End of an Era in Santa Monica

A commemorative photo taken in front of Santa Monica Nikkei Hall upon its completion in 1957. An addition was completed in 1969.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Santa Monica Nikkei Hall, once the hub of Santa Monica’s Japanese American community, has been sold by its three remaining officers.

Located at 1413 Michigan Ave., the one-story building was designed in 1957 by architect Y. Tom Makino (1907-1992) and constructed by Santa Monica Nikkei Hall Inc., which was established by Issei community leaders after Japanese Americans returned from the World War II camps.

The buyer is a major television and film production company already located in Santa Monica.

The sellers did not attach any conditions about preservation of the building, but asked the new owner to place a plaque with a photograph of the hall and the following text:

“This property is the former site of Santa Monica Nikkei Hall, a Japanese community organization founded in 1950.

“Proceeds from the 2017 sale of the property were donated to local community and religious organizations, who are now entrusted to preserve and maintain the Ireito on behalf of Santa Monica Nikkei Hall.

“The Ireito, a 15-foot-high granite memorial monument located in Woodlawn Cemetery, was originally erected to honor the first-generation Japanese (Isseis) who settled in the Bay Cities region of Southern California. The monument has now come to represent all generations of Japanese Americans, including those who served in the United States military. An annual memorial service is held at the Ireito.”

The 59th annual bilingual interfaith service will be held on Monday, May 28, at 9 a.m. at Woodlawn Cemetery on the corner of 14th Street and Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. Six of the participating organizations are recipients of Santa Monica Nikkei Hall grants: West Los Angeles Holiness Church, West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, West Los Angeles United Methodist Church, Venice Free Methodist Church, Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, and Venice Japanese Community Center.

Future grants will be made on an annual basis to other organizations supporting the community, with the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific Community Fund serving as administrator of the fund.

Historical Background

A study submitted to Santa Monica Senior Planner Steve Mizokami by Christine Lazzaretto and Molly Iker-Johnson of HRG regarding the hall’s importance as a historic resource gave the following background:

The Nikkei population enjoyed a higher level of integration and experienced less racial intolerance than other minorities in Santa Monica prior to World War II. Instead of being relegated to the Pico neighborhood, they lived throughout the center part of the city and Ocean Park, and attended public schools.

Katsuzo Matsumura began a Japanese language school (Gakuen) in his living room in 1924 with eight students. As more students began to attend, a school was constructed at 1824 16th St. It also served as a community center, bringing together families for such events as Obon festivals, picnics, parties, plays, and reading and writing contests.

After Pearl Harbor, many local Nikkei were sent to Manzanar. Upon their release, few returned to Santa Monica — about 161 by 1946. They faced a severe housing shortage as the city’s population had increased by about 25 percent from 1940 to 1945. The War Relocation Authority and Federal Public Housing Authority established government-funded housing in converted Army barracks on Pico between 24th and 25th streets as well as in two hostels, while the Gakuen — which had been used as a military training headquarters during the war — became a housing facility.

Leaders of Santa Monica Nikkei Hall in November 1965. Back row, from left: Eddy Uyemura, Tom Endo, S. Naoye, Mr. Abe; middle row, from left: Yutaka Ohigashi, S. Takahashi, G. Dote; front row, from left: H. Ishiwata, F. Makuta, Tom Matsumura. Mr. Sakata, Mr. Ichiho, Mr. Nishimura.

By 1950, Santa Monica’s Nikkei population had grown to 254. With the immediate postwar problems of resettlement and readjustment no longer as acute, they were able to focus on rebuilding and unifying the community. The newly formed Santa Monica Nikkei Hall Inc. purchased the Michigan Avenue property.

Due to the Alien Land Laws, which were still in force, the property was placed in the names of four Nisei officers: Tetsu Ando, Kozuko Asao, Masaru Matsumura and Jimmy Fukuhara. The group began to collect money from the community while meeting informally at members’ homes for six more years. It was decided to build a new community center because upgrading the Gakuen, which wasn’t up to code, would be too costly.

The directors initially planned to include a barbershop, beauty shop and dry cleaner in the center, but this was later deemed too ambitious.

By 1960, many Nikkei lived in the center portion of the city, settling near the former Gakuen. The most populous streets included Michigan and Delaware avenues and 12th, 18th and 19th streets. Located around the corner from the Gakuen, the hall was a convenient meeting place. At its inception the Nikkei Jin Kai boasted between 75 and 100 members, primarily Issei and Nisei couples.

In 1965, the community began to commemorate Japanese American history, reuniting at the hall annually to honor their predecessors. As time wore on, younger generations assimilated further into American society, and by 2000, the hall was primarily a center for senior citizens with approximately 80 members.

The study concluded, “The potential significance of the property’s historic association with the Japanese American community warrants additional investigation.”

The property also includes a two-bedroom apartment, which would not be considered part of any proposed historical landmark. The unit, which is still occupied, may be a challenge for the new owner because the city has rent control.