Mo Nishida

Cofounder, Asian American Hardcore - Cofounder, Little Tokyo Tenants Association - Cofounder, Manzanar Pilgrimage - Survivor - Organizer - Revolutionary - Advocate

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Which of these terms best describes your relationship to Los Angeles: point of origin, detour, or destination?

Oh yeah, origin.

What year does your relationship with Los Angeles begin?

August 11, 1936. The Japanese hospital in Boyle Heights.

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Mo Nishida leading a march for affordable housing in Little Tokyo, 1970s

What's your earliest sense memory of Los Angeles?

Well, I'm an American concentration camp job. My formative years, age 6 to 9, I was sent to Granada in Colorado. Before 1941, I grew up right there where Foshay Junior High School’s at. My dad and mom rented a little house on the southeast corner of Western and Exposition. Then, on December 7th, we were going fishing. It was a Sunday morning. My dad was a fisherman, and my mom had made the bento. So we were out and on our way to go perch fishing. I remember the news coming over the radio. Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. I just remember one of 'em said, “I think we’d better turn around and go home.”

What’s the visual from that day that sticks in your mind?

I took off to see my friends and we saw smoke coming from different backyards in the neighborhood. I ran home and my mother had taken all the stuff in my house that we had from Japan and smoked it up. The rumor at the time was that if the FBI caught you with anything associated with Japan, they were going to fuck with you.

What did she burn?

Mainly books and clothes. Kimonos. Then all my toys. Kazari ningyo—in Japan, on Boys and Girls Days, you have dolls and each family puts up a competitive thing for their child. I thought I had a pretty good set. My mother lit that motherfucker up.

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Kazari ningyo dolls, ca. 1920s (Ebay)

You were six years old. How did you process what was happening?

We spent three or four months at the relocation center in Santa Anita, before they assigned us to permanent camps. We lived at the mess hall, right next to the entrance of the camp. I remember the army or National Guard started arriving and driving through the camp. One stops right in front of my mom and me. This fucking young kid is sitting there, blonde hair, blue eyes, finger's on the trigger of a .50 caliber machine gun. Pointed right at us, man. The fucked up part of that is, I don't have any emotions regarding that. I just think I should have been scared or something, right? No feelings. Just have this picture of this kid with a gun, shaking. My mother had a nervous breakdown after that. I used to wonder about that and now I know why. Here she was, she's just had my sister. She has an infant in her arm. She got me, her six-year-old child, beside her. And this fucking guy's got a beat on her and she couldn't do nothing to protect us. (Long pause.) I don't forget that shit too easy.

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Trains departing California for incarceration camps, 1942 (Fred S. Farr collection, CSU-Dominguez Hills)

What do you remember about the train ride from Santa Anita to Granada? It was on the far side of Colorado, near the Kansas border.

They blocked all the windows so you couldn't see outside. Supposedly there were spies in the Japanese community and they would know where they were going. Some bullshit, just harassment. I remember we stopped on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, some desolate corner. As soon as we stopped, us little kids came flying out the door because we’d been tearing up the inside of the train. The guards couldn't stop us. The adults start yelling and screaming and when they got us back inside, we got beat up pretty good by our elders. We were wondering, “What the fuck were they going so crazy about?” Years later, I met one of the older people and she recognized it right away. Of course they were going crazy. All those stories were coming out of Asia, China, and Germany. People were killing people that were their captives. Our parents didn't know whether they were going to leave us out there or kill us or what the fuck was going to happen.

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Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado, 1942 (Library of Congress)

When your family got back from camp, what was your first house or apartment of significance in L.A.? What was the street? Who were the neighbors?

After the war, my dad started gardening. One thing about gardening was that maybe you were a laborer, but if you worked reasonably hard, you could make a decent living. It wasn't like any other fucking job where you work your ass off and you’d still be penniless. Gardeners all lived relatively good and were able to buy their own homes. My dad helped form the Japanese Credit Union. We got a house on 10th Avenue between 30th and Jefferson, close to Crenshaw. So that's where I grew up. When we first moved there, we were the second Japanese family on the block. I watched as all the white people left, mostly European Jews. It wasn’t Eastern European Jews, but the Western European Jews that congregated in that area. So that was a real interesting district. Hotbed of the Communist Party. Because of that kind of positive, radical experience in the neighborhood, it wasn't so bad.

So you were surrounded by leftists?

I mean, there was still fucking racists. There was one guy that lived on the corner next to the alley going towards Jefferson who used to get pissed off if you rode your bicycle on the sidewalk in front of his house. So I'd go by there and flip 'em the bone just to fuck with him (laughs).

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Jefferson and 10th Ave, 1963 (All Night Menu Collection)

When the city was new to you, where did you go for fun? What were your rituals?

From early on, I learned that truancy wasn't so bad. I’d ditch school pretty regularly. Because we're poor people, moms and dads both worked, so the houses were empty in the daytime. We'd steal some wine, go steal some chickens. That's when they used to keep all the wine right out on the street. We'd build a fire, make a barbecue. We'd grill the chickens and drink wine and get fucked up, ditching school (laughs).

