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How a New Anti-Gentrification Group in Little Tokyo Is Fighting to Prevent the Erasure of Japanese History in L.A.

In the same week that Little Tokyo Cosmetics—a 50-year-old legacy business credited with introducing Shiseido to American consumers—closed its doors in Japanese Village Plaza, an American apparel brand called Mokuyobi Threads announced that it would be moving into the historic shopping and dining center to sell its collections of tees and backpacks under its misspelled Japanese name and appropriated Tokyo influences.  

J-TOWN Action と Solidarity wants to halt Mokuyobi from moving in. 

“[Mokuyobi] is showing the ways that art and culture and design can be weaponized in gentrification,” says Ana Iwataki, cultural worker and organizer with J-TOWN Action と Solidarity. Though the group is new, many of its members have organized with each other in Little Tokyo long enough to be familiar with the harmful effects of “artwashing,” like Mokuyobi’s blithe arrival as a creative brand.

“We want to show that artists and cultural workers don’t have to be complicit, and there’s a way to make creative work that does engage with the community and is for the community,” says Iwataki.

Mokuyobi Threads’s owner and creative director Julie Pinzur did not respond to L.A. Taco’s requests for comment. 

Photo courtesy of J-TOWN Action と Solidarity.

At the root of J-TOWN Action と Solidarity’s anger is a deep-set mission to use their knowledge and expertise for good. Its membership is comprised of artists and cultural workers who have intimate linkages to Little Tokyo. One of the group’s most vocal members is Filmmaker Zen Sekizawa; her family owned legendary diner Atomic Cafe, a popular fixture for locals and punk rock aficionados until it closed its doors in 1989. The cafe was displaced twice in Los Angeles history due to racial covenants that would move Japanese-owned businesses around various blocks to accommodate for a shrinking Little Tokyo. 

“I have these ties to Little Tokyo in so many different ways that it’s nice for me to come back as an adult with the work that I’m doing now and apply it to how I can help this community,” says Sekizawa. 

Nowadays, Sekizawa wants to center her work around her houseless neighbors. She befriended Theo Henderson, housing rights activist and ‘We the Unhoused’ podcaster, through Chinatown Community for Equitable Development’s work to address the inhumane practices of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District. Since then, she has brought ideas to fellow artists in Little Tokyo to leverage their identities and expertise to shift the narrative about the unhoused population in Los Angeles.

Sekizawa and Iwataki see clear parallels between the City’s ordinances to criminalize homelessness and the executive orders that led to Japanese Angelenos’ incarceration and displacement during and after World War II. As a result, J-TOWN Action と Solidarity wants their core community work to be rooted in mutual aid. In partnership with Henderson and his ‘We the Unhoused’ endeavors, the group began its weekly “power up” station on 1st and Judge Also Streets, where their unhoused neighbors can charge mobile devices and pick up meals and snacks.

When Fukushima and LTCC welcome new businesses into the neighborhood, they also remind them of one thing: “Take off your shoes.” It isn’t just a precious slogan; it is a plea to developers and new businesses to honor the foundation on which the neighborhood is built.

The collective will continue their mutual aid work for as long as there is food- and housing-insecure people who have been displaced and forced out of their homes nearby due to real estate development. The juxtaposition between the scramble for survival and businesses like Mokuyobi Threads moving into the community without addressing the community’s concerns is what fuels Sekizawa and Iwataki to keep fighting.   

While small legacy businesses are getting pushed out of their space through rent increases and lack of disaster relief during a pandemic, Mokuyobi secured space inside Japanese Village Plaza as well as a kiosk outside the entrance of Weller Court. The entities that manage both properties are well known in Los Angeles for wielding influence on the city’s shape and character. American Commercial Equities, a subsidiary of Public Storage that raised the rent on Little Tokyo Cosmetics, leading them out of their space, also owns land in consumer-driven parts of Southern California: 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Fairfax and Melrose Avenues in West Hollywood, and Larchmont Village in Mid-City. Weller Court’s landlord is real estate developer George Peykar. He had a revealing year in 2020 when he evicted historic jazz club Blue Whale and neglected other tenants’ concerns on the property.

Photo by Lisa Kwon for L.A. Taco.

“The landlords of these prominent centers of Little Tokyo are really not listening to community stakeholders, and it’s creating this Orientalist vision of what Little Tokyo is as a shopping district and a place that exists for consumption,” says Iwataki.

There is a rich history of political organizing in Little Tokyo; since their arrival as immigrants in the late 1800s, Japanese Americans have been fighting to preserve their Japantown. They built a community amidst redlining but then had to organize against the exploitation of labor and displacement once the neighborhood was established.

“We fight to protect, promote, and preserve Little Tokyo,” says Kristin Fukushima, Managing Director of Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC). The coalition—represented by business owners and stakeholders in the neighborhood—has been addressing Little Tokyo’s waves of gentrification since 1999.

