The Japanese Community

Compiled by Clifton L. Holland


Maps on Japanese population distribution and density in Los Angeles County

Philip J. Ethington, History Department, USC, has created a website on Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge. See the following website for a series of maps by Ethington on Asian population distribution, 1940-1990:

The American Cities Atlas Project is a continuing public education project of Professor William Bowen of California State University Northridge. For maps on Japanese population distribution and density in Los Angeles County based on 1990 Census see:

The IDEA Strategic Mapping and Information Service, directed by Clifton L. Holland, has produced a series of computer maps on ethnic and religious diversity in the Los Angeles 5-County Region by census tracts, based on the 1990 Census of Population.   See the following links:   

Los Angeles County:  ../laco/japanese.pdf   (note PDF format).   Orange County:  ../orco/d-as-jap.pdf   (note PDF format).

The 2000 Census listed 111,349 Japanese residents in Los Angeles County and 31,283 in Orange County, for a total of 142,632. 

* * *

A History of Japanese Americans in California:

The first Japanese American community organization of record in the United States was the Gospel Society or Fukuin Kai, established in October 1877 in San Francisco.  The Gospel Society offered English classes, operated a boarding house, and provided a place for Japanese to meet. With the influence of White Christians, the religious orientation of the society developed.  Out of this organization eventually came the Japanese Christian churches, some of which were established in the 1890s.

The issei established three types of organizations in the communities they settled:   churches, political/social organizations called by various names, and Japanese-language schools.  Churches, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Shinto, were the focus of activity for most Japanese communities, and often were the earliest organizations to be established. Subsequently, churches expanded beyond religious services as women's organizations (fujinkai) became active, and youth groups were established with the advent of children. The churches provided both religious sustenance and a social life. It is estimated that before World War II, 85 percent of Japanese were Buddhist. Possibly the sole Japanese American community with only a Christian church was Livingston (Yamato Colony).  During the World War II internment, churches served as storage centers for personal property left behind by Japanese Americans, and as hostels for returning evacuees.  The churches themselves organized into umbrella groups such as the Buddhist Churches of America, the Japanese Evangelical Mission Society, the Holiness Conference, and the Northern and Southern California Christian Church Federation.  Most of the original congregations still exist today.


* * *

A History of Japanese Americans in California:

Most Japanese immigrants entered the United States through San Francisco.  Other ports-of-entry were Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. As a result, the first large settlement of Japanese in California was in San Francisco. U.S. Census figures trace the movement and settlement of Japanese over the years.

In 1890, 590 Japanese were in San Francisco, with 184 in Alameda County and 51 in Sacramento County. A scattering of residents appeared throughout California, with the smallest number in the Southern California area.  Little is known about these early Japanese immigrants. Speculation is that they worked for the railroad, were laborers, or performed miscellaneous tasks, such as chopping wood or domestic service. By 1890, the move into agricultural work had begun in the Vacaville area, Solano County.   By then a Japanese had been buried in the Visalia Public Cemetery in Tulare County, and labor contractors were beginning to gather new immigrants to work in a number of industries such as the railroads, oil fields, and agriculture.

By 1900, the same Northern California counties still had the largest numbers of Japanese, but the population had increased tremendously with movement into other parts of the state. San Francisco had 1,781 Japanese, Sacramento County 1,209, and Alameda County 1,149. In addition, Monterey County had 710, Fresno County 598, San Joaquin County 313, Santa Clara County 284, Contra Costa County 276, and Santa Cruz County 235.   Agricultural work drew immigrants to what were then rural areas.  In many communities, nihonmachi (Japanese sections of town) were developed, with establishment of small businesses catering to the needs of immigrants.

By 1900, Southern California had a Japanese population of approximately 500, with the largest concentration in Los Angeles County.  But already the immigrants had begun efforts to establish themselves. Ulysses Shinsei Kaneko, for example, became one of the first Japanese naturalized in California, in San Bernardino County in 1896.  Businesses in towns and cities had been in operation for almost a decade.   Buddhist churches and Japanese Christian churches had been established earlier.   Japanese had purchased property, and a few nisei children had been born.

