History, community and affordable housing make Little Tokyo a unique place to grow old

At roughly five blocks, Little Tokyo is one of LA’s smallest and densest neighborhoods, bringing together luxury hotels, Buddhist temples and mom-and-pop shops that have been in business for almost a century.

It’s one of the most popular tourist stops in the Downtown area and a vibrant neighborhood where almost one-fifth of its residents are 65 and older – twice the proportion of seniors you find in the rest of the city.

When it comes to “aging in place” in LA, Little Tokyo sets a positive example for other parts of the city. There are 950 units of affordable housing available – most of them dedicated to seniors – as well as access to multilingual case management, caregiving, and public transportation – all within walking distance.

But with its prime central location, there’s a lot of pressure on Little Tokyo these days. Steve Nagano, a former school teacher who moved to Little Tokyo from Torrance after retiring a few years ago has been working to keep the neighborhood the way it is. “We think it will be around when we die,” he says. “But you know, what it’ll be, we’re not sure. Especially with the gentrification, the change in demographics, does Little Tokyo still have same or similar character to what we had when we were growing up? What control do we have?”

Explore Little Tokyo

A Japanese American elder participates in the closing ceremony dance during Nisei Week in Little Tokyo this past August. Nisei Week is an annual celebration of Los Angeles’ Japanese American culture.
Japanese American senior residents of the Little Tokyo Towers affordable senior housing community wait or the bus during a Summertime outing to the Santa Monica Pier. Little Tokyo is home to some 800 older adults, many of whom live in the district because of a sense of community and access to the services and activities that they value. Aging advocates are exploring how communities can allow older adults to “age in place,” and some look to Little Tokyo as a potential model.
One of the things that has bound the Japanese American community together has been the internment experience during World War II. Japanese American activists have fought to preserve Little Tokyo, in part so that this lived experience is not forgotten by future generations.
Patty Nagano shows a photo of a corner of the original Little Tokyo that was lost to development decades ago. Director of Service Programs at Little Tokyo Service Center, Mike Murase, says, “There’s an understanding in Little Tokyo that as a community, it’s always been under threat and it takes an active effort and an organized community to fight back and to resist those things.”
As is the case throughout downtown Los Angeles these days, construction and new developments are a constant. Residents, like Steve Nagano, find themselves wondering, “Especially with the gentrification, the change in demographics, does Little Tokyo still have that same or similar character to what we had when we were growing up? What control do we have?”
Women prepare food for several hundred volunteers during a grassroots neighborhood cleanup event in November.
Multiple generations of volunteers work together to clean windows during a recent neighborhood cleanup event. Director of Service Programs at Little Tokyo Service Center, Mike Murase, says, “You know, aging in place and having a place where people can live is definitely one large component of what we embraced. But it was more than that: We wanted the Little Tokyo community to be not only a place where people can age in place, but young people could learn about their culture.”
For many of the older residents of Little Tokyo, one of the main benefits of living in the area is how easy it is to get around without needing to rely on a car. Restaurants, shopping, and many services are within walking distance; there’s a neighborhood Metro stop, as well as several bus stops in the roughly 5 block area.
Since 1992, the Japanese American National Museum has occupied an important place in Little Tokyo, and played a crucial role in sharing Japanese American culture and experience with a wide audience.
For many of the older residents of Little Tokyo, one of the main benefits of living in the area is how easy it is to get around without needing to rely on a car. Restaurants, shopping, and many services are within walking distance; there’s a neighborhood Metro stop, as well as several bus stops in the roughly 5 block area.
A family arrives for an event at the Japanese American Cultural Center on a late November morning. At it’s peak before World War II, Little Tokyo had 30,000 residents; since then LA’s Japanese American community has been dispersed. But, as Steve Nagano points out, many have remained tied to the district, “When we talk about us being part of the community—they’re being part of the community too, although they might live in Anaheim, Silver Lake, Culver City, Torrance. They still feel like they’re a part of it, which I guess speaks to the uniqueness of Little Tokyo, the history it has among Japanese Americans particularly, and we’re just fortunate in many ways to be living in it.”