Redefining Asian America: Japanese Americans, Gardena, and the Making of a Transnational Suburb

Konko Church of Gardena | Photo: Jeff Allen Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Konko Church of Gardena | Photo: Jeff Allen Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Naomi Hirahara never “got” Raymond Chandler. The dark, mistrustful view of Los Angeles that Chandler’s work so embodied seemed foreign to the award-winning mystery writer. “He has set a tone for stories about the darkness under L.A.’s glitz for 80 years, but I can’t relate to the paranoid view Chandler had of my Los Angeles, or his fear of ‘the other,’ or how his loner detective Philip Marlowe navigated his investigative cases without the weight of family or community,” she confessed in a recent article. Rather the Pasadena-born Japanese American writer knew a life of family and strong immigrant networks. L.A.’s sense of reinvention, not alienation, she confided to readers, was its real asset. “Change at L.A.’s pace creates unreliable characters, and unreliable characters drive mysteries.” Indeed, the postwar shift of Los Angeles suburbs, spearheaded by Japanese Americans who helped to make the South Bay an entrepot of transnational connections, provided no small amount of change.

Hirahara’s piece encapsulates the post 1945 arc of Asian Americans, particularly those of Japanese descent. The kind of stories told by Chandler and other American literary luminaries frequently ignored or marginalized minority characters. Yet in metropolitan Los Angeles millions of non-whites worked, leisured, and loved along side their white counterparts. These lives, long ignored, had their own comedies, tragedies, dramas, and noirs. In places like Boyle Heights, Torrance, Montebello, Altadena, and Gardena, Latinos, Asian Americans, and blacks built lives full of mystery and excitement, even if these stories rarely found a mass audience or critical acclaim. Japanese Americans created the built environment as much as much as anyone else, and few suburbs demonstrate Asian American agency like South Bay’s Gardena.

In the early 1900s, Japanese had begun to work in the agricultural fields in San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, and Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Denied citizenship by immigration laws and property ownership by state Alien Land Acts, Japanese Americans and other Asians endured categorizations as “perpetual foreigners,” which marginalized their place in local communities and larger society. These restrictions had real economic effects, as prior to WWII Japanese American homeownership lagged behind other L.A. residents. Overall, 40 percent of the city’s residents owned a home and 30 percent of its African American citizens could say the same, but only 12 percent of its Japanese Americans had achieved homeownership. 1

When internment came, a good portion of the hysteria and racism directed at Japanese Americans could be traced to jealousy over economic competition in agriculture, but their alleged “foreignness” provided the necessary justification. However, the Cold War, changing international economics, and the efforts of Japanese Americans would not only transform Gardena into “the ultimate Japanese American suburb,” but also paralleled the emergence of “the Mexican Beverly Hills” and “first suburban Chinatown” in Monterey Park. Even more critically, as demonstrated by Hillary Jenks, Director of the Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties, transnational connections that once justified discrimination could now be marshaled to celebrate Asian Americans.

Japanese family in a Gardena strawberry field, 1912 | Photo: County of Los Angeles Public Library
Japanese family in a Gardena strawberry field, 1912 | Photo: County of Los Angeles Public Library

Post Internment

“It was a grave and terrible injustice perpetrated on the Japanese in our midst,” former Mayor Fletcher Bowron told radio broadcasters in 1956. “Those in whom we lost faith, never lost faith in us,” he admitted. Bowron himself had led the charge for the internment of Japanese Americans. Yet in just over a decade, many of internment’s main proponents had acknowledged their error. Bowron’s position represented a wider shift that had unfolded in Cold War America: discrimination against minorities, particularly Asian Americans, served as propaganda for communists internationally. With U.S. economic and political interests in the Far East — the rebuilding of Japan, the Korean War, and China’s turn to communism — many white Americans conceded, even if grudgingly, discrimination, or at least overt gestures of such, needed to be limited.

