downtown los angeles, guest writer, little tokyo

Can Little Tokyo Keep its Japanese Flavor in Downtown LA?

As new developers enter Little Tokyo, will the new non-Asian businesses opening chip away at the Japanese flavor that makes Little Tokyo unique in Los Angeles? (Photo: Brigham Yen)

There’s no question that Downtown Los Angeles is undergoing a massive revival right now. Dozens of cranes dot the skyline, streets are often closed for utility relocation and the constant drone of construction echoes between skyscrapers. It’s not uncommon to walk past through some historic buildings and suddenly find yourself at the feet of a brand new apartment tower, complete with its glass balconies, indoor fitness center, and even a Philz coffee shop. While the revitalization is definitely a boon for Downtown Los Angeles, some more established neighborhoods within downtown like Little Tokyo have begun to worry as familiar cityscapes transform at a rate never seen before.

In late September, Jamestown Properties acquired Brunswig Square, a former drug company manufacturing and office complex built in the 1930s sitting at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and 2nd Street in Little Tokyo. The Art Deco 140,000 square foot building currently sits mostly vacant except for a few ground floor businesses, including Ebisu Japanese Tavern and Tenno Sushi. Jamestown hopes to repurpose the building into a creative office hub and emulate the success of the nearby Arts District, which has begun to attract many tech and design companies with its industrial grit similar to that of San Francisco’s tech-riddled South of Market.

While Little Tokyoites welcome the increased interest in the community, locals fear that Jamestown will elevate rents, push out the remaining tenants and transform the building into a complex that simply isn’t in line with Little Tokyo’s historic culture. In fact, the previous owners, GreenOak Real Estate Advisors and Arenda Capital Management, did just that.

Brunswig Square was once home to a slew of Japanese businesses including Izakaya Haru Ulala, a small sushi bar; Kokekokko, a Yakitori restaurant; and various other small businesses. According to Takao Suzuki, Director of Community Economic Development at Little Tokyo Service Center, these small businesses were evicted simply because of cultural and language barriers that made communication difficult between tenants and GreenOak Real Estate Advisors and Arenda Capital Management. In other words, these small businesses were kicked out because they didn’t fit within the more mainstream direction the owners were hoping to move the property towards.

“Businesses that remained like Subway sandwiches had access to more capital, more time and more resources. Because of that, they had the ability to push back and go through the lease negotiations. It’s just the culture of running a small business versus working for a larger corporation or company,” Suzuki says.

He added that GreenOak Real Estate Advisors and Arenda Capital Management only owned the property for less than a year and simply “cleaned out” the place to make a quick buck before selling it off to Jamestown. Apparently, removing longtime Little Tokyo stakeholders was part of that process. These evictions, which were done without consulting the Little Tokyo community, suggest some outside developers aren’t interested in preserving authentic cultural frameworks that define Little Tokyo. This fear of authentic cultural businesses, which may not exude modern, hipster-esque vibes seen in the Arts District, is exactly what Suzuki is afraid of, especially as neighboring communities are going through enormous homogeneous changes all abiding by the “hipster template.”

Do these developers desire to simply change Little Tokyo into another Arts District because that’s the hip thing to do?

Despite this past negative experience, Suzuki is still hopeful about working with Jamestown. “There’s definitely the opportunity to do something good with Jamestown, but again, I don’t know if Little Tokyo is ready to see something like the Chelsea Market without input and whatnot,” Suzuki says. “We just hope they will be more transparent owners just because I think when [GreenOak Real Estate Advisors and Arenda Capital Management] was going through the negotiations, they weren’t very transparent with the process and didn’t hear our concerns.”

However, not every new development has to come with displacement and disruption. Weller Court just a block west from Japanese Village Plaza is home to many long-established Japanese businesses, including Orochon Ramen, Kinokuniya Books and Marukai Market. The property owned by Downtown LA-based PSP Investment Group embraced these Japanese businesses when they acquired the property in August 2014. In fact, Kokekokko — the Japanese restaurant kicked out of Bruswig Square — luckily ended up finding an ideal space here at Weller Court allowing them to stay in Little Tokyo. PSP Investment Group has been upgrading the Weller Court property without booting out any Japanese businesses. They serve as a prime example of redevelopment efforts that bolster the existing Little Tokyo community, falling in line with the long established cultural framework of the neighborhood.

While redevelopments like Weller Court are considered a win within Little Tokyo, there’s also no denying that there has been a gradual chipping away at the community over the past decade. In just the past two years, eight commercial properties in Little Tokyo, including Brunswig Square and the Mikado Hotel on First Street have changed hands. And with each new owner comes a new taste and new ideas on how to develop the community — sometimes without any regard for the historical context. Many of these properties are occupied by generations of Little Tokyo retailers and preserving these is of the utmost concern for community groups in the area.

“There’s a part of me that feels that there are certain things we are losing, given this community has been around for 130 years,” says Suzuki. At its peak right before the outbreak of World War II, Little Tokyo was once home to 30,000 Japanese Americans.

Even though these challenges potentially threaten the essence of Little Tokyo, as with every cloud, there’s a silver lining. Suzuki says these kinds of situations help bring the community together. In the past, they’ve rallied together against the City of Los Angeles when it attempted to build a 512-bed jail right next to a Buddhist temple. The community has also won a number of concessions from Metro regarding the Regional Connector, such as running the rail line underground as opposed to at street level through narrow 2nd Street. Many new businesses that have opened recently often help one another out and are supportive of community efforts. Suzuki describes it as “somewhat of a village mentality, and to a certain extent, that adds to the cultural fabric in Little Tokyo.”

Little Tokyo has also formed a number of community organizations, like Sustainable Little Tokyo, which is focused on developing the neighborhood in a way that “respects and enhances the neighborhood’s history and culture.” — Benjamin Dunn

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  1. Daniel Chan says

    I’m wondering whether the question is how to keep the Japanese culture? Or how to keep the Japanese aesthetic? Keeping the aesthetic might be as “easy” as stipulating that new construction add to or maintain the look-and-feel of the neighborhood. That way, Little Tokyo will—at least—have a Japanese façade. After all, no one wants to visit Little Tokyo some day and wonder where’s the “Tokyo” in this town? That seems easy compared to maintaining and growing Japanese culture, particularly the small business that are the charm of this community. With rising rents and developers not remotely interested in history or culture, how do you keep the Japanese in Little Tokyo?

  2. I’m not Japanese but I thoroughly enjoy living in Little Tokyo — it’s one of the most interesting and walkable places in all of LA.

  3. Michael says

    I wish there was way to incentivize or attract Japanese developers to the area. It really is a gem in Downtown and of all LA, as a prodevelopment / urbanist, I’d hate to see the area become something it’s not for the sake of greed or trendiness.

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