What was the name of the Japanese-American gang in your neighborhood?

All the Buddhahead kids formed social clubs which had different identities. Most of the groups were into playing it straight but I lived right on the edge of the Seinans, who were pretty serious.

Were they the first JA gang would you say?

They were the first. They formed before the war. Before the war, the Westside guys were notorious. The whole country talked shit about Westside guys.

Where did the Seinans originate? Which neighborhood?

Southwest Los Angeles. That’s what Seinan means—Southwest. So originally everyone around Crenshaw was a Seinan. My uncles were all Seinans. Then when we came out of camp, the high school guys formed a new gang and they called themselves the Baby Seinans. Then when we started to form up, we didn't want to join them because half the time we were fighting them. We talked about calling ourselves the Junior Seinans but The Baby Seinans said that’s a no-no. So some guys at Poly got together and we called ourselves the Constituents and that name stuck.

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The Constituents, 1955. Club president Mo Nishida not pictured as he had recently left LA to join the army. (Courtesy George Nakano)

When you were in the Constituents, what'd you do for fun? What was an outing for you at that age?

We went out drinking, partying, acting all crazy. We used to have dances on the weekends. They’d be at these recreation centers with a gym. Like the Ardmore Playground on Normandie and Pico. We used to go down there and everybody had their gang and their grouping.

Were there black gangs on the Westside yet?

Oh yeah. But the segregation at that time meant everybody was in their own group. In the Fifties, if you were in a Japanese group, then you dealt with just Japanese people. Our main competition came from J-Flats, or Japanese Hollywood, which was an area around LA City College. There were a bunch of hardheads up there. Then there was the San Fernando Valley Japanese and Boyle Heights. Neighborhoods where the parents were more Americanized had the wilder kids who formed the gangs and shit. In traditional Japanese neighborhoods like Gardena, the kids were more clean-cut. My friends and neighbors were other people of color, not white people or traditional Japanese.

What song or piece of music evokes the neighborhood where you grew up?

It’s the one that would always be the last song played at the dance. There was a white lady who sang it. I think it was Joni James, "Why Don't You Believe Me." It was the song that everybody waited for, right? You keyed in on the woman that most attracted you. You’d get on them and say, “Save that last dance for me.” You know what scrunching is? That’s when you could wrap your arms around the lady and pull her in, get your dick all hard (laughs). The black sisters were good at that kind of dancing. That’s how I learned to dance, with the black girls.

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Calling card for a dance and fundraiser presented by The Constituents, 1952 (Courtesy George Nakano)

When you first ventured into the city beyond your immediate environs, what were the places that made an impression? Who showed you these places?

Well, from the time I was small, everybody talked about Hollywood Boulevard. It was off limits to us kids of color, right? By the time I was in junior high school in the early ‘50s, it started to open up. Thursday night was “Darky Night.” That’s what they called it. We rode our bikes up from Crenshaw to check out the boulevard and see what we'd been missing. Turns out not much. By the time I was a senior in high school, Hollywood had integrated. We had our prom at the Palladium.

When radio mattered in Los Angeles, what program, station, or announcer did you love?

My hero when I was growing up was Joe Louis. Every time he had a fight, you could walk around the neighborhood or lay down in your front yard and hear it. Everybody on 10th Avenue had their window open, listening to the fight full blast. You know the saying among black folks at that time, right? You listen to Joe because he could whip the white boys and get away with it (laughs).

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Joe Louis vs. Tony Galento, Yankee Stadium, New York, NY, June 28, 1939

Describe your first, favorite, or most memorable car.

Douglas Sone's ’36 LaSalle limousine. We used to ride all over town raising hell in that motherfucker. Ha ha ha! We could stuff maybe a dozen guys in there and go terrorize people. On the Westside, there was a black gang called the Baby Gestapos and they also used to ride around in a big old limousine like that.

Did your friend Douglas customize that LaSalle?

He didn't customize it that much but he kept it clean and straight. When you saw it, you knew.

When you were in the Constituents, did you ever venture into Little Tokyo?

J-Town was notorious for having some really mean guys. So it was kind of off limits for most of us from the Westside. There were some bad motherfuckers down there. There was a group called the First Street Boys. They hung out at the Taul building, right on the corner of First and San Pedro. That place was notorious. There was a shoeshine parlor out front. Obaasan, an old woman, ran a hot dog stand by the entrance. Then there was the pool hall downstairs. It was a cool place to hang out but it was hazardous for your health, man.

Were the First Street boys gangsters?

No, they were just these tough older guys. There was a judo fighter named Soup Nozawa. I don’t know how he got that name but he was a corner man for the first big Japanese wrestler, The Great Togo. Then Soup became a wrestler himself. These guys were professional athletes. Then there used to be a guy named Big Mike, who worked at the produce market. A huge, buffed-out guy. There were stories about him taking down five or ten guys on his own. Not all at once but one at a time. That's why it pisses me off when the majority of people tried to act like Japanese people were pussies. They never met none of these guys.

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George Kazuo Okamura, a/k/a The Great Togo, pictured in a Parkhurst wrestling card from 1954

What are your memories of that pool hall in the basement of the Taul Building?