City trades included domestic service and businesses catering to other Japanese — boarding houses, restaurants, barbershops, bathhouses, gambling houses, and pool halls.   Labor contractors drew immigrants away from the cities to work for the railroads, canneries, and farms. Japanese laborers were an important element in California agriculture by the turn of the century.

Other immigrants initiated their own enterprises and industries.  Some of these included industries the Chinese had pioneered earlier. Fishing and abalone industries developed at White Point and Santa Monica Canyon in Los Angeles County, and at Point Lobos in Monterey County.  Kinji Ushijima, also known as George Shima, continued the reclamation work begun by Chinese in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.  Shima eventually reclaimed more than 100,000 acres of land with the help of many laborers.   The land now grows potatoes, asparagus, onions, and other produce.

Between 1900 and 1910, Japanese began to buy property and establish farms, vineyards, and orchards.  All-Japanese communities developed in agricultural areas in central California, including Florin in Sacramento County (which the Japanese called Taishoku), Bowles in Fresno County, and the Yamato Colony at Livingston in Merced County.

By 1910, a distinct change had occurred in the California Japanese population, which then numbered 41,356.  A move to the southern part of the state began, and the number of women in the community steadily increased.  By the late 1920s, females constituted one-third of the Japanese population.  Los Angeles County became the most populous Japanese settlement, with 8,461, and has remained so to this day. A major stimulus for the move south was the rapid expansion of the Los Angeles area during the Southern California boom period. Many Japanese also migrated to Los Angeles in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake.

San Francisco remained the second most populous, however, with 4,518 Japanese.   Next came Sacramento County with 3,874, Alameda County with 3,266, Santa Clara County with 2,299, and Fresno County with 2,233.  Other counties having more than 1,000 Japanese included Contra Costa, Monterey, and San Joaquin.  The large increases in the population were a reflection of unrestricted immigration of male laborers until 1908, entrance of Japanese women into the United States, and the resultant in crease in the birth of children.  Numerous nihonmachi had been established in California, ranging from Selma's one block of businesses catering to Japanese in Fresno County, to whole sections of town in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose.

The Japanese population of Los Angeles County more than doubled by 1920, increasing to 19,911, more than three times as many as the next most populous county, Sacramento, with 5,800.  California's total Japanese population numbered 71,952. Fresno County had 5,732, San Francisco 5,358, and Alameda 5,221. San Joaquin County increased its population of Japanese to 4,354. Other counties with Japanese populations of more than 1,000 included Monterey, Orange, Placer, San Diego, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Tulare. This population increase was due almost to tally to the immigration of women and the birth of children. By this time, the economic basis of the Japanese community had been firmly established in agriculture and its offshoots — wholesaling, retailing, distributing. The Japanese organized their produce and flower industries vertically, resulting in a system in which all operations were owned and operated by Japanese, from raising the plants to retail sales.  This resulted in organizations such as the Southern California Flower Market in Los Angeles, the California Flower Market in San Francisco, Lucky Produce in Sacramento, and the City Market in Los Angeles.  Cooperatives like Naturipe in Watsonville, Santa Cruz County, were organized to improve the growing, packing, and marketing of crops produced by Japanese farmers.

Small businesses were numerous at this time.  Many of the "city trades" were directly tied to rural occupations, particularly agricultural labor. Businesses such as boarding houses, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, and gambling houses were dependent on the constant traffic of single male laborers who traveled a circuit in California from one crop to the next, from the Imperial Valley to the Sacramento Valley. The Miyajima Hotel, a boarding house in Lodi, San Joaquin County, was one such business catering to agricultural laborers. Other city businesses were also oriented toward farming interests. For example, a number of Japanese entrepreneurs operating general merchandise stores had regular routes to the surrounding countryside, taking orders and making deliveries for food and other sup plies. Kamikawa Brothers in Fresno and Tsuda's in Auburn provided this service.