“Because it was a handshake agreement and we were used to people doing what they said they were going to do, none of that was followed,” says Fukushima. “That was a good lesson for us: always pursue a legally binding community benefits agreement.”

When Fukushima and LTCC welcome new businesses into the neighborhood, they also remind them of one thing: “Take off your shoes.” It isn’t just a precious slogan; it is a plea to developers and new businesses to honor the foundation on which the neighborhood is built. It resonates with Fukushima, who witnessed firsthand how property flippers affected Little Tokyo’s current-day transformation. 

Recent troubles stem from when real estate firm “The Related Companies” purchased the neighborhood’s “Block 8,” a stretch of land that spans from San Pedro Street to Los Angeles Street, in the mid-2000s. The block was initially a large public parking lot after it was purchased through Japanese capital in the 1980s, then remained undeveloped when the economic bubble burst. 

Photo by Lisa Kwon for L.A. Taco.

After purchase, The Related Companies sought to turn “Block 8” into an expansive project that would include condominiums and 800 units of parking for existing Little Tokyo residents and workers, per a handshake agreement with the neighborhood’s stakeholders and community members. When the market crashed in 2008, its real estate vision changed dramatically; it divided the land into four parcels and moved forward with market-rate residential housing and drastically reduced parking units.

The Related Companies’ walk back on the initial community agreement taught Fukushima the extent to which she had to protect Little Tokyo’s interests as real estate speculation became a widespread practice. 

“Because it was a handshake agreement and we were used to people doing what they said they were going to do, none of that was followed,” says Fukushima. “That was a good lesson for us: always pursue a legally binding community benefits agreement.”

There’s a lot on everyone’s plates, but newer groups like J-TOWN Action と Solidarity can serve as disruptors; they’re members of the community but not attached to its politics or dynamics.

Four luxury apartment complexes now stand on “Block 8”: Wakaba LA, owned by Sares-Regis; AVA Little Tokyo under Avalon Bay; and Sakura Crossing Apartments under Equity Apartments. Just around the corner is Hikari Apartments, also owned by Equity. That’s three different multimillion-dollar property management companies that have pushed their way into Japantown. 

For every Mokuyobi Threads-type business that replaces a legacy business, there remain 60 or so shops that have been in Little Tokyo for over 20 years among approximately 400 total businesses. LTCC and other groups such as Nikkei Progressives for Civil Rights and Redress, Little Tokyo Service Center, and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center are committed to the mountainous undertaking of helping older businesses adapt to recent consumer trends. One challenge is to teach them how to adopt sustainable practices, but for many business owners, this feels equivalent to changing the heart of Little Tokyo. 

Photo by Lisa Kwon for L.A. Taco.

“There are some [shops] who have trouble paring down their menu because they have a dish for a specific customer, so they don’t want to take it off,” explains Fukushima. “They’re buying all this stuff for one meal for one person—that’s part of why these businesses are so special, but that makes it hard for them to stay competitive.” 

There’s a lot on everyone’s plates, but newer groups like J-TOWN Action と Solidarity can serve as disruptors; they’re members of the community but not attached to its politics or dynamics. They do not have to go through channels of official approval. They can agitate and amplify the news of Mokuyobi’s move with a petition demanding that Japanese Village Plaza and Weller Court’s landlords cancel Mokuyobi’s leases on their properties. Within three days, J-TOWN Action と Solidarity collected over 1,000 signatures.

The community members who are working day and night to preserve Little Tokyo are furious with Mokuyobi’s arrival and that they have to spend energy on them at all. 

“They’ve already become a burden on the community,” Iwataki says of the emotional labor that Mokuyobi is demanding. “People have spent so much time trying to not only educate them but deal with the way they’ve reacted to it by trying to make their point of view understood. It takes away energy and space from other really important work, and that in itself is a huge issue.” 

In modern Los Angeles, influenced by speculative real estate, community members’ rally around Mokuyobi is a fight against the forces that threaten to erase Japanese and nikkei history.

After all, J-TOWN Action と Solidarity was formed to center the Angelenos who are seriously impacted by gentrification. 

Still, Fukushima feels that those who are new to Little Tokyo’s issues would make great allies to address the displacement and development that is happening on a grander scale.

“It’s personally very exciting to see so many people activated and energized about gentrification and displacement in Little Tokyo, and I hope that we can channel some of this energy into existing projects, too, that deeply will impact and change Little Tokyo,” she says.

If the company ultimately decides to move into its location in April, Mokuyobi Threads will share one of its walls with plaques that border the north entrance of Japanese Village Plaza; the City presented them to recognize the site as one of the most successful private-public partnerships between community merchants and financiers like Bank of America and Occidental Life Insurance. For many of Japantown’s natives, the recognition also foreshadowed the risks of leaning on outside firms to sustain the neighborhood. In modern Los Angeles, influenced by speculative real estate, community members’ rally around Mokuyobi is a fight against the forces that threaten to erase Japanese and nikkei history.

Update: The last name of Julia Pinzur was misspelled and L.A. Taco has corrected the spelling. 

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