BY MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS AND SAMANTHA MASUNAGA
RAFU STAFF WRITERS
An iconic symbol of Little Tokyo, the yagura at the entrance of Japanese Village Plaza has stood near First Street for almost 30 years, representing the area’s cultural significance.
Designed in 1983 by architect David Hyun, the structure was intended to emulate wooden fire towers in Japan.
But with age, came problems.
The tower was plagued with termites and wood rot, which threatened the structural integrity of the icon.
But while the damage was detected long ago, the apparent solution only made the problem worse, said Bob Iannessa, senior manager of Japanese Village Plaza.
“We discovered that where termites had eaten cavities into the supports, someone over the years had filled the holes with newspaper and simply painted over it,” he said.
As a result, the new owners of the Plaza, American Commercial Equities, decided to rebuild the structure, a plan that will come to fruition on Aug. 13, when the new steel structure will be completed.
The grand re-opening of Japanese Village Plaza will be held a day later, at the start of Nisei Week, and will feature a ribbon-cutting event attended by local officials, community leaders and the Japanese Consul General, Iannessa said.
“We look forward to (the new tower) because it’s kind of a landmark for Little Tokyo,” said Terry Hara, past president of the Nisei Week Foundation. “It’s a positive to have it come back.”
Some local business owners also said they welcomed the addition, in spite of the construction and noise close to their establishments.
“ I think the minor inconveniences are not that significant,” said Curtis Moyer, manager of Oomasa restaurant. “We’re looking forward to a more structurally sound tower.”
Moyer said the previous owners of the Plaza did not maintain the yagura and could never get the color scheme to correspond with the tower’s counterparts in Japan.
As a result, he said he looked forward to the new owners’ renovations to the entire Plaza.
“Aesthetics make our shop, as well as the entire Plaza, more appealing to tourists… and regular clientele,” he said.
Installation of the tower’s vertical supports began on Tuesday, Iannessa said, adding that the steel was fabricated in Utah and trucked to Los Angeles over three days. The new structure will be painted the same deep red as its predecessor and will be fitted with extensive lighting to highlight its place at the First Street gateway to the Plaza, Iannessa said.
But in spite of these new changes, Iannessa said the Plaza’s owners carefully examined the yagura’s historical and community value.
“We thought about what it symbolized, what it meant to the people who live and work here, and for whom this area holds a cultural significance,” he said. “From city government materials to postcards and t-shirts, the tower is a symbol, an icon of Little Tokyo.”
Similarly, he said American Commercial Equities took ownership of the Plaza in 2007 with a commitment to continue its traditions and with the full knowledge of what it meant to the community.
Nevertheless, the sale of the village took place at a time when many properties in Little Tokyo were being sold to non-Japanese buyers, prompting some in the community to worry that the neighborhood was losing its Japanese heritage.
To assuage these fears, Iannessa said the renovations have taken Japanese sensibilities into account and improvements have been made to the security of the parking structure, water and electrical systems, as well as to the lighting and landscaping.
Even the configuration of Japanese characters on signs outside of the Plaza underwent revisions, following community input, he said.
Iannessa added that the protection of the Plaza’s cultural integrity and identity is his first priority, and that he will oppose any effort to turn the area into a retail clone, filled with chain stores and national fast food restaurants.
“The last thing you’ll see on this property is the Colonel, I can guarantee you that,” he said.