During the decade of 1910-20, Japanese farmers became important producers and growers of crops:  truck farming along the coast, in the Central Valley, and in Southern California; grapes and tree fruit in the Central Valley and Southern California; strawberries in a number of different locations; and rice in Northern California. Japanese were very much involved in experimenting with different strains of rice at the Biggs Rice Experiment Station in Butte County where Kenju Ikuta demonstrated that rice could be produced commercially. In addition, a large number of other Japanese were engaged in farming, distributing, and retailing of rice during this period. In later decades, Keisaburo Koda, known among the Japanese as the "rice king," established a ranch near Dos Palos in Merced County, where he produced new strains of rice.

The 1930 census shows that Los Angeles County still had the most Japanese, almost doubling its population, to 35,390.  California's Japanese population numbered 97,456.  Los Angeles had more than four times as many Japanese as did the second county, Sacramento, which had 8,114.  Close in number were San Francisco with 6,250, Alameda with 5,715, Fresno with 5,280, San Joaquin with 4,339, and Santa Clara with 4,320. Again, the increase can be attributed to immigration of Japanese women as well as the birth of children. Because immigration was totally curtailed in 1924, however, the birth of children probably was the more important reason, numerically speaking. Another source for population increases was migration from other parts of the country.   Some Japanese residents of Seattle, Washington, for example, moved to Los Angeles County during the 1930s because of increased economic opportunities during a period of nationwide depression.

This period, however, was a time of growth for most nihonmachi throughout California.   Almost every agricultural area with a population of Japanese residents had a flourishing Japanese section of town.  Cooperatives established in previous years were functioning at their peak.  Nisei children were in schools and beginning to enter the labor market. This subtle change can be noted in such things as Japanese-language newspapers adding English sections to their publications, and Japanese church youth organizations being organized.

The 1940 census shows little change from the 1930 figures. During this decade, the Japanese population of California decreased from 97,456 to 93,717, although a few counties like Los Angeles continued to increase.  During the years 1942-45, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in 10 fenced and guarded concentration camps.   Two of these camps were located in California:  Manzanar in Inyo County and Tule Lake in Modoc County. The camp at Tule Lake did not close until March 1946. Encouraged by the War Relocation Authority to resettle in the East and Midwest, approximately one-third of the internees chose this alternative. Some never returned to the West Coast.

Those who did return had to rebuild lives that had been dramatically altered by the concentration camp experience. In some communities, one-third or more of the Japanese population did not return.  Moreover, some nihonmachi did not survive.   Non-Japanese businesses and residents had moved into sections of town previously occupied by Japanese Americans.  The war was also a turning point in generational control of businesses, churches, and community politics, as the adult children of immigrants began to dominate in all spheres of Japanese activities.

The Japanese population of California decreased to 84,956, according to the 1950 census.  Los Angeles County had the largest population, with 36,761. San Francisco, Alameda, Fresno, Sacramento, and Santa Clara counties each had 4,000-6,000 Japanese residents. This period was one of intensive efforts to re-establish Japanese American communities. After serving as hostels for returning internees, churches re-instituted their usual activities and services. The struggle for economic survival began anew. Those nihonmachi able to be rebuilt were again the centers of the Japanese American community, but were less oriented to the immigrant generation. For example, during the 1930s, landscape gardening emerged as an occupation. It gained in importance after World War II as the numbers of nisei working as gardeners increased.

The decade 1950-60 saw almost a doubling of the Japanese population in California, to 157,317.  Los Angeles County again led the state with 77,314, more than seven times the number in Santa Clara County, which had 10,432 Japanese residents. This large increase is generally attributed to the birth of sansei, the third generation of Japanese. A secondary but far less important reason numerically was the gradual return to the West Coast of individuals who had resettled to other areas during the World War II internment. A minor increase may also be attributed to Japanese women immigrating from Asia as wives of U.S. servicemen.

The birth of children resulted in a resurgence of activities in churches, Japanese-language schools, and athletic leagues.  The Japanese population had made the transition from a rural to an urban population with the economic base less oriented to agriculture, although this was still important.  In urban areas, Japanese women frequently worked in secretarial-clerical positions, while men obtained jobs in technical professional areas.  This pattern generally holds true today, although with sansei children in their adult years now, there is increasing technical and professional training, and occupations of greater diversity for both males and females.


