Bill Watanabe

Preserving Community Identity in LA's Japantown

The Little Tokyo  neighborhood of Los Angeles is one of only three officially recognized Japanese "towns" in the United States (the others are located in San Jose and San Francisco) and was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995. Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the surviving traces of the original Little Tokyo are concentrated in four large city blocks, bounded to the west by Los Angeles Street, to the east by Alameda Street, to the south by3rd Street, and to the north by First Street. Extending along the north side of First Street between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street, the historic district comprises 13 brick buildings that evoke the economic, social and cultural history of the neighborhood's Japanese American community from 1905 to 1942.  The neighborhood included churches and temples alongside restaurants and small hotels and many families occupied upper floors or the rears of the buildings while principal street level rooms served as commercial storefront businesses.   The Little Tokyo of today still includes eight religious sites, thirteen historic markers, and eight cultural/community sites, such as the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center and the Japanese American National Museum.

Bill Watanabe talking to Ha Pham, a Diversity Scholarship Recipient, in St. Paul, MN at the Asian American & Pacific Islander Caucus Dinner Reception on October 5th, 2007

As elsewhere in American West, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent issuance of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, had profound impacts on Little Tokyo. Over 6,000 of Little Tokyo's Japanese American residents were forced to abandon their homes and businesses to enter internment camps. After the war, Japanese Americans returned to Little Tokyo, but due to enormous property losses, it took years for the neighborhood to come back to life. 


Little Tokyo Service Center, a Community Development Corporation, came onto the Little Tokyo scene in 1979 when  a cross-section of Japanese American groups joined to form a multipurpose social service center for the neighborhood. Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) was established to provide linguistically and culturally sensitive social services to the Little Tokyo community and to the broader Japanese American community in the Southland. As Little Tokyo Service Center responded to pressing and evolving community needs it expanded and diversified. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, LTSC began advocating for the housing rights of low-income residents who were being forced out of the neighborhood by redevelopment. The Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation arose from this struggle, a subsidiary of LTSC founded in 1994 to focus on community redevelopment, affordable housing, and the revitalization of Little Tokyo. In 2004, the two entities merged, becoming Little Tokyo Service Center, a Community Development Corporation. The consolidation emphasizes holistic community service by providing social services and community development under one roof.  LTSC takes pride in meeting the critical needs of people and building community within the specific context of its evolving neighborhood setting. The delivery of culturally sensitive social services and the preservation of ethnic heritage and history are hallmarks of the organization. LTSC also contributes to the strengthening of neighborhoods across Los Angeles as a community developer of affordable housing.

Little Tokyo History

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Visit Little Tokyo


In Conversation with Bill Watanabe

Bill WatanabeWe visited with Bill Watanabe, founding executive director of LTSC. Honored by House and Garden TV in 2004 as a "Restore America Hero," Bill's desire to connect his organization's efforts to foster community identity and vitality in Little Tokyo with the organized historic preservation movement led him to first attend the National Preservation Conference in 2004, as a Diversity Program Scholarship recipient. Bill has attended faithfully since, enriching the conference by presenting at conference sessions and by organizing the ever popular Asian Pacific Islander Caucus Dinner.

We posed some questions to Bill, drawing him out regarding historic Little Tokyo, the evolution of LTSC, and preserving cultural memory.

With a background in engineering, what was it that first brought you to what is now Little Tokyo Service Center?

Bill Watanabe: After working a short time in the engineering field in the 1960's, it was clear to me that I was not suited for the profession but I was very attracted to the work my friends were doing in community service and social work  I got my Masters in Social Work from UCLA in 1972, and was working in a senior citizens center in Little Tokyo when a group of us co-founded the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and I then became the founding Executive Director of LTSC in January of 1980.  I suppose many community groups start with little more than a vision and a hope that through committed effort, a new program can take root and grow but it can still be a little daunting to take that first step with no resources, no office, and no track record.

Staff at LTSC has grown a hundred-fold since the time you started as its sole employee, can you say something about the organization's evolving mission? Do you attribute LTSC's increasingly holistic outlook to the pressures of gentrification, civic expansion, and quality of life issues, or does its broadening mission reflect enhanced organizational capacity and civic will? 

