In the midst of the overwhelming COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives, my wife Qris Yamashita and I, as Japanese Americans, have wrestled with our conflicting interests and emotions.
On one hand, we accept that our physical well-being as seniors (who can see 70 just over the horizon) depends on avoiding this highly contagious and possibly deadly disease. We understand that our best defense, since no one has immunity to the new coronavirus, is to avoid any close interactions with other people. We have been told by our relatives and friends to plant ourselves in our house and stay there for as long as it takes.
On the other hand, besides the emotional toll this is having on us, feeling like we are under indefinite “house arrest,” we are also concerned about our Japanese American community in general and Little Tokyo in particular. As someone who has worked most of his adult life in our historic district, it breaks my heart that our need to shelter at home helps to undermine everything our Issei and Nisei generations established and perpetuated. And they managed through the Great Depression, World War II, redevelopment and decades of discrimination.
Little Tokyo, after all, is not just a handful of blocks next to the Civic Center. It is a neighborhood composed of family businesses and churches and temples and residents. It is a concentrated space characterized by our nonprofit organizations that aim to preserve and share our Nikkei arts, culture and history. It is the place where our greater community congregates for Nisei Week and Obon and Oshogatsu. Little Tokyo is where I can literally walk in the footsteps of my father and grandfather.
Fortunately, there are ways individuals can support Little Tokyo without actually visiting. For instance, since Metro has been overseeing construction of its Regional Connector light rail system that includes Little Tokyo, it has also been providing marketing funds as a mitigation for the disruptions caused by the many street closures. The Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) manages the marketing money and it contracted Community Arts Resources (CARS) to develop a campaign to serve the Little Tokyo businesses during construction.
The Go Little Tokyo project emerged from this partnership. It includes a website (golittletokyo.org) featuring profiles of the local businesses and their owners and updates on events, festivals and Regional Connector construction schedule. Go Little Tokyo also developed a new food event, Delicious Little Tokyo, and helped to promote holiday shopping around Christmas and New Year’s.
Given the current abnormal situation, LTCC (for which I serve as a board member) and Go Little Tokyo and other community organizations, like the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA), have begun to organize and share information in support of the businesses and nonprofits. LTCC, LTSC and Go Little Tokyo have reached out to the small business owners, encouraging them to use social media and other technology to reach their customers. Restaurants can still provide take-out and delivery and merchants can still sell online. Many nonprofits were forced to cancel their vital fundraising events, but it is still possible to support them with direct donations.
To see a current list of Little Tokyo businesses that are still operating, go to https://littletokyola.org/lovelt.
As for my wife and me, we have been negotiating our “cabin fever” with short trips to the pharmacy and market, wearing our masks and avoiding close contact. Recently, we also have been supporting our community’s restaurants by ordering take-out. Because business for these restaurants is down, parking is easy and pickup and payment is fast.
I suppose we could avail ourselves of some sort of delivery service. But we find a short drive breaks our feelings of isolation. And some interactions with the people who run their restaurants is our way of directly expressing our continued support for them and what they do. Our hope is this will help, in some small way.
Are we putting our health and the health of others, if we have unknowingly contracted COVID-19, in danger with our take-out trips? Possibly. We are pretty careful and conscientious, but nothing is guaranteed. We don’t go out every day and we only visit one establishment in a day.
I suppose I feel we are in this together for the long haul. No one can really say how long this will last and how bad it will get. Our Japanese American history tells us that we can survive these situations if we work together and support each other. We can’t be reckless or selfish, no matter our motivations. But I encourage everyone to consider how they can be supportive in this extraordinary moment.
We love Little Tokyo and we want it to continue to be there for generations to come. If enough people feel that way, we can make that happen.