* * *

Little Tokyo in Los Angeles

Little Tokyo is an ethnic Japanese American area in downtown Los Angeles, one of three official Japantowns left in the United States. Founded around the beginning of the 20th century, the area, sometimes called Lil' Tokyo, J-Town, or Sho-tokyo (Japanese), is the cultural center for Japanese Americans in Southern California.

At its peak, Little Tokyo had approximately 30,000 Japanese Americans living in the area.  While a shadow of what it once was in terms of population (only about 1,000 mostly elderly residents actually live there now), Little Tokyo is still the undisputed cultural focal point for Los Angeles's Japanese American population.  It is mainly a work and entertainment district, because Japanese Americans today are likely to live in cities such as Torrance and Gardena, located just south of Los Angeles.

Map of Little Toyko in 1940-1950 (PDF)

What is left of the original Little Tokyo can be found in roughly four large city blocks.  It is bounded on the west by Los Angeles Street, on the east by Alameda Street, on the south by 3rd Street, and on the north by First Street and the Los Angeles Civic Center.   More broadly, Little Tokyo is bordered by the Los Angeles River to the east, downtown Los Angeles to the west, L.A. City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department's Parker Center to the north, and the newly named Artist District (made up of warehouses converted into live-work lofts) to the south.


* * *

The Japanese Community on Terminal Island, San Pedro

In an extreme instance, the historical memories of one Japanese community were lost in its entirety. What had happened in Terminal Island, a fishing community near San Pedro, California, is the case in point. It was their misfortune that this community of fishermen who cruised and fished in the coastal waters for their livelihood happened to be located adjacent to naval facilities. Authorities kept their watchful eyes on the activities of these Japanese fishermen in the late 1930s. And, soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, Issei fishermen together with community leaders were taken into custody as suspected enemy aliens. Some families began to move out of Terminal Island voluntarily. Then, the Navy suddenly issued an order on February 25, 1942 demanding that the still remaining two hundred families be removed from Terminal Island by the night of the 27th, only three days later. The forced evacuation of the Japanese residents from Terminal Island, therefore, began five days before Executive Order 9066 went into effect. As most of the adult men had already been detained, women and children had to try to comply with the order in panic. They were forced to sell their families' belongings for a few dollars to wicked dealers who flocked to prey on these unfortunate victims. Whatever they could not get rid of, they dumped into the bay. Reportedly, sunken to the bottom of the bay were books, personal records, photographs and newspaper files.

According to Nanka-sh Nihonjin Shichij-nen Shi [characters] [Japanese in Southern California: A History of 70 Years], Terminal Island was a rapidly growing center of the Japanese fishing industry on the West Coast. A fishermen's association was established in 1915 with a membership of 268 and 152 fishing vessels.    In 1930, Issei and their Nisei children, a total of about 3000, were living in this community.  In 1940, there were 5 medical clinics, 2 drug stores, 21 stores, 14 restaurants, 5 tailors, 2 photographers, 5 barbers, three Japanese language schools, a Japanese language press, a Baptist Church, a Tenriky temple, and a Shint shrine. Nearly all of the 600 pupils who were attending the Terminal Island Public School were Nisei children in that year. Most of the Issei men worked as fishermen, or were employed in the fishing industry; most of the Issei women worked in canneries.

Today, researchers can learn very little about this interesting Japanese fishing community in Southern California. The former residents of Terminal Island could not return to the community after the war, as their community became part of the expanded naval facilities, a restricted area.  The returned evacuees from this community, therefore, were scattered throughout Southern California and had to seek new places of residence and employment.  Few of the historiographical materials are known to have been saved.  For example, the publisher's file of the Minami Engan Jih [characters] [The Southern Coast Herald], a weekly newspaper published in Japanese on Terminal Island, continuously since 1927 until the outbreak of the Pacific War, was lost. Nor are there any materials which can inform researchers about the experiences of fishermen and cannery workers, the working conditions at canneries, or daily lives in this community.  Even when a former resident of Terminal Island is fortunate enough to be located, one has to listen to a sad story that everything is at the bottom of the bay.