BW: Such a great question!  There is a strong interplay between community needs and organizational capacity which translates into program development.   When LTSC started, we had a clear goal to address the needs of the needy who lived in or came to Little Tokyo for help - mostly low-income, non-English-speaking elderly who lived in the cheap residential hotels.   We had one major grant and so our focus and capacity was very limited.  On the other hand, our vision was very clear - to eventually become a comprehensive multi-purpose community service agency and so I had another mandate - to try to be responsive to the broader needs of the community, and if there was no one else doing the job (or doing it poorly), then perhaps LTSC should develop something in response to these diverse needs.   As we began to address other needs in the community (such as the need for more affordable housing), LTSC gradually began to expand beyond just a social service agency to becoming a "community development corporation" or what is called a "CDC".  Our current motto "Helping People - Building Community" tries to capture this dual mission of both client services and neighborhood revitalization.

In which of LTSC's achievements do you take most pride? What are its most enduring contributions to the Little Tokyo community?

BW: It's hard to answer - partly because there are so many skilled and dedicated LTSC staff who work on these various projects.  Our affordable housing projects, about a dozen of various sizes spread throughout the County, are a lasting and visual reminder of our community development work, but I was also very touched by a comment made by a consultant in the nonprofit sector who told me recently that "LTSC has developed a reputation of being one of the best nonprofits in Southern California" and that was nice to hear because it reflects on all of our staff's efforts.

What was your roadmap to engaging with the organized historic preservation movement? Do you have any observations regarding Asian Pacific Islander history and the field of preservation?

BW: My personal journey has taken me on a 180-degree change of heart regarding preservation and involved the recognition of the historic section of Little Tokyo as a National Historic Landmark.  About a dozen years ago, when I heard that some folks (like the local Community Redevelopment Agency and the LA Conservancy) wanted to establish Little Tokyo as a NHL, my first reaction was " What for?  Why keep these ugly old buildings when it would be better to tear them down and put up some shiny new ones?"   After that, it was a process of learning that historic resources like the Old Union Church which played such an important role in the long history of Little Tokyo and during the dark days of the World War II anti-Japanese hysteria, cannot be allowed to be torn down and the history forgotten.  I met some preservation pioneers like Gail DuBrow who inspired me to think that the local community has a right and obligation to determine what is historically significant.  I also became aware that many years ago, there used to be a neighborhood in LA called "Little Italy" but it is now disappeard, and today, almost no one even knows such a place ever existed.  I didn't want that to happen to the history and the contributions of the Japanese American community here in Los Angeles.

After the establishment of the Little Tokyo NHL, LTSC was asked if it would be the "steward" of the Little Tokyo NHL and there being no one else willing to do so, we accepted.   I attended my first National Trust confernce in 2004 mainly to learn what LTSc should be doing to be a good NHL steward.  I attended as a Diversity Scholarship recipient and wanted to soak up as much as I could about historic preservation - and the conference was good for that purpose.  I was, at the same time, very surprised that though the numbers of African American participants were significant, there were shockingly very few Asian American and Pacific Islanders in attendance - perhaps a half-dozen or so.  I wondered why this should be the case, and thought that perhaps the preservation, which is itself not an old movement, has yet to take root in the API community because it is just now gaining consciousness about preservation of its historic resources.  Most older API communities are either Japanese or Chinese; the other communities tend to be newer immigrant communities and do not have any orientation around historic preservation at this time.

Can you tell us something about your own experience as a Japanese American; is there a story about historic preservation, urban expansion, or "home town" in it? Has greater Los Angeles always been your home?

BW: My parents were first-generation (immigrant) Japanese-speaking farmers.  I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and our family would make monthly visits to Little Tokyo to do shopping, get haircuts, see friends, etc.   I found out later that my father and his father before him used to live in Little Tokyo and come frequently to Little Tokyo during its heyday in the 1920's and 1930's.   When I started to work in Little Tokyo as a social worker in the late 1970's, I came to learn about the gradual destruction of Little Tokyo due to civic center expansion and urban-redevelopment and became concerned that the entire community could be erased from its roots.

I and LTSC became more actively involved in historic preservation work because of the Old Union Church project.  In 1994, the Northridge earthquake damaged the Old Union Church and it seemed possible that another major quake could topple the entire building and so LTSC became the developer and restorer of that building (and the NTHP provided key funding for its preservation as an historic building).   The church was one of the oldest Christian churches in Little Tokyo, served generations of families for weddings, funerals, classes, and service programs, and also played a prominent role in the gathering and relocation of many Japanese and Japanese Americans from Los Angeles to the wartime concentration camps built in the interior places of the western US.   It became clear that the destruction of this building would also obliterate most of the history that was attached to it, and so I and LTSC became ardent preservationists because it was now much more personal and closer to home.

