By Jacob Adelman
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The last time LA’s Little Tokyo tried getting back to its Japanese roots, it was in the early 1980s with the Japanese Village Plaza, a warren of sweets shops, tea stands and trinket stores under sloping glazed-tile roofs.
Now, on the eve of the area’s most ambitious development project in decades, the historically Japanese enclave has something different in mind: trendy boutiques and stylish apartments enclosed in sleek mid-rise towers.
As Little Tokyo’s ethnic vibe changes with newcomers filling new housing, neighborhood leaders are making a bid to lure hip young Japanese Americans back to the neighborhood with the $300-million Nikkei Center, a sprawling complex of apartments, shops and public gardens being built on the area’s last major undeveloped parcel.
“We would like it to have a Japanese touch or flavor, but not this pagoda sort of thing: this sort of ostentatious caricature of Japanese culture,” said Bill Watanabe, president of the Little Tokyo Services Center, a social services agency and nonprofit developer teaming up with Kaji on the project.
It’s all an attempt to arrest a process that many ethnic communities across the United States have undergone, as assimilated generations leave dense ethnic enclaves for suburbs and other mainstream neighborhoods.
Some fear the newly diverse mix of residents could spell the end of the neighborhood’s Japanese cultural character, as retailers focus on a more mainstream clientele.
Japan-native Hiroko Naponelli, who has managed a traditional Japanese dishware store in the shopping center for about 12 years, said a new anchor tenant could be a plus if it draws more customers to her shop. But she said she would still lament losing the Japanese market.
“This is Little Tokyo, but it doesn’t feel like Little Tokyo anymore,” said Naponelli, 63.
But the development plans may not do much to lure some members of the young Japanese hipster diaspora, for whom the neighborhood may never be able to shed its dowdy image.
“You’re just kind of building it and hoping they will come,” said editor Eric Nakamura, who briefly moved his Asian pop culture magazine Giant Robot to Little Tokyo before the souvenir fans, kabuki masks and sake sets sent him packing for the trendier pastures of western Los Angeles. “It’s an uphill battle.”