Japanese and Koreans Learn to Live Together in Harmony in L.A.’s Little Tokyo

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2009

Hongsun Kim has heard it all. When the number of Koreans began multiplying in Little Tokyo Towers a few years ago, complaints about them from Japanese residents quickly began to surface, the Los Angeles social worker said.

“They smell of garlic.” “They don’t follow the rules.” “They’re going to take over.” Then, from the Koreans: “The Japanese are snooty.” “They don’t greet you in the elevator.” “They disdain Korean culture.” “They’re trying to push us out.”

As Korean residents and shop owners have increased their presence in Little Tokyo, the historic heart of Southern California’s Japanese American community, the multicultural melding hasn’t always been harmonious. Today, however, the tone in the towers–a 300-unit senior housing facility on 3rd Street–is strikingly different.

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Over the last two years, the residents of Little Tokyo Towers have made their home a case study in containing cultural conflict and building cohesion–a challenge faced by other Los Angeles ethnic neighborhoods, where new populations are joining long-settled ones. The task is particularly delicate when it comes to Japanese and Koreans, whose motherlands are burdened with a long history of conflict stemming from territorial disputes and historical grievances related to Japan’s colonization of Korea in the early 20th century.

But the turnabout in Little Tokyo proves ethnic harmony is possible, Kim and others say.

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Hard-won insight

The rapprochement is led by people like Kim and Yoon, Korea natives fluent in Japanese who are able to connect with both sides.

Yoon, 86, with a genteel mien and impeccable style, grew up under Japan’s colonial rule, where he recalls being forced to bow east to the Japanese emperor every day and sit with his arms raised in punishment for speaking Korean. His father-in-law spent nearly eight years in prison for pressing for Korean independence. “I learned Japanese to fight the Japanese,” Yoon said.

But then, he said, his heart softened after a Japanese military doctor came to his village and labored to cure the local people of tuberculosis, even spending his own money on medicine for them. That, along with Christian teachings of forgiveness, compelled Yoon to work for reconciliation today.

Kim, 38, is a Christian minister and social worker who was born in Seoul and raised in Japan by his missionary parents. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 to work at the Little Tokyo Service Center.

But even though Kim glides easily between the Japanese and Korean languages, his own psychological journey between the two cultures hasn’t always been easy. As a Korean in Japan, he said, he always felt isolated. Yet when he returned to South Korea for compulsory military service at 23, hoping to find a full sense of belonging, he said he was derided as a “half-Jap,” beaten up and verbally abused every day in the army. The experience alienated him from his own culture and sharpened the divide he said he felt between his Korean heritage and Japanese upbringing.

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On the Japanese side, Kimie Takahashi has plunged into Korean-Japanese activities as a student in Yoon’s Korean class, a member of a joint “better relations” committee and a contributor to the “Bridges” newsletter. {snip}

The three friends, who communicate in Japanese, have had to navigate some touchy issues that began surfacing after more Koreans started moving into the towers about five years ago. Although Little Tokyo Towers has always had some multicultural residents, including Koreans, Chinese and African Americans, the population had been overwhelmingly ethnic Japanese since its development in 1975 by four Japanese American organizations.

Today, however, about one-third of the units are occupied by residents of Korean heritage, according to a Little Tokyo Service Center survey. Kim said more Koreans are moving to Little Tokyo because senior facilities in Koreatown are overcrowded, and despite historical tensions with Japanese, Koreans feel more comfortable in an Asian environment than a white or Latino one.

Contentious times

The facility’s shifting demographics have raised hackles among some Japanese Americans. The Rev. Noriaki Ito of the nearby Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, a towers board member, said he has fielded complaints from some community members accusing the facility’s management of taking bribes to move Koreans up the waiting list–accusations the board investigated but found groundless, Ito said.

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The growing complaints soon reached the ears of Kim and others at the service center. At monthly meetings with the facilities’ leadership, the subject of the Korean influx would come up repeatedly, according to Evelyn Yoshimura of the service center.

“It was very ugly,” Yoshimura said. “People would tell us we have to take a stand against Koreans and do something or they would take over.”

The service center decided to do something–but not what exclusionists had in mind. Two years ago, it sponsored a series of four films, two Japanese and two Korean, to share cultures and bring residents together. {snip}

Meanwhile, Yoon and others had started a “Good Neighbors” group of Korean residents in Little Tokyo Towers to help smooth over conflicts. Among other things, they began the joint karaoke nights, learned basic Japanese phrases and published an in-house newsletter asking Korean residents not to leave jars of kimchi outside their doors because Japanese weren’t used to the smell.

Yoon went further, growing vegetables such as shiso, or chrysanthemum leaves, for Japanese residents who like to cook with them. He recently began offering the Korean-language classes, drawing a dozen students.

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But the emotional highlight so far has been the harmony concert organized last summer by Kim and sponsored by a Japanese church association. The concert featured Japanese and Korean traditional dance and music, an Asian American jazz group and three emcees speaking Japanese, Korean and English. Kim, putting on his pastor’s hat and using the parable of the Good Samaritan, delivered a sermon about crossing boundaries to be caring neighbors.

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The tensions have not entirely disappeared, and bilateral politics can easily cause tempers to flare anew. After Japan made what South Korea viewed as provocative statements last summer over disputed islets known as Takeshima or Tokdo, for instance, one Korean musician scheduled to perform at the harmony concert angrily pulled out.

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