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With Love for Our Community: Building Community with J-Town Action と Solidarity

It’s hard to explain why working with JAS is so important to me. Showing up in action and solidarity with love for our community and a revolutionary vision for the future just feels like the right—and sometimes the only—thing to do.

I first found out about JAS through Instagram where I saw the petition demanding that Mokuyobi leave Little Tokyo. I was really happy to see a group of organizers focusing on Little Tokyo rather than the general LA Metropolitan area, but it took me a while to take the first step and start working with a new group of people. I finally gathered the courage to go to my first Power Up in May 2021, where I learned how to operate the charging station. You’re always on your toes, plugging in up to 50 devices, organizing the devices and corresponding charging cords, and making sure everyone’s devices are returned to them at the end. I enjoy the hustle and bustle of Toriumi Plaza on Saturday afternoons, and I’ve loved watching our JAS community grow each week.

What is JAS?

J-TOWN Action と Solidarity (JAS) is a grassroots collective building community power in Little Tokyo of Los Angeles. Our work is rooted in a history of activism and community care. We are driven by long-standing connections to Little Tokyo as well as solidarity work with communities fighting inequitable development across Los Angeles. We are guided by our love for our community and its history of fighting against white supremacy; we hold the conviction that the present times demand a revolutionary vision for the future. We fight for Little Tokyo’s self determination against gentrification and displacement with the understanding that Little Tokyo sits on land that was never meant to be property. We stand with communities made most vulnerable by overlapping systems of oppression by showing up in action and in solidarity.

JAS is made up of a diverse group of individuals with varying personal connections to Little Tokyo – whether they are part of local businesses or they grew up visiting and share similar values with people in Little Tokyo. To me, JAS is a group of passionate individuals creating the spark Little Tokyo community needs to rise up against gentrification and displacement. The work JAS does is really important to me especially because it is always urgently important to Little Tokyo. I’m glad to be able to fight alongside such inspiring individuals.

“For me JAS represents our contribution to the history of activism in Little Tokyo, and I’m so happy that we are making a space for people who will show up for each other and what they believe in. Reflecting on the year, I’m amazed and humbled at what we’ve accomplished so far. I’m proud of how we are responding to this moment, and most of all I love our crew.”

-Mario Correa, longtime member with perfect Power Up attendance

Blankets - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

What does JAS do?

Power Ups

Every Saturday, we hold a mutual aid Power Up with We The Unhoused at Toriumi Plaza on 1st and Judge John Aiso Street for the Unhoused community members of Little Tokyo.

Power Up #1 - Photo credit: Devon Tsuno

We distribute hot meals, water, snacks, PPE, hygiene supplies, harm reduction supplies, clothing, tents and tarps, and electricity, and most importantly, we are building collective power with our Unhoused neighbors without means testing or judgment, unlike nonprofits and charities.

“I see JAS as part of a movement for community self-determination and socialism. We’re fighting to uphold the human rights of every resident in Little Tokyo (both housed and Unhoused), so that we can create a genuinely democratic and thriving community."

- Henry Aoki, main facilitator of our bi-weekly reading group

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Working at the charging station - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

We enjoy sitting down and having conversations with our Unhoused neighbors and listening to live music performed by community members. I particularly enjoy when our friend Sam comes to sing and play his guitar, he has a way of making you smile and he always brings good energy with his music.

“For me, JAS represents a space in Little Tokyo where people can feel safe to speak up, find connection, learn, get creative, and feel cared for. It’s beautifully apparent that this form of compassion we have for our Unhoused neighbors also extends to how we care for each other in the group. I’m really proud to be a part of something so special.”

- Zen Sekizawa, whose family ran the Atomic Cafe

Sleeping bags, blankets, and tents - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

The number of Unhoused residents at the plaza has also been growing in the past months. In July 2021, LA City Council passed Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18–essentially criminalizing homelessness–instead of providing permanent supportive solutions for the over 60,000 Los Angeles residents who are Unhoused. Additionally, LAPD and LA Sanitation continue to conduct inhumane sweeps, ignoring CDC recommendations, destroying belongings and essential documents, generating more trauma and causing irreparable harm to some of the most vulnerable community members. We have been working even harder to provide our Unhoused neighbors food, water, clothes, tents, harm reduction services, and PPE, and help protect them and their belongings against the brutal sweeps.

