LITTLE TOKYO, INC.: The Business of Japanese America



(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 31, 2010.)


At the urging of many friends and business associates, I am introducing a new column to the Rafu Shimpo readership, called, “Little Tokyo, Inc.”

Over the past few years, the future of Little Tokyo and of the Japanese American community has been an issue of debate and community angst. “Outside,” non-Japanese American interests have bought significant properties in Little Tokyo. The whole ethnic make-up of Little Tokyo has changed. Seemingly, Little Tokyo’s future is being defined by those who have no shared history or common interest in our Japanese American heritage or culture.

However, our survival and growth as a unique ethnic community (like many others) is based on our ability to adapt, innovate and embrace the ever-changing economy. Can Little Tokyo and Japanese America be a net generator of new, cutting edge jobs? What sort of jobs?

Change is all around us. Forty years ago, the “new source” of Little Tokyo’s redevelopment was Japan, via the Government of Japan and Japanese corporations. With the departure of the Consulate General of Japan to Bunker Hill and the sale of the Hotel New Otani and Weller Court, what’s next?

Can Little Tokyo play a role in new, emerging industries, such as “New” media,  Green technology, education, Food production, biotechnology, or fashion?  Can Little Tokyo serve as a new center for business, utilizing proximity to Union Station, the transportation hub of Southern California; East Los Angeles, the Arts District, Civic Center, Financial District LA Live and Staples Center?

Or, will Little Tokyo simply be a name on a map, with the last vestiges of a community represented by those few remaining Japanese temples, churches, community centers and museums?

These are, of course, questions that are being wrestled-with on a daily basis.  However, I believe that Little Tokyo needs an economic development plan, to no longer view itself as a victim of eminent domain by government interests or the threat of takeover by “outsiders.” Instead, “Little Tokyo, Inc.” will solicit and offer a range of observations and opinions.  We will define our own future on our terms.

To more-fully understand our future, requires recognition of our common past. I believe that our community’s advantage, our unique business DNA, goes back to the Issei and Nisei commercial history, a relatively unknown and lightly-researched area of our legacy. It may be that our future will be defined by already-demonstrated survival skills, and a plan based on equal parts of innovation, aggregate business acumen, calculated risk-taking and “gaman.”

What went through the minds of the Issei as they first stepped onto American soil and ran the gauntlet of racism and discrimination? Meiji-era Japan forced many Issei to seek work wherever it was offered, including in the United States. The United States needed to fuel infrastructure expansion.  The Empire of Japan had a source of cheap, well-disciplined and ready labor.

The first wave of Issei worked under contracts negotiated between  Japanese trading companies and American business interests. Issei worked the fields, lay the tracks for the railroads and enter the mines, as did many other first-generation immigrant groups. The Issei represented Japan’s first “foreign direct investment” in the United States.

The Issei were able to find wives (many via the “picture bride” arrangement) and start families. Their Nisei children were full American citizens. Assuming that there were better economic opportunities in the United States than back in Japan, the Issei created their own opportunities by identifying  niche markets and, consequently, new West Coast industries.

In agriculture, entire Japanese American families transformed unwanted land into irrigated, productive acreage. They analyzed and improved on cultivation methods, harvesting, packing, shipping and distribution. Issei businessmen provided both debt and equity via “tanomoshi” finance groups along with banks who found the Issei to be excellent credit risks, and underwrote the costs of seed, labor, trucks, packing boxes, along with every product and service needed to facilitate expansion.

From farms to the stalls at the central markets and to the consumer, Issei created a multi-billion dollar economy, dominating the truck farming and fishing industries. Best practices and technological advances were shared throughout the community via the network of Issei farm cooperatives, the central markets up and down the West Coast, the “kenjinkai’s” and other community organizations.
From Seattle to the Puyallup Valley, along the Hood River to Portland, in San Francisco, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, the Imperial Valley, from Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Oxnard, Santa Monica, Torrance and Palos Verdes into Orange and San Diego Counties, from Terminal Island inland to the San Fernando, San Gabriel Valley into Riverside, the Issei had accomplished an amazing, entrepreneurial feat. These businesses were major employers, adding significant tax revenue to state and municipal coffers.

Tragically, Pearl Harbor and the Evacuation led to the ultimate “hostile takeover,” resulting in the destruction of the West Coast Japanese American economy. The Evacuation became a convenient smoke-screen for racist business interests to convert the Japanese American economic machine at the “cost” of paying delinquent property tax payments or by simply taking possession as soon as the last buses to the concentration camps disappeared over the horizon.

Unlike American government subsidies given to Japan and Germany after the war, there was no “Marshall Plan” for Japanese America. The Nisei, who returned from the concentration camps with only $25 and a one-way bus ticket, re-invented Japanese America through a superhuman commitment to higher education, hard work and sacrifice.  Our community’s second wave of success is a testament to discipline, hard work and tenacity. Nisei veterans made the best use of the GI Bill, using the funds to pay for university and trade school tuition.

A number of Nisei, no doubt urged by their Issei parents to seek a “safe” career, entered into the aerospace and defense industries, government-subsidized industries during the Cold War, or sought careers in accounting, health care, insurance, and government.  Others sought to rebuild businesses in agriculture.  A few decided to use their bilingual abilities to work with fledgling Japanese companies seeking to enter into the American market, working for automotive, consumer electronic and other manufacturers. “Made in Japan,” eventually became the epitome of manufacturing excellence.

The challenge for the Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei? How can we best leverage the resources and history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese American commercial platform? What role will the region’s research and development infrastructure (USC, UCLA, CalTech, UCI, Art Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Los Angeles Air Force Base) have in our future via technology transfer and commercialization opportunities?

Can Little Tokyo be a center of global innovation? Does our ability to assimilate into mainstream American society, while balancing our unique cultural pride and integrity, coupled with our success in building multi-ethnic coalitions (e.g. the pre-War Boyle Heights community and the Redress effort) create the right environment? Can Little Tokyo fully-utilize ethnic diversity as a vehicle to globalize Japanese American products and services via the network of ethnic communities and their local consulates?

Should there be a 21st century version of the Issei “tanomoshi” financial network, in which JA-sourced venture capital and the “Old Guard” of retired Nisei and Sansei executives and entrepreneurs can serve as advisors and mentors for new Yonsei and Gosei-managed start-ups?

Can Little Tokyo Inc. identify and mentor Latino, Asian and African-American entrepreneurs, application and game developers, and provide a true “color-blind” merit-based start-up incubator?

Here’s some clues. On a recent evening in Little Tokyo, as I stood in line for the “Gogi truck,” (look it up!) I was taken by the mix of night denizens that make up the J-Town street life.  Young.  Hip.  An ethnic mix. Lines of people outside of Starbucks at 2nd and Central, the shabu-shabu restaurant in JVP, the Edison.

I could overhear the “buzz,” new jobs, decorating my new apartment in the Arts District, course work at FIDM. Catching the Lakers game at Staples. i-Phones and Skype. Buzz, buzz, buzz…

It’s not Shanghai, or Seoul, or Shibuya, but Little Tokyo definitely has that same vibe going.

Let’s make the most of it!

Jonathan Kaji is president of Kaji and Associates, a real estate development firm. The opinions and ideas expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.


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