* * *

The Japanese Community in Gardena

ardena, once the berry-growing capital of southern California, is today called the "Freeway City" because it is bordered by the Artesia, Harbor, and San Diego freeways to its south, east, and west, respectively.   Its modern-day urban designation is a far cry from Gardena's early reputation as a "garden spot," a lush oasis of greenery fed by the waters of the Dominguez Slough.  Long before it was officially incorporated in 1930 by combining the rural communities of Moneta and Strawberry Park, Gardena was known first by Gabrielino Indians and later Spanish and American settlers as a long green stretch of land amidst coastal sage scrub.

The community originally evolved from part of the roughly 43,000-acre Spanish land grant, the Rancho San Pedro, given to Juan Jose Dominguez around 1800.  The site was later named the Rosecrans Rancho after Union Army Major General William Starke Rosecrans, who bought 16,000 acres following the Civil War.  This land would later be bordered on the north by Florence Avenue, on the south by Redondo Beach Boulevard, on the east by Central Avenue, and on the west by Arlington Avenue.  After the property changed hands several times, early Gardena was laid out with Figueroa and 161st streets at its center, the idea being that the Los Angeles and Redondo Railway would pass next to it when extended south between those two communities.  When the route instead came in along Vermont Avenue, the community moved to accommodate the change.

Farming became Gardena's main industry early in the twentieth century, though berries - especially strawberries - were its claim to fame. The community became known as "Berryland," and was renowned for its Strawberry Day Festival and parade every May.  The berry industry dwindled with World War I, when land was used first for other crops and then later for development.

Japanese immigrants were a key part of Gardena's farm community during Gardena's early years, and their influence remains visible today.  In 1911, the Japanese Association founded the Moneta Japanese Institute at the intersection of New York and Market streets, and with donations from the Japanese-American community paid for the lots, a school house, and teachers' living quarters.  Five years later the Parents' Association founded the Gardena Japanese School.   Gardena's Japanese population was, along with 110,000 other people of Japanese ancestry, moved from Pacific coastal communities to relocation camps in the middle of the United States in the spring and summer of 1942 as a military security measure during World War II.  More information about California's early Japanese-American population can be found in the following sources:

* * *

Exerpts from Edward Drewry Jervey, The History of Methodism in Southern California and Arizona.  Nashville, TN:  Parthenon Press for the Historical Society of the Southern California-Arizona Conference, 1960, page 86.

Christian activity among California Japanese started in San Francisco.  In 1877, three young Japanese presented themselves for membership at the Howard Street [Methodist] Church.  The following year a Gospel Society was organized and by 1886 the Japanese work in California and Hawaii had become a district of the California Conference [of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North]. 

Evangelism in southern California began very slow.  Racial prejudice made the task difficult.  Buddhism also attracted large numbers of Japanese people.  In 1900 the Japanese program on the Pacific Coast was organized into a Mission Conference.   By 1910 there were Japanese missions in Oxnard and Santa Clara, where Japanese were employed in agricultural labor.  A residence for working girls in Los Angeles, the Jane Couch Memorial Home, was operated by the [Japanese] Mission Conference with the help of the Woman's Home Missionary Society of the Southern California Conference.  By 1937 there were eleven Japanese charges [churches and missions] within the bounds of the Southern California Conference, all small.  The same forces which early in the century had made work difficult were still present.  In Los Angeles County, where 35,000 Japanese lived, there were only three [Japanese] Methodist churches [in 1937].

* * *

The Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles was established February 7, 1918 through the merger of three congregations, the Los Angeles Presbyterian Church (Japanese, est. 1905), the Los Angeles Congregational Church (Japanese, est. 1908), and the Japanese Bethlehem Congregational Church of Los Angeles (est. by 1911).  By combining resources, it was hoped that a larger church with expanded programs could be created to better serve the community.  Rev. Giichi Tanaka was appointed as the first pastor of the church.

