This Is What It Looks Like when an Entire Ethnic Community Is Forced to Relocate


Politically motivated xenophobia is a thoroughly malignant force in society, and this recent map tells the story of a cruel chapter in American history. Cartographer Ben Pease has created a visual representation of what was lost when L.A.’s Japanese-American community was forced to relocate after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was a time when public hysteria turned an entire neighborhood into a ghost town.

LA’s Little Tokyo 1950 Sanborn Insurance Maps Overlaid with Japanese-American Businesses from 1940
LA’s Little Tokyo 1950 Sanborn Insurance Maps Overlaid with Japanese-American Businesses from 1940

Map by Ben Pease, Pease Press Cartography, 2003. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

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Pictured here is the deeply established Japanese community in Little Tokyo as it appeared in 1940—right before overzealous feds rushed to judgment and robbed hundreds of families of legacies built over generations. The variety of buildings demonstrates the health of the hard-earned neighborhood; hotels, restaurants, banks, hardware stores, fish and meat markets, barbers, auto-repair shops, churches both Christian and Buddhist, and even the very American institution of a soda fountain are all apparent. Within a year, the place would sit empty.

When federal agents came to relocate Little Tokyo’s Japanese-American community, business owners were given little to no warning. With mere hours to settle accounts built over decades, only a few “lucky” ones were able to get as much as one fifth of the value of their properties.

1st street in Little Tokyo—deserted after relocation
1st street in Little Tokyo—deserted after relocation, Dec 2, 1942

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles County Public Library

Discrimination was not exactly new to L.A.’s Japanese community. The neighborhood began to form in the 1880s when a seaman, Hamanosuke Shigeta, decided to open an American style café around 1st street. A survey not long after shows only about 25 Japanese people living in L.A., and by the turn of the century, that number had only increased to about 100. Asians who settled were restricted in their job opportunities and primarily worked as farmers, domestics, and gardeners. The Alien-Land Law of 1913 made it doubly difficult for the Japanese by reducing their ability to lease land for more than three years.

True to the twisted bigotry of the post World War I social scene, Japanese Americans were portrayed as having an “exceedingly low” standard of living, and moral standards to match. Despite being law-abiding, hard-working, and frugal, the Japanese were seen as “different” and therefore second-class citizens. In one year in California, there were some 30 anti-Japanese measures before the legislature.

Despite these crippling restrictions, Japanese Americans thrived in farming areas like Gardena and Moneta due to a work ethic that put labor before pleasure. They grew beets, citrus, berries, and feed for livestock, while improving the soil with methods they had learned in the old country. With time, they opened businesses in Los Angeles and built the community around 1st street. On Terminal Island in San Pedro, they created a fishing village. It, too, would be destroyed by relocation.

In 1897 there was a Japanese Association in L.A., and in 1903 the newspaper Rafu Shimpo began publishing news about the community. The Japanese population grew to 6,000 by 1920, but oppression still existed from those who believed Asians had the potential to take over farming and floriculture (a ridiculous notion, given that they only controlled 41,000 acres in the entire county).

The Japanese were criticized, believe it or not, for working too much and for allowing women in the fields. Sociological papers written in the ’20s actually stated that they were only proficient at farming because they were good at squatting. In reality, Japanese Americans were just good at working and sweating in the hot Southern California sun, raising produce and growing flowers that graced millions of Angelenos’ tables.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.