Snacks including Fuyu persimmons - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

JAS recently celebrated Power Up #52, one full year of mutual aid and solidarity with our Unhoused neighbors. Over the course of the year, we had almost 100 volunteers distributing much-need supplies to nearly 3,000 people with the help of our community partnerships with Polo’s Pantry, Azay, Community Health Project LA, HydrateLA, and more. We served over 8,000 hot meals and almost 2,000 cups of coffee and tea, and charged thousands of devices. We also distributed hundreds of tents and blankets, over 500 clean kits, and countless amounts of PPE and clothing.

Vigil for Unhoused community members - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

“Many times it’s quite hard to stay positive with all the unjust stuff happening in the city, and as an individual I feel helpless and powerless. But meeting folks at JAS, joining JAS, and working on mutual aids helped me [see] how the future that is full of compassion could look like. It is … tough work and we see/experience heartbreaking moments, but getting to know folks in the neighborhood who look forward to seeing us at the power ups cheers me up and I think that is the community full of love!”

- Eri "Creep" Yamagata

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Harm reduction kit - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

“To me, JAS represents the building of true community in Little Tokyo: one that respects and cherishes our common humanity and stands in solidarity with all oppressed peoples. Our group is the continuation of a long history of Japanese-Amerikan activism that recognizes and rejects the Amerikan traditions of displacement, incarceration, and oppression.

I see JAS as my fight for the future of Little Tokyo. It is a fight against the forces of gentrification and capitalist development that threaten the survival of our community and culture. It is a fight for a Little Tokyo that is community-controlled and guided by love and humanity.”

- Steven Chun

Cold drinks - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

Fight Against Gentrification and Displacement

This past summer, clothing retail store Mokuyobi opened against the demands of the community. Mokuyobi and its founders Julie Pinzur and Alex Seastrom perpetuate cultural appropriation, gentrification, art theft, gaslighting, and Orientalism. The name of the store itself is a deliberate misleading and appropriative derivative of mokuyoubi or mokuyōbi (Thursday) which they purposely misspelled. They dismiss and ignore the concerns and demands of the community, censor these comments from community members on public platforms, and respond with hostility and willful ignorance when they do address comments.

Action at Mokuyobi - Photo credit: Alex Nauta

Multiple legacy businesses in Little Tokyo have had to close their doors over the past year, including Mikawaya and Little Tokyo Cosmetics which were popular Little Tokyo staples for the past 111 years and 50 years, respectively. For me, making a stop at Mikawaya every time I visited J-town was essential. My favorite flavors were kuro goma (black sesame) and umeshu (plum wine) and nobody could beat the inventors of mochi ice cream at the perfect mochi texture and ice cream-to-mochi ratio. When Mikawaya abruptly shut its doors on June 29, 2021, the loss of another legacy business sent shockwaves throughout the community – a harsh reminder that Little Tokyo’s long fight with gentrification is far from over. JAS and nearly 3,000 petition signers demand that the Japanese Village Plaza and Weller Court landlords cancel Mokuyobi’s lease, and that Mokuyobi leaves Little Tokyo. For more history behind this issue, check out our page on Mokuyobi on our website.

“[To me, JAS is] a space to channel my frustration with the city, failing systems, and the world into productive and healing work. It feels like true community, where everyone pitches in and no one is better than anyone else. Radical when put into practice.”

- Cindy Lin, community member

Mokuyobi storefront - Photo credit: Alex Nauta

The sale of Keiro Foundation’s four senior living facilities to Pacifica for $41 million in 2016 is another example of gentrification in our community. Since 1961, Keiro provided culturally sensitive senior living care for the elderly Japanese American community, many of whom even signed over their properties to Keiro. At the beginning of the pandemic, Pacifica designated the Lincoln Heights senior living facility as a Covid-19 site for profit. They brought COVID patients into the home, which in turn brought about one of the worst Covid death rates in the country.

Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

On top of this atrocity, in May 2021 Pacifica issued 60-day eviction notices to the senior tenants to create forced vacancies for market-rate housing. Keiro is another instance of the heinous exploitation, displacement, and erasure of the working-class people who built Little Tokyo. The so-called “leaders” of our community including organizations and politicians have always prioritized developers and corporations over the people. Our neighborhoods were seized in the 1940’s to construct the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters, they were seized again within the past decade to expand the Metro system. Japanese Village Plaza was sold to Public Storage and gentrifying businesses like Mokuyobi started moving in.