You've put down roots in historic preservation and seem to have embraced many of its goals; how would you like to see preservation's landscape grow/change?

BW: When I first attended the NTHP's convention in 2004, it seemed that there was not much being done in the area of the preservation of a living historic ethnic neighborhood like Little Tokyo.   Most of the attention was pretty much focused on presevation of old buildings, or historic sites, and the term "cultural preservation" had more to do with gardens, landscapes, and antiquities.  I and some other colleagues who have been active in the preservation of historic Japantowns (which includes Little Tokyo, of course) are concerned about these things too - but also the preservation of the intangibles such as cultural traditions, values, customs, festivals, etc. which go along with the preservation of the historic ethnic buildings, sites, and neighborhoods.   I am hoping that this preservation of the cultural/ethnic neighborhood "intangibles" will also grow as a major focus in the programs of the NTHP.   The NTHP is blessed to have such knowledgeable and progressive-thinking staff that have already embraced much of what I have expressed in terms of our concerns.

New Asian communities are making their places in America's social and political life, what are some of the opportunities that you see for involving new cultures in efforts to preserve place-based community identity, cultural memory and practice?

BW: This is an area that is still evolving, and the players who can help with the self-definition process that this engenders are still being identified and they are still under-going their own consciousness-raising.  New API immigrant populations may not have the length of history that many historic preservationists might feel is required to be "historic" but at the same time, the history is being made at this very moment when these new communities are just now establishing their ethnic neighborhoods and forming the base for maintaining their unique cultural characteristics. If NTHP staff had been active in central LA in the 1930's and 1940's - just think how different our Little Tokyo community might be today with the benefit of such enlightened minds at work back then?

I understand that you are one of the driving forces behind plans to convene an Asian Pacific Islander preservation conference in spring 2010—what are your ambitions for the meeting?

BW: As far as I know, such a gathering has never taken place, and it seemed like the timing was right for such an event to take place.  There are API historical societies being formed all over the country.   There are now API museums that chronicle the history of their communities in a number of cities across the country.   If we can gather these interested parties - we can learn from each other and find out who is doing what and where.   We need to put into context and try to re-define what the term "historic and cultural preservation" means to our API communities and our API histories and heritage.  We need to find ways to intersect with the broader historic preservation movement so that we can build on each other's work and expertise.

Do you hope for the emergence of an organized Asian Pacific Islander preservation agenda or preservation lobbying body?

BW: I think if we can meet at this first-ever conference and find enough consensus and cooperative spirit to want to continue and do more work as an API caucus/group, then we can begin to lay out a national agenda.   I tend to go with the flow, so my first goal is to actually meet and then be open to whatever and wherever the energy leads us.

Could you tell us a little about "kansha"?

BW:  "Kansha" is a Japanese word that means "appreciation" - generally being appreciative of what others have done for you. Kansha is considered one of the great cultural values in the Nikkei community: a sense of appreciation to our elders and to the ancestors who provide the foundations of one's life.

Little Tokyo is still a vivid and bustling, many-layered place -- a center of business activity, a residential neighborhood, and an enduring source of cultural pride and identity. What are your future hopes for the neighborhood and LTSC? 

BW: Little Tokyo got its start when the first Japanese-owned business opened up 125 years ago in downtown Los Angeles.   It has grown and seen its heyday, it has seen total population removal during WW2, and has encountered nearly 60 years of destruction, community-renewal and now mass-gentrification and demographic-shifts threatening its existence.   But the forces and ideals of historic preservation - the strong desire not to lose this unique and colorful historic ethnic community - will help to preserve the community so it will continue into the long-term future.   LTSC is actively working on making Little Tokyo relevant to the new populations that have sought to be a part of the Little Tokyo community - most of whom are non-ethnic.   We are planning to build a major sports/activities center for basketball and martial arts to attract young families and young adults to return to Little Tokyo.   LTSC is a major player in the development of properties which will help Little Tokyo to point towards a new and modern ethnic enclave, while at the same time welcoming everyone who wants to be a part of the community, and balancing that with the preservation of the historic resources represented in the Old Little Tokyo.