risshobheights.jpgPhoto: Rissho Kosei-kai Facebook

Japanese Boyle Heights in the 21st Century

On Sunday August 10, the annual Nisei Week Parade will be taking place in Little Tokyo. This year marks the 74th annual Nisei Week Festival. The Japanese community in Little Tokyo is directly linked to Boyle Heights via East First Street, and over the years many residents of the eastside community have made the trek over the First Street Bridge to the festival. In 2012 I wrote about Otomisan, the last remaining Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights. Located on East First Street since the 1950s, they are a part of a small handful of Japanese churches, a school, and florist that have remained in the area from the early-20th century. This week L.A. Letters spotlights three remaining Japanese spaces clustered within a block of each other on First Street in Boyle Heights: the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Temple, Tenrikyo Church, and Rafu Chuo Gakuen, the Japanese school on Saratoga Street. Similar to Otomisan, these venerated spaces have a longstanding history and intimate connection with the Boyle Heights Japanese community.


The Rissho Kosei-kai

The Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Temple is on First and Mott Street, just a few blocks east of Otomisan. Nestled between Mott and the Tenrikyo Church directly east, the Rissho Kosei-kai is one of the most popular sects of Japanese Buddhism. Within the congregation are not only a mix of many longtime Japanese residents from Boyle Heights and Japanese-Americans from all over Southern California, but members also include a cohort of multicultural Angelenos who practice their faith there.

The site and building where the Rissho Kosei-kai is located was originally built in 1926 for Higashi Honganji, one of the oldest sects of Japanese Buddhism. After 50 years in Boyle Heights, they moved to Little Tokyo and sold their structure to the Rissho-Kosei-kai in 1976. The current assistant reverend Ken Nagata was a part of a team that renovated the space. He tells me, "Rissho Kosei-kai of Los Angeles is a place where Buddhism is learned and practiced. Our focus of Buddhism is the Lotus Sutra and it encompasses the wholesomeness of Buddha's effort in his life since it was taught near the end of his career."

A longtime member, the 84-year-old Dr. James Hodgkin, told me about a 2005 National Geographic article on the growth of Buddhism around the world. Hodgkin says, "While reporting an upbeat and positive picture of the growth of Buddhism globally, the reporter concluded that Buddhism was 'losing its appeal' in Japan. Accepting an offer to see where the 'heart of Japanese Buddhism is still beating,' the reporter was taken to the Headquarters of the Rissho Kosei-kai." The essay noted that the Rissho Kosei-kai continues to grow at a rate faster than other sects of Japanese Buddhism.

Hodgkin credits the growth "to the vision and wisdom of Founder Nikkyo Niwano, who applied knowledge and practice of the Lotus Sutra in a new and effective way." Though the specific precepts are too numerous to detail here, one of the key components of the Rissho Kosei-kai is "the hoza circle." The hoza circle concludes the Sunday service and members sit together in a circle to share everyday experiences and any problems, sufferings, worries, anxieties and questions whether they are big or small. The dialogue is multigenerational and non-hierarchal. This openness has made many newcomers feel very welcome.

Rissho Kosei-kai participates in the Nisei Week Parade each year | Photo: Rissho Kosei-kai Facebook

Twenty-six-year-old Migel Armas is a lifelong member of the Rissho Kosei-kai. His parents were married there back in the 1980s. Though he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, his own ancestry epitomizes the history of Boyle Heights. His father was raised in a Catholic family in Mexico and his mother was raised Buddhist in Japan. They met in Los Angeles and found a home together at the Rissho Kosei-kai. Every year Armas participates in the Nisei Week Parade, and he tells me, "I have been coming since I was born, growing up with the youth and also the older kids there." Sometime during high school he really began to learn the teachings.

In recent years the Rissho Kosei-kai's congregation has grown to include many from the younger generation. Twenty-four-year old Richard Kano grew up in Montebello and East Los Angeles. Kano found Buddhism in his early 20s after he burned out on the party scene. He says, "Rissho Kosei-kai taught me how to walk the practical path of the Buddha. The middle way, I have rediscovered purpose again and compassion for myself and others by following the bodhisattva way." A multicultural and multigenerational fellowship joins Kano every week. Kano credits practicing Buddhism with reinvigorating his life and refreshing his senses. "The other big obstacle I had was seeing beauty. I only saw struggle and pain in everything," he shares; "but the practice of reciting the Lotus Sutra, being a part of the sangha (the fellowship), and having gratitude and humility for all things has shown me the Buddha nature within myself. We are taught if I change myself, I change the world."

Kano's joyful spirit is corroborated by the head Reverend in Los Angeles, T. Yoshizawa who says, "We wish to share this powerful and positive energy with everyone in Los Angeles." To this end, the doors are open to all and they always welcome new members. The Rissho-Kosei-kai participates every year in the Nisei Week Parade. The night before they hold an annual barbeque and celebrate with the congregation.

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Tenrikyo

Tenrikyo Church is also located on First Street, just east of the Rissho Kosei-kai and just west of Saratoga Street. Tenrikyo is a monotheistic religion that began in Japan in the early 19th Century. They recently celebrated their 80th anniversary in America. Their anniversary celebration was attended by several hundred people, and their church continues to attract not only Japanese in the immediate area, but also many different people from across Southern California. Their North American headquarters is the Boyle Heights space. Ikuyo Yuge is a lifelong Tenrikyo member who was born in 1937 on site, and also a lifelong resident of Boyle Heights who attended First Street Elementary, Hollenbeck Middle School and Roosevelt High School. Yuge was also a professor at UCLA for two decades and has lived for many years on Boyle Avenue. Her father in law was one of the first seven Japanese to receive the $20,000 reparations in 1989 for being interred during World War II.

