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Crenshaw: Littler Tokyo : Although their children are grown and gone, older Japanese-Americans still evince pride, loyalty in their changing community.

October 03, 1993|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"In my day, it was really well mixed," said Toji, as she displayed her 1966 Dorsey High School yearbook with photos of black student body officers, Japanese-American athletes and white cheerleaders. Ichioka said: "In the late '60s, you could go to Holiday Bowl on a Saturday night and see African-Americans . . . coming to eat Japanese noodles with chopsticks. In that sense, it was an extraordinary situation."

However, by the 1970s the exodus of Japanese-Americans from Crenshaw began. Much of it was due, said longtime resident Jimmy Jike, 82, to the community's sons and daughters leaving the community for college and not returning. Gradually, the Dai-Ichi Gakuen saw its enrollment decline from a peak of 700 students to about 15 today. Similarly, the businesses that used to cater to the Japanese-American community began packing up and relocating, some say in belated response to the 1965 Watts riots that caused an earlier wave of white flight. And several residents say a wave of anti-Japanese-American sentiment began cropping up in the area, prompting further departures.

For Toji's parents, the decision to move out of the community they had lived in for more than 15 years came in 1972, when their son and other Japanese-American students were targeted for abuse at Audubon Junior High School, which Toji and her sister had attended peacefully several years earlier. Residents today are hesitant to talk about the backlash and say they cannot explain why it occurred. Ichioka only offers a partial hypothesis, surmising that strong feelings of racial pride among the area's other minorities may have "spilled over" into anti-Japanese-American feelings.

Whatever the reason for the exodus, by 1980, according to Jerry Wong of the U.S. Census Bureau, a former Crenshaw resident, the area's Japanese-American population declined by half, from one of the largest in Southern California to about 4,000 residents. The 1990 U.S. Census figures put the population at about 2,500, mostly older residents. "(Our children) leave the area and they have no intention of coming back," Jike said.

Usually they opt for the quiet and safety of the suburbs, a pull that some older residents also feel. Mitsuji Okada's Kinokuni sweet shop has been a fixture in Crenshaw for 35 years. But he plans to retire soon. "This is a bad area and everybody's scared," said Okada, whose store windows were broken in the riots. "Every year, my business goes down, down, down."

But while Crenshaw's Japanese-Americans acknowledge that crime and tensions have increased in their area, they shrug them off as phenomena that occur citywide.

"Our members don't think of it as a dangerous place," said Kodani, the Buddhist minister, who adds that relations between those who attend his church and the black community have improved since the riots. "We were on pretty good terms with our neighbors, but it was mostly waving. Now we have much more contact."

Still, those of Kodani's generation and older say their grown children frequently ask if they will move from Crenshaw. "They don't say leave ," said an amused Takagaki. "They ask, 'When are you going to get a home somewhere else?' "

Kodani, who has lived in the community for 25 years and who grew up as one of the few Japanese-Americans in the otherwise all-black Willowbrook area, is less sanguine.

"It's kind of disheartening," he said. "But some of us do forget our camp experience and are guilty of the same kind of attitudes that put us in the camps."

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