“Ohayo!!” belted the waiter as I entered the Ramen store. It felt almost like stepping into Tokyo Ramen shop in a Japanese drama. I was in Tokyo, Little Tokyo to be accurate, Little Tokyo in Los Angeles to be precise. This was supposed the best Ramen store in town, Daikokuya.
Walking around Little Tokyo transported me to a world outside conventional Western America, this was a world familiar to me through television and yet it seemed unfamiliar. There were shinto temples hidden in back alleys,
individual shops were stocked with homemade, century old Japanese mochi and wood work.
A whole district was designed to look like a Japanese village.
And yet through it all, even though there was clearly a Japanese influence, Little Tokyo felt completely American too, it was Japan and yet not Japan.
Little Tokyo is one of three Japantowns in the United States (all located in California) and is one of the central hearts of Japanese-America, a community that numbers around 1.4 million in the United States. But the Japanese are not new arrivals to the United States, in fact many Japanese-Americans can trace their lineage in America back generations.
How did this come about?
Our story today takes us back more than 150 years to 1853 and to an ocean away at the harbour of Tokyo. Two steamers and sailing vessels stand poised at the gates of Tokyo, the western ‘barbarians’ docked menacingly at the entry to the city. The commander of the fleet Commodore Matthew C Perry sent word of his expedition from the United States of America, with a demand “trade with us” and with no subtly at all implied with his shiny steamers, “or else”.
The weak and backwards Japanese, realising their predicament with no navy to defend themselves, reluctantly agreed, reversing centuries of isolationist policies. This Japan was the Japan that prevented foreigners from entering and Japanese from leaving, it was a Japan that crucified and successfully prevented the spread of Christianity on its shores (and remains surprisingly intransigent to Christianity till this day), it was the Japan of tradition and not innovation – perhaps the 2016 movie Silence by Martin Scorsese best illustrates the Japan that would end on that fateful day.
The end of isolation was a signpost for the end of isolationist Japan under the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, and in its place was the Meiji rule with the Emperor at the centre of the new Japanese Empire. The rule from the centre led also to one of the fundamental changes in Japanese and world history – the modernisation and Westernisation of Japan under the Meiji Restoration. Japan modernised, replacing manual work with modern western techniques, it’s smartest young people were sent to Europe and America to learn of science and technology, so as to bring them back to improve their country. While its Asian neighbours continued in their ways Japan blazed a trail that other nations would eventually follow – and were pioneers in demanding equality with Western Powers.
During the Meiji Restoration, power in Japan was recentralised to the centre in Edo (now Tokyo), with the king regaining his central status; shinto Buddhism sought a return to its central position in the country; the political system of the country was overhauled with the gradual introduction of political parties and a legislative assembly, as well as empowering a limited number of the populace with electoral rights. Al this was embodied in a powerful essay from the intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa entitled Datsu-A Ron, translated as ‘Leaving Asia’. In that article, Fukuzawa wrote, “The path for the worldly transportations had become convenient. The wind of the Western civilization has blown to the East; even the grasses must sway to the current of this wind when it arrives… we (the Japanese people) do not have the luxury of time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighboring countries – China and Korea – to work together toward the development of Asia. It is our best strategy to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with the civilized nations of the West.”
With the beginning of the Meiji Restoration came the movement of Japanese people to America. While the United States wanted Japanese goods and the right to be in Japan they weren’t too happy with the flow in the opposite direction of Japanese workers in America, a flow that was seen first in Hawaii and later California. Many Japanese arrived in America as unskilled workers, who were frowned upon although the talented and rich (students and businessmen) were tolerated. This was called the unofficial Gentlemen’s Agreement between the two countries. This was the first group of Japanese to arrive in the United States.
Then in 1924, the taps were shut for the first time, the Immigration Act of 1924 sought to enforce a ban on immigration of ‘non-white’ people and undesireable ‘whites’ (Italians, Greeks, Poles, Slavs and Eastern European Jews). This community of Japanese lived in relative isolation from the larger American society and developed a culture on their own for 40 years, until 1965 when the immigation ban was lifted. The descendents of this initial immigration of Japanese include luminaries such as academic Francis Fukuyama, actor George Takei and US army general Eric Shinseki. Subsequent Japanese immigration follows immigration from other developed countries.
These Japanese settled in the major cities of California and were drawn to what eventually became Little Tokyo in Japan. An article in 1905 described the area as such, “It has a population of about 3500 Japanese, with quite a colony of Jews and Russians and a few Americans. . . . there are 10,000 Japanese in the city who make this section their rendezvous.” At its peak, close to 30,000 people lived in Little Tokyo.
All this changed in 1942 however, after the Imperial Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, America and Japan were officially at war.
Despite being in the United States for all their lives, and knowing only the United States as home, their race was seen as a potential threat leading to most of the inhabitants of Little Tokyo being rounded up and put in incarceration camps in the United States. More than 110-120 000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were interned in these camps. Little Tokyo was briefly occupied by African Americans and Hispanic Americans who filled the jobs left after the Japanese Americans were incarcerated. Their original occupants returned after the war and Little Tokyo became a Japanese American cultural home once again.
Because of reparations after the war Little Tokyo, despite its prime location, has remained untouched by development and remains an important spiritual home of the Japanese.
Despite all this, Japanese-Americans clearly remain proud of their American heritage and the American dream that they live.
They are so Japanese, yet so American.
Perhaps, that, is exactly what makes them American.
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