The arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry to the shores of Shimoda in 1853 signaled the beginning of the end of the ancient feudal system that had ruled Japan for centuries. The resulting Treaty of Kanagawa forced the opening of Japan’s ports to U.S. trade, giving way to the the Meiji Restoration and the rapid modernization of the island nation.
One of the pivotal moments of the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, was the lifting of the ban on foreign travel that had been in place since 1636. This allowed for not only the exchange of foreign goods, but for ambitious young men to seek their fortune abroad. That same year saw a group of 153 contract laborers, known as the Gannen-mono, or “first year people,” emigrate to what was then the Kingdom of Hawai’i, establishing a Japanese presence abroad for the first time.
The first reports of Japanese immigrants to Los Angeles date back to the 1870s -- when two youngsters “I. Komo” and “E. Noska” reputedly came down from San Francisco and lived as houseboys for Edward J. C. Kewen -- the first Attoney General of California -- at the Old Mill in San Marino. The first official Japanese residents of Los Angeles are generally acknowledged to be the 24 sojourners who had arrived around 1884 to work on the railroads.
Los Angeles grew exponentially with the arrival of the railroad. The invaluable contributions of skilled Chinese laborers in its creation went unappreciated, however, as intense racial prejudice had reduced their status to less than second class citizens. When the passing of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 heavily restricted labor migration from China left a gaping hole in the labor force, much of it were filled by the newly arrived Japanese.
By the turn of the century, there were over 100 Japanese living in Los Angeles – enough to prompt the formation of the Japanese Association of Los Angeles, which often dealt with the growing racial tension with the whites. While some issei workers began to cultivate a career in the agricultural fields, most were seen working on the railroads, mainly the Santa Fe Railroads, whose “La Grande” terminal was conveniently located adjacent to the burgeoning Little Tokyo.
By 1905, L.A.'s Japanese population grew to over 3,000, many of whom arrived from San Francisco in search of work. But nothing could prepare them for the surge in Japanese population in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the end of the year many had moved south to Los Angeles, where the Japanese population soared to over 10,000. The following year brought an even larger number, as 30,000 Japanese moved to L.A. for new opportunities. But the rapid growth didn’t last for long. The passing one of several racially motivated laws that prohibited certain ethnic groups to enter the United States -- the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, allowed no more Japanese laborers to enter the country.
According to a Los Angeles Times article dated June 21, 1908, the streets of San Pedro, Banning, and East First -- now referred to as “Little Tokio” -- by then were filled with more than 50 Japanese restaurants. The area was now a self-contained Japanese community of more than 3,000, a fact that seemed to have startled the Times editors:
The Japs appear to be more exclusive inside their own district than are the people of any other nationality. Since they decided to locate on North San Pedro Street they have labored assiduously until they now have possession of every house for three blocks. All the other nationalities have been bought or crowded out… When the Japs decide on a section they colonize it more thoroughly than the most astute ward politician.
The media may have felt intimidated by the tenacity of the Japanese Americans – but it was no fabrication that Little Tokyo was, for better or worse, a self-contained community in which residents could fulfill all of their needs without the need to step outside of comfort zone.