Returning from internment, Japanese Americans tended to settle in one of two ways. Many moved into eastern suburbs like Montebello, San Gabriel, and Monterey Park, while others migrated to Crenshaw. “[T]he Japanese sort of moved in wholesale in the Crenshaw area,” longtime area resident Kats Kunitsugu remembered. Movement from older areas already settled by Japanese Americans, into new communities excited observers like journalist Harry Honda. “[I]t is always amazing to some who have been in Los Angeles since it reopened its gate to the Japanese where some of the Nisei families are purchasing new homes – in districts hitherto unfamiliar to circulation managers of the Japanese newspapers,” the Japanese American reporter wrote in 1948. 2

While L.A.’s interracial universe has been widely discussed, the diversity of the South Bay receives less attention. Many of those that moved east out of the city moved into areas they believed to be more tolerant. Developers sometimes advertised in ethnic newspapers like Rafu Shimpo, promising neighborhoods that welcomed “Nihonjin” homeowners. Living on Crenshaw and Olympic, June Aochi Berk’s family realized that due to residential segregation in the city, they could not move much further. As a result in 1960, they moved to Granada Hills as Berk told interviewers years later, “I moved out to Granada Hills because that builder said he wanted people of color […] It was a community that was known to be open to all minorities.” 3

Stung by internment and wary of violence, after four houses in the West Adams neighborhood were bombed between 1951 and 1952 — two African American and two Japanese American — Japanese Americans sought to expand their options but to do so carefully. Others too confided that for some Japanese Americans, Crenshaw’s homes, though much appreciated by their owners, represented a stepping-stone to greater prosperity and newly minted subdivisions. “[T]here was another big movement out of Crenshaw,” Kunitsugu told interviewers in 1998, “to Gardena, Monterey Park, and Orange County, eventually […] they were looking for a new home after that.” 4

Somewhat ironically, Japanese American expansion into Crenshaw and suburban Los Angeles related to occupational good fortune. Many Japanese Americans migrated to gardening and landscaping because of a segregated labor market and the promise of profits in exchange for hard work. One could become a successful gardener with little capital and a cursory understanding of English. Moreover, the job gave workers a sense of independence and entrepreneurialism. Whites believed that their Nisei and Issei Angelenoes made better gardeners than Anglo counterparts. “‘Japanese Americans’ prewar reputation for horticultural proficiency,” wrote sociologists of the time, “stereotyped them and made it possible for those who had never done gardening to get contracts.” Immediately after WWII, roughly half of all Japanese American men in L.A. County worked as gardeners, and in 1955 they formed the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation. While the federation’s membership peaked at over 5,000 in the 1970s, due in part to their ability to suburbanize, the proportion of gardeners began to shrink much earlier to only about one quarter in the 1950s. 5

While critical to postwar suburbanization, Japanese American gardeners did not enjoy sympathetic popular depictions in earlier eras. For example, Raymond Chandler portrayed them as some sort of “other.” The aforementioned Hirahara reflected, “I can’t stand the fact that, in Farewell My Lovely, Chandler writes about Marlowe arriving at a seaside estate:

Through a green gate I saw a Jap gardener at work weeding a huge lawn. He was pulling a piece of weed out of the vast velvet expanse and sneering at it the way Jap gardeners do.

One need only think about portrayals of Asian Americans in the 1970s classic “Chinatown” to realize the persistence of such attitudes. After all, as historian Charlotte Brooks asserts, Nisei residents, on average had attained equal or superior rates of education to their white peers, yet remained confined to the profession of gardening for over a decade after the war. 6

Paradoxically, the same process that fueled this boom in Japanese American landscaping could also undermine it. Sure “the mushrooming suburbs” guaranteed gardeners in Boyle Heights, Gardena, Crenshaw, and Pasadena, a nearly unending vista of work and profit, but those landscapers who leased their land, nursery proprietors and truck farmers for example, “faced eviction when landlords sold holdings to a developer or subdivided the land for tract homes,” notes Brooks. 7

Kashu Realty had branches in Crenshaw, Wilshire, Los Feliz, and Monterey Park | Google Street View
Kashu Realty had branches in Crenshaw, Wilshire, Los Feliz, and Monterey Park | Google Street View

As did their peers of all ethnicities and races, Japanese Americans dreamt of homeownership but, in order to avoid conflict, they developed an infrastructure of real estate brokers who carefully felt out neighborhoods for settlement and served as a bridge for new homeowners in places like Crenshaw, Gardena, Monterey Park and elsewhere. Some agents like Don Nakajima went so far as to survey neighboring white residents to gauge their opinions regarding Japanese American homeowners in their community.

