few signs of Japanese Americans, of a presence that suggested that this place was a center for the Japanese American community.

There are, of course, the cosmetic signs: The Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Cultural Center. But these are relatively new structures created in a place that was historically Japanese American, and not necessarily populated by them now.

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