* * *

"Bunji and Toshi Kida:  Quaker Missionaries to the Japanese in California"
by Stephen Ward Angell, Earlham College

Under Quaker auspices, Bunji and Toshi Kida helped to found several churches for Japanese-Americans in the period from 1907 to 1917, including a Friends mission in Los Angeles that was eventually absorbed into the Los Angeles Holiness Church.   The Kidas' role in the Christianization of Japanese Americans, however, has been overlooked by scholars.  Arriving in the U.S. in 1907, Bunji Kida became the Japanese Evangelist for the California Yearly Meeting of Friends.  His theology blended together concerns of holiness and Social Gospel Christians.   In 1912, the Kidas opened a Friends mission in Los Angeles, but because of difficulties arising from this, Bunji Kida lost his position as Japanese Evangelist in the Yearly Meeting in 1913.


* * *

American Baptist Mission Work
Among the Japanese in Southern California

Exerpts from Leland D. Hine, Baptists in Southern California.  Valley Forge, PA:  Judson Press, 1966, pages 172-173.
(American Baptist Churches in the USA, formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention)

Baptist missions among the Japanese residents in Southern California have received small but continuing attention.  The modern Baptist aversion to controversy kept most from even attempting to bring a Christian word into the long-term and vicious anti-Japanese controversy.  The Anti-Alien Land Act of 1913 attempted to prohibit Japanese ownership or even tenancy of agricultural land in California.  This objective was strengthened by the initiative amendment in 1920 and by another legislative act in 1923.  Whether or not there was a legitimate fear of too rapid Japanese immigrantion, the objectives and methods of the anti-Japanese movement were obviously wrong.  In spite of frequent warning from missionaries as to the bad effect of this action on missionary work in Japan, California Baptists remained silent.   Long-term Japanese missionary, E. H. Jones, reminded the Convention in 1923, "Every California sign telling the Japanese that they are not wanted here, does more against the Kingdom of Christ than a dozen missionaries can overcome in Japan."

The Japanese work was, of course, disrupted by the evacuation of these people from the Pacific Coast during the Second World War.  At that time there were some mild resolutions urging humane treatment.  One passed in 1944 read:

"Resolved, that we, individually and as a community, cooperate in every was with the War Relocation Authority and with all governmental agencies by receiving with true Christ-like spirit those persons of Japanese ancestry whose return to the Pacific Coast has been duly and regularly authorized, and whose return to their homes in this area will not, in the judgment of those authorities, be inimical to the best interest of our state or nation."

In spite of these various experiences, there has been a slight increase among Japanese Baptists.   In 1935 the various missions formed the Japanese Baptist Union in Southern California.   This structure gave some unity and direction to the scattered congregations.   Like all minority racial groups, the Japanese are still caught in the ambiguities of integration.  More widely accepted than the Negro, the more progressive Japanese would move purposefully toward the extinction of Japanese churches.  Others argue the necessity for some Japanese language services and the desirability of maintaining at least the remnants of Japanese culture.

* * *

Gardena Valley Baptist Church

1630 West 158th StreetGardena, CA 90247
PHONE: 310-323-5683   FAX: 310-768-2783
WEBSITE: Gardena Valley Baptist Church

Purpose:  At Gardena Valley Baptist Church, we seek to glorify God

- by reaching the world for Christ,
- uniting as His family,
- worshipping Him with our lives,
- growing in Christ-like character,
- and serving others in love.

Philosophy of Ministry: Currently we are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational Christian community, who worship God in two languages (Japanese and English) While focusing our ministry on reaching the Asian community in the South Bay area, we welcome and minister to everyone.

History: In 1914, the Los Angeles Baptist City Mission Society [American Baptist Churches in the USA] felt they could better share the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Japanese-speaking population by reaching the children of recent immigrants. They established a Sunday School for children in a little rented cottage in Moneta (now part of Gardena) on August 16, 1914, which grew rapidly into Gardena Valley Baptist Church.

With the outbreak of WWII, the Japanese community was forced to relocate to internment camps. Afterwards, the faithful returned to Gardena and re-established the church, moving to our current location in 1949.  As we move into a new millennium, GVBC continues to grow, with a major building program (Nehemiah Project) being planned for the site.

* * *

Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles

In 1977, Japanese Christian missions celebrated their 100th anniversary in America.   Early Japanese immigrants to America met regularly with White church members to learn about Christianity and the English language.  Later, as Japanese attendance at these group meetings increased, segregated congregations were often established.  The significance of ethnic churches is that they served as social centers as well as places of religious worship for the Japanese American community.

