Chapter 2 Rebuilding a Broken Community
WWII signaled a dramatic change in the lives of Japanese Americans. As discriminatory laws forced Little Tokyo denizens out of their own homes, the once tight-knit community began to crumble.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, prejudice against Japanese reached a peak, culminating in the passing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The discriminatory law created exclusionary zones for Japanese and Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, forcing their internment with no regards to their country of birth or citizenship. Residents and business owners of Little Tokyo were forced to abandon their home and lives overnight, leaving behind the center of L.A.’s Japanese American community as not much more than a ghost town.
Conditions inside the camps were not ideal, with no plumbing or cooking facilities in the initial months. Internees could not move freely outside the camps unless authorized, though a few did have jobs outside of the camps. Japanese in L.A. were moved mainly to Manzanar in Owens Valley; those who ended up in cold weather facilities like Wyoming saw temperatures drop to less than zero degrees fahrenheit.
Many families were forced to leave behind their entire livelihood -- their property, their business, their memories -- which they had built up tirelessly over several generations. Fortunately, in some cases, they found ways to maintain their property in their absence through guerilla tactics and help from friends elsewhere. Akira Komai, owner of the Rafu Shimpo for instance, arranged for their rent to be paid during the war and hide the Japanese type under the floorboards, which allowed the paper to resume publication in 1946. Some families moved to a state outside the exclusionary zone until the end of the war; those who moved to Japan in the interim were often unable to come home.
Under the 1944 Renunciation Act, Japanese could legally renounce their American citizenship, and many did out of anger and uncertainty. On the flip side, many proudly displayed their American patriotism and became part of the famed 442nd Infantry Regiment, whose accomplishments are memorialized in films and a monument in Little Tokyo.
For a brief moment, Little Tokyo became known as Bronzeville, when African Americans moved into the area in search for housing and opportunities. The area was soon thriving, with landmark establishments like Shepp’s Playhouse and the Cobra Club attracting patrons from throughout the L.A. basin, including many Hollywood stars. However, overcrowding soon became an issue; with as many as 16 people living in one room, the neighborhood began to deteriorate, with “slum-like" conditions becoming widespread.
When the Japanese were released from internment, many found a new home away from the city center, while others were able to return to their old home. Those who quickly resettled in Little Tokyo made moves to get their businesses back, sometimes working alongside the African Americans who had taken up shop, in some cases taking matters to the courts, as with the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.
The transition into resettlement was tough for families who would at times send their children with nearby family or friends in other areas of Los Angeles County, while they worked tirelessly in Little Tokyo to retain their property. Families were often housed in the churches and temples in the neighborhood, who graciously opened their doors to those in need until they could get back on their feet.