Kazuo Inouye, a veteran of the war, opened branches of Kashu Realty in the Crenshaw District, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Feliz, and in Monterey Park, helping his fellow Japanese Americans and other minorities find homes in growing multiracial communities. 8 He placed ads in black, Latino, and Japanese American newspapers and on occasion utilized more questionable tactics. For example, he sometimes told new owners that the law “required them to keep their ‘for sale’ sign up a month after moving,” points out Jenks. “[The law] didn’t but the forest of signs probably amplified the sense of a neighborhood in transition.” Still, Inouye seemed committed to the idea of vibrant Los Angeles communities populated by people of color. “[T]he blacks and Japanese always got along” in Crenshaw, he would recall, and one could stroll down Jefferson Boulevard “at nighttime […] and no one would bother us.” 9

Like his clients, Inouye faced his own obstacles. Monterey Park’s real estate board made him wait two years for approval, and even then he had to circumvent the questions of white realtors worried about neighborhood racial changes. “I would only sell to people who would be an asset to the city of Monterey Park,” Inouye would reply, an answer vague enough to be indisputable. 10
Once Rundown Suburb

Described by one historian as a “once rundown suburb” south of Los Angeles, Gardena by the 1950s had become home to many Japanese Americans. Even prior to internment, a small Japanese American community had settled in the then largely agricultural community, and had established several local institutions including a Baptist Church, a Buddhist temple, and a language school. A small Japantown developed on Western Avenue with a theater, store, barber, pool hall and tofu factory. While the city council engaged in the same hysteria as the rest of the region in the 1940s, voting to intern its Japanese American citizens, many Nisei returned to the town after the war, even establishing a hostel at 1425 W. 166th Street. 11

For the burgeoning numbers of Japanese American realtors, gardeners, businessmen, and others, Gardena represented an unprecedented opportunity. In L.A.’s Little Toyko, plenty of Japanese American realtors already operated, but “Gardena was a wide open business,” noted issei realtor Don Nakajima. Nakajima, along with nisei Kiyoto “Ken” Nakaoka, went into business and they, like fellow realtor Steve Tatsukawa, drew new residents to the suburb. “Hundreds of Japanese American families from the depths of East L.A. and the flatlands of the westside began pouring into Gardena,” Tatsukawa told interviewers. Huge tracts of homes began filling with Asians who were climbing into the middle class of American society.” 12

Gardena’s new arrivals reshaped the town using family and transnational networks, in particular those connected to Japan, to establish new businesses and draw industry to the town. In 1955, the Town and Country Shopping Center opened, resulting from collaboration between Japanese American business leaders. Stores like Koby’s Appliances, Kyoto Sukiyaki, and Kaji and Associates accounting firm populated the shopping center.

These efforts resulted in an undeniable transformation of Gardena. By the 1970s, Gardena counted 44,000 residents, 52 percent white, 15 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian (mostly Japanese American at the time), and 13 percent African American. Over 8,000 persons of Japanese descent lived in the South Bay town and nearly one third of its businesses were owned or operated by Japanese Americans or Japanese nationals. One could say the same of half of the city services and numerous Japanese Americans ascended to elected political positions. In 1960, Bruce Kaji won election to the position of town treasurer, Ken Nakaoka became its first Japanese American on the city council in 1966, and Gardena elected the nation’s first Japanese American mayor in 1972. The Los Angeles Times wrote that in Gardena no serious candidate, of whatever ethnic or racial background, could hope to win office “‘without the support of Japanese American voters.'” 13

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute began as a Japanese language school in 1912 | Photo: Gardena Valley JCI
Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute began as a Japanese language school in 1912 | Photo: Gardena Valley JCI