The Union Church of Los Angeles has been particularly important in both these aspects, serving large numbers of Japanese in Los Angeles and surrounding communities.  In addition to its Christian work, the church became known as a place where Japanese could gather. Japanese-language films were shown in the sanctuary auditorium, and the gymnasium encouraged development of Japanese athletic leagues.  The church also sponsored social services programs, a language school, and a hostel on another piece of property.

The Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles building is a three-story, brick and concrete structure. Its San Pedro Street frontage is characterized by four Ionic columns and three stained glass windows.  The tip of the cross that sits atop the building is 45 feet above the street level. Inside are various offices and classrooms.  The church's sanctuary is on the second floor, with a balcony on the third floor.  The basement area once served as a gymnasium, but was later converted into a social hall. Today, the basement has been partitioned to create office space for the Japanese Community Pioneer Center.

The building is located in the heart of the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Los Angeles Police Department.

The Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles was established February 7, 1918 through the merger of three congregations, the Los Angeles Presbyterian Church (est. 1905), the Los Angeles Congregational Church (est. 1908), and the Japanese Bethlehem Congregational Church of Los Angeles (est. by 1911).  By combining resources, it was hoped that a larger church with expanded programs could be created to better serve the community.  Rev. Giichi Tanaka was appointed as the first pastor of the church.

By 1920, the need for a new church building had become apparent, and a building program was initiated.  Three years later, on March 25, 1923, the new church building at 120 N. San Pedro Street was dedicated.  In the years that followed, the Union Church benefited the entire Japanese American community through its many programs.

During World War II, church members, along with other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, were interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.  Rev. Donald Toriumi, who was the church's minister immediately before the exodus, continued to lead the congregation at Heart Mountain.   The church building was used as a Black community center during this period of Japanese absence.

Rev. Sohei Kowta, formerly with the church's social service institute, recognized the need to establish a center to aid Japanese Americans returning from the concentration camps.  Along with the Presbytery and the American Friends Service Committee, he established a resettlement center in the institute's building.  This became known as the Evergreen Hotel, and Rev. Kowta conducted religious services for Union Church members and other residents.

In 1949, the Black community center was relocated, and the Japanese congregation resumed meeting in the San Pedro Street building on November 14 of that year. In 1955, the name of the Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles was changed to the Union Church of Los Angeles.

In the mid-1960s, the City of Los Angeles began formulating plans for redevelopment of the Little Tokyo district.   Plans included widening certain sections of San Pedro Street.  In the years that followed, the congregation weighed its options, and decided to search for a new site. The church property was sold to the City of Los Angeles, which leased the building to the Community Redevelopment Agency.  The building is scheduled for demolition.  New property was purchased at the corner of Third and San Pedro streets where groundbreaking ceremonies were held on October 12, 1975.  On November 7, 1976, the new building was dedicated.

Today, the Sunday congregation numbers about 285 (165 for English-language services and 115-120 for Japanese-language services). Hiroshi Izumi is the Japanese-language pastor, and Duane Takayama is the Director of Christian Education.  Since the retirement of Rev. Howard Toriumi, the church has not appointed a permanent English-language pastor.

In addition to its church services, the Union Church continues to work with the Japanese American community by providing space for various groups.  The church itself sponsors youth and adult fellowship groups, as well as Boy and Girl Scout troops.  The neighboring Little Tokyo Towers, a senior citizens' housing project, uses the church for some of its cultural and social classes. The church also serves as headquarters for the Southern California Church Federation, an association of Japanese Christian Churches.

Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles
Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles


* * *




The religious Classification Codes (CLASCODE) are explained in A Classification System of Religious Groups in the Americas by Major Traditions and Family Types (created by Clifton L. Holland of IDEA-PROLADES Ministries, latest version 2007). 