“I like what I'm seeing and I'm impressed by the people that I meet. And I like their name. ‘J-TOWN Action と Solidarity’ not trying to look down their nose at anybody and be do gooders. Just trying to give some comradely help and show solidarity. So when a critic of ours levels criticism towards us and says, 'you guys aren't controlling those people and look at the mess they make and people are scared to go through there’... we don't pretend to control no body, we try to suggest by example. Our 'power up' area is reasonably orderly and clean and we help clean up the whole area on Saturdays, when we're done.”

- Mo Nishida, wise mentor and seasoned revolutionary

Clean up at Toriumi Plaza - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

Another instance of gentrification in Little Tokyo is the construction of the new Āto condos on Astronaut Ellison S Onizuka St. The name “Āto” is culturally appropriative and a tactless application of Japanese by Etco Homes, a non-Japanese group of developers.

Āto construction fencing by Weller Court - Photo credit: Philip Hirose

In addition to the developer’s appropriation of Japanese culture as a trendy backdrop or aesthetic theme in their marketing and publicity, Etco Homes has shown egregious disregard for public safety during the demolition and construction phases at Āto. This has resulted in physical damage of public property and hazardous conditions for neighboring residents and businesses.

Inadequate sidewalk repair where Āto subcontractor damaged the historic inlay glass - Photo credit: Philip Hirose

On top of improper conduct and multiple code violations in the construction of the condos, there are also concerns pertaining to the economic damage the condos will inevitably cause to the community. Over half of Little Tokyo residents live below the Federal Poverty Line, but none of Etco residences offer affordable housing and are completely inaccessible to many folks in the community. Etco has not upheld obligations to work with their neighbors to address community concerns about gentrification, affordable housing, and other issues. At the time this article is being written, I am working with a handful of other JAS members to gather feedback from the businesses and community members affected by the improper site management at Āto and compose a letter to express these concerns to Etco Homes. Check our Instagram for more information and for updates on this issue.

Instant ramen - Photo credit: Devon Tsuno

“Small daily mutual aid efforts by many become full trucks by Saturday afternoon. JAS is a rare place where it is understood that we are most powerful fighting alongside Unhoused residents and not in front of them.”

- Devon Tsuno, artist and educator

Before drafting that letter and this article, I hadn’t done much writing, much less published any writing in any sort of way. It feels like a big responsibility to speak on behalf of my community, and though I felt like it was a daunting task at first, I came to realize that I’m only doing what my community deserves. When asked why I care so much, it’s hard to explain. While these things that we're organizing against are unjust and deplorable to say the least, a lot of us have the privilege to easily remove ourselves from the situation and put distance between ourselves and the issue if we aren’t being directly affected at close range. But after a while, you start to see yourself as not an individual fighting the oppressor but as just a part of the entity that is fighting for justice. It’s hard to explain why this work is so important to me – it just feels like the right (and sometimes the only) thing to do.

Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

The defeatist mindset of shikata ga nai only reinforces the violent displacement of our community. It can be helped. The betrayal of our community through disposal of dignity and respect in favor of wealth and commercial “community” cannot continue.

We demand accountability from Julie Pinzur and Alex Seastrom, founders of Mokuyobi; from Shawn Miyake, former President and CEO of Keiro; and from Etco Homes, the developer behind Āto. We demand transparency from any organization that claims to represent the community. Most of all, we demand prioritization of the working class and the housing insecure.

We demand reduction in rent, conversion of unoccupied hotel units into free housing, and that the city drastically increase funding for comprehensive services to reduce and rectify the damage inflicted on the Unhoused. We call on all members of the community to join us in demanding the end of LAMC 41.18 and all sweeps against Unhoused people. We must reject capitalism and believe in socialism. We must reject the police and believe in abolition.

Put simply, we must reject any power to the oppressors and believe in all power to the people. The Little Tokyo we are fighting for is a Little Tokyo for the people; we love our community too much to demand anything less.

JAS trip to All Power Books - Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa

How Can I Get Involved?

If you’d like to volunteer at our weekly Power Up, here is the link to sign up. We’re always taking donations through Venmo and Paypal to sustain mutual aid services throughout the year. Additionally, here is the link to join our reading group where participants learn about the history of the Asian Amerikan movement, its theoretical foundations and methods, and new pathways for struggle. Lastly, subscribe to our newsletter so you can see what JAS is up to from month to month.

Follow us on Instagram at @jtownaction and on Twitter at @JTOWNACTION.

All power to the people!

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February 2022
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