The city’s economic growth depended in large part on the familial and transnational connections of its leading citizens. Nakaoka, who later became mayor, operated as a cultural broker, serving as a bridge between Japanese industrialists like Toyota, Seiko, Mazda, and Hitachi, among others, and the town. Nakaoka’s background as a native Angeleno and Military Intelligence Service veteran fluent in Japanese enabled him to mediate deals between manufactures in Japan and the town. Stationed in Japan for three years during America’s postwar occupation, Nakaoka lived in the home of a “prominent and well connected Irimajiri family in the Kochi prefecture,” a position that undoubtedly gave him advantages when attracting Japanese investment to Gardena, notes Jenks. Nakaoka’s mayoral predecessor took advantage of similar opportunities. Bruce Kaji, also a MIS veteran fluent in Japanese, capitalized on referrals from issei attorneys to secure accounts for three different Toyota corporations when they established a stateside presence in the 1950s. By the 1970s, Los Angeles branches of Japanese banks sought out issei and nisei customers, often turning to Nakoaka and others; Japanese businesses looking to break ground did the same. When a distribution center for Sapporo beer opened on Rosecrans Boulevard in Gardena, Nakaoka could claim credit.

Other benefits flowed to the community. Companies like Toyota invested philanthropically, giving $15,000 in 1974 for the reconstruction of the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute; Nissan’s Yutaka Katayama added $15,000 and American Honda another $10,000.

If perpetual foreigner stereotypes plagued Japanese Americans in earlier decades, by the late 1960s Gardena’s population saw these transnational connections as their best hope for economic success. Its 1968 factbook, essentially an advertisement aimed at drawing in new homeowners and businesses, featured a Japanese garden on its cover and celebrated the suburb as “a balanced community” highlighting the opportunities that awaited businesses looking to settle in a community with clear connections to Asian markets. 14

These connections proved vital to Gardena’s well-being when, like much of the L.A. region, the town faced economic downturn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Along with deindustrialization and the recession of the aerospace industry, the passage of Prop 13 strained city finances across the region. For decades, many Angelenos had referred to Gardena as “Little Las Vegas” because of its successful and legal poker clubs. 15 However, in the wake of reduced tax revenues, neighboring suburbs like Bell and Commerce removed gambling bans, thereby cutting into Gardena revenues. Luckily, the transnational businesses of Gardena kept it more than afloat. By 1984, Asian companies invested roughly $200 million into the suburb. 16

Demographically, present day Gardena retains an impressive level of diversity: 38 percent Latino, 27 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 24 percent black, and 10 percent white. With three Japanese Americans, two Latinos, and two African Americans on its city council, political representation in the suburb reflects its demographic diversity. Admittedly, interaction between communities, particularly African and Asian Americans, has not always been fluid or conflict free, as the town’s spatial patterns attest. 17

In the end, Japanese Americans in Gardena harnessed their transnational connections, once the source of discrimination against them, into a tool for economic growth. They found success gardening in the 1940s and 50s, formed an infrastructure of real estate interests to find new homes and secure political power, and drew upon familial and transnational connections to Asian manufacturers in 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to expand Gardena’s economy. Hirahara was right; change makes L.A. fascinating, not alienation. The tale of Gardena’s growth from its Japanese farmers in the early 1900s, to its gardeners and realtors of midcentury, to its boosters and elected leaders of the late twentieth century has its own share of protagonists and villains, which as Hirahara argues correctly, makes it a story worth telling.


1 Hillary Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration: Suburbanization and Transnational Citizenship in Southern California’s South Bay,” Journal of Urban History, 40 (January 2014): 9.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid, 9-10.
4 Ibid, 25.
5  Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing and the Transformation of Urban California, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 169; Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration,” 27.
6 Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 216.
7 Ibid.
8 Mike Sonksen, “A People’s Guide to Los Angeles and Gary Phillips,” KCET, October 19, 2012, accessed August 15, 2014
9 Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration,” 11; Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A Peoples Guide to Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012).
10 Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration,” 10-11.
11 Ibid, 15.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, 16.
14 Ibid, 19.
15 Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 217.
16 Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration,” 16, 20.
17 Ibid, 23.

This article originally appeared under the Intersections column for KCET Departures in August 2014.