Shots Fired: Year of the Dragon Fires Up Protest, Mourning and Mayhem for Downtown’s Little Tokyo

The Year of the Dragon brings a mix of celebration and hardship for downtown’s Little Tokyo, painting January as a challenging start to the new year for the historic Japanese-American neighborhood.

No sooner than the charm of this year’s Oshogatsu Festival wear off, the community has since been rattled by a series of unfortunate incidents.

On Friday, January 19, 2024, gunshots disrupted the cheery atmosphere inside Nijiya Market, in Little Tokyo’s main tourist hub, Japanese Village Plaza. An escalated argument between two acquaintances left one victim injured and headed to the hospital. Within the panicked, scattering crowds, at least one additional person suffered injuries during the chaotic aftermath.

This unsettling event echoed a similar occurrence from July 2023, when armed suspects fled through Japanese Village Plaza.

Waves of Traditions Lost

Just days before the clock struck 12am on January 1, 2024, Rafu Shimpo, Jtown’s longest running independent news outlet, reported on the eviction of Elaine Taiyoshi’s Little Tokyo Arts and Gifts.

The gift shop, standing since the days of World War II, sells Japanese imports and is a popular go to attraction because of its history of keeping up with tradition.

Only a few months after Metro’s Little Tokyo/Arts District Station’s grand opening, promising the area greater commerce, there’s been growing concern amongst the long-term residents of displacement and gentrification, blamed on Jtown’s growing mass of Korean developments. The gift shop is now headed into the unknown after serving the Little Tokyo community and adding to its tourism lure for over eight decades.

Make a Wish… Oh Wait… Maybe Not.

News of Japanese Village Plaza management’s determination to rid one of its trees of hundreds of paper wishes strung to the branches of “Little Tokyo’s Wishing Tree” sparked outrage on social media over the weekend with more than one comment blaming gentrification.

The Wishing Tree drew its inspiration from Japan’s Tanabata celebration, during which individuals, regardless of age, express their wishes on vibrant paper strips known as tanzaku.

The former wishing tree, once flourishing with the fruit of its enchanted tanzaku attachments is now bare. Management reasoned, the paper extensions situated the tree too close to surrounding structures posing a fire hazard.

Protest over the Closing of Suehiro Cafe

Beyond these incidents, Little Tokyo faced additional blows with the beloved Suehiro Café, an institution since 1972, being forced to close its doors after more than five decades. Amidst more talk of gentrification, Kenji Suzuki, grappling with challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, received an eviction notice, compelling the relocation of the iconic restaurant, which now resides on 4th and Main in the Old Town District.

To compound the difficult start to the year, the community also mourns the passing of Alan Nishio, the longest-tenured board president of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC). Nishio, an iconic figure and wise mentor, lost his battle with cancer. He was 78.

Little Tokyo will host a Celebration of Life in Nishio’s honor. A Celebration of Life for Alan Nishio will be held on February 10, 2024, from 2-4 PM at Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo. In lieu of flowers or koden, the Nishio family would appreciate memorial contributions to Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC).

A rough start to January as Little Tokyo weathers the storm, but as the clouds part, one of downtown’s main tourist attractions, Japanese Village Plaza, has resumed normalcy, holding on to its welcoming sense of calm.

Author: Keri Freeman

Military mom and proud parent, artist, writer, musician and film maker. Cocktail connoisseur. Publisher of DTLA Weekly.