* * *

The Japanese American Network -

Japanese American Community Centers in Los Angeles

East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center
1203 W. Puente Ave, West Covina, CA 91790

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute
1964 W. 162nd Street, Gardena, CA 90247

Harbor District Japanese Community Center
1766 Seabright Ave, Long Beach, CA 90813

Hollywood Japanese Cultural Institute
3929 Middlebury Street, Los Angeles, CA 90004

Japanese American Cultural & Community Center
244 South San Pedro St, 506, Los Angeles, CA 90012
213-617-8576 FAX

Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute
595 Lincoln Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91103

San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center
12953 Branford Street, Pacoima, CA 91331

San Gabriel Japanese Community & Cultural Center
5019 N. Encinita Ave, Temple City, CA 91780

Santa Monica Japanese Community Center
1413 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404

Southeast Japanese School and Community Center
14615 S Gridley Rd, Norwalk, CA 90650

Valley Japanese Community Center
8850 Lankershim Blvd, Sun Valley, CA 91352

Venice Japanese Community Center
12448 Braddock Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90066

This is informations is provided by the Nikkei Federation, Coodinating Council of Japanese American Community Centers. To update/add information to this list, please contact Wataru Ebihara at LTSC (213) 473-1602 or email

* * *


Hirasaki National Resource Center : Resources : Directory

Cultural Resources

East San Gabriel Valley
Japanese Community Center, Inc. (ESGVJCC)
1203 West Puente Avenue
West Covina, CA 91790
818.960.0866 (fax)
Georgiann Tamai, Executive Secretary
Promotes and preserves the cultural heritage and traditions of Japan through the sponsorship of social, educational and recreational activities for its members and families. Publishes a monthly newsletter, Newsette.

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (JCI)
1964 W. 162nd Street
Gardena, CA 90247
310.324-3223 (Fax)
Gary Hori, Executive Director
Serves the Japanese American community of the South Bay area by providing services for the arts, culture, education, language classes, senior citizens, sports and youth. Publishes a quarterly newsletter.

Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC)

244 South San Pedro Street
Room 505
Los Angeles, CA 90012-3832
213.617.8576 (fax)
Gerald D. Yoshitomi, Executive Director
Preserves and promotes Japanese American cultual heritage and encourages greater understanding of Japanese culture in the United States. Presents traditional and contemporary performing arts from Japan through its Japan America Theatre; its George J. Doizaki Gallery provides a stage for the presentation of notable visual arts from Japan and the local Asian American community; its Franklin D. Murphy library specializes in books on Japan and on Japanese Americans. Provides facilities to the community for conferences and classes. Publishes a quarterly newsletter, At The Center.

Japanese Institute of Sawtelle
2110 Corinth Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Offers Japanese language classes. Publishes a telephone directory of the Los Angeles area once a year in Japanese and English.

Orange County Japanese American Association
14151 Newport Avenue
Suite 200
Tustin, CA 92680
714.730.3938 (fax)
Jack Naito, President
Free services provided at the center include information and referral services, problem-solving, social welfare services, educational seminars, counseling services provided by Nikkei Family Counseling Program and community Nikkei information.

Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute
595 Lincoln Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103
Ron and Jeannie Toshima, Co-Presidents
Offers cultural classes to the community including martial arts, calligraphy, bonsai, ikebana and Japanese language. Also provides support to the Community Youth Council (CYC) and Pasadena Nikkei seniors.

San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center
12953 Branford Street
Pacoima, CA 91331
818.899.0659 (fax)
Michael Motoyasu, President
Promotes community welfare through its workshops,educational, recreational and social activities. Publishes a monthly newsletter, Community Center News.

San Gabriel Japanese Community and Cultural Center
5019 North Encinita Avenue
Temple City, CA 91780
Yoshito Fojimoto, President
Sponsors, supports and provides facilities to various Japanese cultural, educational, and religious groups and youth programs.

Southeast Japanese School & Community Center
14615 South Gridley Road
Norwalk, CA 90650
Joe Kumagai, President
Operates elementary and secondary classes in Asian arts, history and civilizations. Other activities include athletic programs and activities for seniors.

Venice Japanese Community Center
12448 Braddock Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90066
Ken Sogabe, President
Private community center serving members from the Venice community. Staffed entirely by volunteers. A variety of social services and cultural classes are provided for senior citizens. Publishes a monthly newsletter Venice Community Center News.