A photo of Yuge and her father in law celebrating this moment remains on exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum. He was 102 years old at the time and she accompanied him to Washington D.C. to receive it. She tells me that though he died about a week after the trip, at least he received some redemption just before he passed. Yuge's sons are also involved with Tenrikyo. Her son Michael Yuge runs the Tenrikyo New York Center and her son Robert Yuge is the Editor of the Tenrikyo newsletter and also a vital member of the Boyle Heights headquarters.

Yuge also tells me that their original location was near Hollenbeck Park on Cummings Street. She also said that across the street from Tenrikyo's current location, where the Food For Less now stands, was once the church, "Little Sisters of the Poor." The old church's bell tower top sits in the middle of the parking lot, commemorating the history of the now-gone holy site. Tenrikyo organizes many events throughout the year, like their "Family Festival" to promote brotherhood and spiritual growth. Furthermore, they participate every year in the Nisei Week Parade as well.

Tenrikyo Church in Boyle Heights | Google Maps


Rafu Chuo Gakuen

In addition to his involvement in Tenrikyo, Robert Yuge is also the Director of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Japanese School across the street, otherwise known as the Rafu Chuo Gakuen. The Rafu Chuo Gakuen, located on Saratoga Street across from Tenrikyo, operates on Saturdays teaching both the Japanese language and traditional customs to Japanese children up to their late teen years. One of the close associates of the school, Matthew Mori, shared with me the school's extensive background story and its longstanding history in the neighborhood.

Mori has a wealth of knowledge about the history of both the school and Japanese Boyle Heights in general. He told me, "Tokiwa Gakuen was founded in February, 1929 by Mr. Gunpei Kuroyanagi, Mrs. Reiko Kawakami, Mr. Tsurujiro Yamada, and others at Higashi Hongwanji. At the time (1926-1976), Higashi Honganji was located at 118 North Mott Street --now part of the Rissho Kosei-kai Center." He explains more, "Tokiwa Gakuen and Higashi Hongwanji purchased a school bus together in September, 1929, and by October of the same year, the school was moved to South Saratoga Street and renamed Boyle Heights Chuo Gakuen by Mr. Kesagoro Umekubo. The school was moved to its present location in February, 1932, a new school bus was acquired, and the school was renamed Rafu Chuo Gakuen."

Over the years the school has continued to evolve and progress. Mori says the school was a part of a larger collection of Japanese schools across the Southland. He says, "According to Mrs. Hatsue Yamaguchi, in 1936, there were over 200 Japanese schools in Southern California, and Rafu Chuo Gakuen was 'one of the most prestigious schools, second only to Compton Gakuen.' (Established in 1924, Compton Gakuen -- together with Moneta Gakuen [1912] and Gardena Gakuen [1915] -- were precursors to the present-day Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute's Nihongo Gakuen.) During World War II the school was interrupted and classes did not resume until 1947.

Mori shares, "The Chuo Gakuen campus was used to temporarily house the 'Terminal Islanders' during the wartime relocation and internment of Japanese Americans. 'Non-Japanese immigrants' lived at the school during the war and their eviction was apparently a contentious affair." Following the war in 1951, Rafu Chuo Gakuen became an affiliate of Kyodo System (established in 1948 as a kind of "Unified Japanese Language School System"). The school continued to grow and the campus was expanded and improved through the 1960s and '70s.

Chuo Gakuen in Boyle Heights | Photo: Chuo Gakuen website

In addition to telling me about the school, Mori also informed me about the Maryknoll Family, another historic group of Japanese-Americans on the Eastside. He says, "Maryknoll was a Japanese Catholic parish in the 'Loft District' just east of Little Tokyo. My wife and I were both born in Boyle Heights. She grew up on Boyle Avenue and attended both Maryknoll School and Chuo Gakuen." By the time Mori and his wife had kids, the Maryknoll School no longer existed as they knew it. For this reason and more, they are glad to have their children attend Japanese school in Boyle Heights. He shares, "I think Chuo Gakuen helps my family maintain a connection to the place and the people and the culture my wife and I grew up with."

Toshi Kayama is another parent with children that attend the school. Kayama sees the program as more than just a language institute, but "as a valuable investment in our children's future." He also says, "Japanese schools give our children the opportunity to make more friends, learn important Japanese traditions and values, and even develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for Japanese culture." Kayama and his wife know it's a serious commitment for their children to sacrifice their Saturday, but "they hope their efforts will pay off as they become truly bilingual and bi-cultural, embracing both their American and Japanese heritage, values, and culture."

There are a few other vestiges of Japanese Boyle Heights that still stand. Besides Otomisan, a few blocks east of Rafu Chuo Gakuen on First Street is the Konko Church and the Haru Florist. On Fourth and Saratoga there is also the Nichiren Buddhist Temple. The historic legacy of Japanese Boyle Heights remains vibrant in these spaces.

A key component of Japanese religion and culture is the idea of ancestor veneration, essentially the idea of gratitude to your family and specifically appreciating one's ancestors. This concept is especially expressed during Obon, which has been called "the Japanese Day of the Dead." The Obon Festival occurs in July and August throughout Southern Califonia in Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, and at other various sites, including most Japanese churches. Furthermore, the Nisei Week Parade is always concluded by the "Obon Dance" along First Street. The parade is on Sunday August 10 from 4 to 7 p.m. in Little Tokyo. Salute to Nisei Week, all of these sites and the Rissho Kosei-kai, Tenrikyo and the Rafu Chuo Gakuen for being monumental historic locations in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

Otomisan, the last remaining Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights | Paul Bailey/Flickr/Creative Commons

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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