José Quiróz (left) and Felipe Rodríguez (right) play chess at Benjamin Franklin Library. Today’s libraries function as community centers as well as book repositories. / Photo by Jessica Perez

For a moment on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, Michael Okamura was brought back to his childhood on the Eastside, as Japanese music, dance and taiko drums filled the air on a few blocks of East First Street.

“It truly feels amazing to see so many people out here today celebrating the Japanese history of Boyle Heights, a history my parents were a part of and a history that is too often forgotten,” said Okamura during the celebration of the neighborhood’s first ever Nikkei Celebration.

“Boyle Heights is a special place because of its people, it really is the Ellis Island of the West Coast,” he added.

Okamura’s father was born in Boyle Heights before World War II and attended First Street Elementary just a few blocks away from the celebration. His mother came to the neighborhood following the war and graduated from Roosevelt High School. His childhood and youth were spent on the Eastside, which is why Okamura says Boyle Heights is a very special place for him and others of Japanese descent.

Okamura currently serves as the president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS), one of the organizers Sunday’s event, held in collaboration with Boyle Heights Community Partners. The celebration was the first of its kind in recognizing and honoring the Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) of Boyle Heights and other parts of Los Angeles.

The celebration began with a parade that marched from Saratoga and First and was led by a moving, mini replica of Boyle Heights’ Japanese Hospital, which opened in 1929 at First and Fickett, operated until the 1960s and eventually became a city Historical-Cultural Monument. The parade ended at Otomisan, the city’s oldest operating Japanese restaurant near Matthews, and also a Historical-Cultural Monument.

Following the march, President and CEO of Boyle Heights Community Partners Vivian Escalante opened the center stage of the event by acknowledging the long history and presence of the Japanese community.

“A lot of people who live here don’t know the impact that the Japanese community has had for Boyle Heights since its early beginnings to today,” said Escalante, who thanked LTHS for making the celebration happen. “We are here celebrating the forgotten so that people start to remember, so that this history keeps coming back into light.”

Amongst the speakers at the event were Assemblymember Miguel Santiago and Congresswoman and mayoral candidate Karen Bass. Both elected officials reiterated the importance of celebrating the diverse community of Boyle Heights.

A representative of LA County Supervisor Hilda Solís presented event organizers with Certificates of Commendation for their work in highlighting the rich history of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles.

Various cultural performances followed the event opening, including classical Japanese dances of Nihon, Buyo, Minyo and contemporary styles led by Nancy Hayata, taiko drummers and public “ondo” (musical performance) in which attendees took to the street to dance to a mix of traditional and modern pop songs. Various organizations were also present at the event to offer information on the Japanese history of the community, including Save Our Seniors and the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Church.

As the sun set, the event came to a close with remarks by both Escalante and Okamura, both looking forward to the celebration becoming annual and growing every year.

“People need to understand the history of our community because it really is something to be prideful about, to be a part of a neighborhood that’s always been a haven for the most marginalized people in Los Angeles,” said Escalante. “You can’t forget the first pages of our story just because the pages keep turning, you need to remember it all to truly appreciate Boyle Heights.”

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Alex Medina

Alex Medina is a graduate of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School and 2018 alumnus of the Boyle Heights Beat. He is a recent graduate of Hamilton College in Central New York where he majored in Hispanic...

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