It was famous because it was part of the circuit for all the big shot pool shooters. They’d come down and just lay out a challenge. Anybody want to kick my ass? Come on down, put some money up, I'll show you. Minnesota Fats. I watched that guy a couple times.

You saw Minnesota Fats in person?

Yeah! This was at another pool hall on Main Street. But up until probably around the Sixties, Seventies, they still had this circuit of pool challengers. They’d come to town and you could put some money up and see if you could beat them.

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The Atomic Cafe, corner of First and Alameda, Little Tokyo, 1988 (Hal O'Brien)

Describe the restaurant in which you've spent the most hours.

The Atomic Cafe. That was where all the action was. I think after two in the morning they were the only place open.

Why was the Atomic important to Little Tokyo?

Well, it stayed open late. They catered to people like myself that were, let’s say, not real honest, hardworking men (chuckles). I liked to gamble. I liked to drink. Their main thing was the food, but they hosted some games and little gambling in the back and shit like that. Half the restaurants in J-Town, if you knew somebody, you could walk through the kitchen and they'd have something going in the back. This is when all the cops were on the take, right?

What was your order at the Atomic?

Well, the favorite, of course, was their noodles, but Matoba used to cook up some great fried chicken.

Most people memorialize the final location of the Atomic, on First and Alameda, because in the 1970s it became a popular hangout for punks and artists. Do you have memories of the earlier locations?

I got introduced to them when I was in high school and they were still on the west side of San Pedro between First and Second. That was where I got introduced to all the happenings.

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The Atomic Cafe, 117 San Pedro St., Little Tokyo, 1950s. The restaurant relocated to this address after its first location was demolished for the construction of LAPD's Parker Center headquarters in 1952. In 1964, Atomic moved to its third and final location on First and Alameda after their block on San Pedro Street was razed to build the Sumitomo Bank building (Photo courtesy Zen Sekizawa)

What were the happenings?

Guys from the Tokyo Club and all the pachinko parlors and gambling joints. I got introduced to gambling and got to know Yangi. You know who Yangi is, right?

I know he was the boss of J-Town for a long time but not much else.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. He's growing up around the Sacramento area. His family's dirt poor. The family needed some money for something, and needed it badly, and he didn't know where to get it. He's still a youngster, right? He was trying to figure out where the fuck is there a whole lot of money. One place that he could go put a snatch on it, right? He figures out the fucking Tokyo Club. A lot of money going in and out of there. I think he was about 14 years old. He walks in with two six shooters out and goes, “This is a stick-up!” (Laughs hard.)

Like a cowboy movie.

You can imagine, old guys looking at him like, “What the fuck?” But they saw the future there, so they didn't kill his ass. They just shot him in the leg (laughs).

As a welcome-in.

Then when he come out the hospital, they recruited him. I just thought that was so bitchin’. “This is a stick-up—give me all your money." (Laughs.)

I don’t know even know his full name. I’ve only heard him called Mr. Yangi.

Yangi Kitadani. You get that LIFE magazine from the 1940s and he’s in there. They threw him in the brig from Manzanar.

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Yangi Kitadani (back left) and other participants in the Manzanar Rebellion, imprisoned in Leupp, Arizona, 1943. All five men were residents of Los Angeles prior to their incarceration. (Reproduced in Rikka Volume X Number 3, Autumn 1985)

That was for participating in the Manzanar Uprising?


I've only seen a couple pictures of him. I found a mention of him in the Sacramento papers but nothing from Los Angeles.

Well, they didn't play that publicity shit.

Usually, there’s a bust somewhere along the way and a name gets printed. It says a lot about him that there's nothing.

After he went to Manzanar, I don't know if he ever got busted. He was one of those no-no guys. I think he did a little time and then came out. But he was already part of the underworld. After the war, they came back and adjusted real easy.

I’ve heard about Yamatoda, who ran the Little Tokyo Club in the Thirties. Does that ring a bell for you?

Yeah! He was the old godfather of J-Town.

So Yangi succeeded Yamatoda.

(Chuckles.) This is an interesting story. I don't even know if I should tell you.

Now it’s ancient history, or close to it.

The Japanese government had ties to all these suckers. When they knew war was imminent, they sent a submarine out here and picked Yamatoda and his family up and took him back to Japan before the war started.

Is that right?

That's the story I got.

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"Hideichi Yamatoda was the seventeenth and last president to hold office in the Little Tokyo gambling syndicate, taking over the reins in 1936..." The Sacramento Union Sun, April 4, 1943

There's a lot of stories about Yamatoda in the newspaper right up until 1941 and then nothing.

(Big laughs.) I guess they called 'em back in! That's my understanding. I knew a guy in MIS that went to visit the family in Japan and he was saying that they had been totally Japanized. But recently I saw the name again. Yamatoda is a pretty unique name. I think the kids are American citizens so maybe they came back. They never hooked up that I know of.

So how did Yangi get his toehold in J-Town coming from Sacramento?

Well, the Tokyo Club was a national organization. I think the main headquarters was in Seattle. They used to send a bagman and that sucker would travel all the way to Denver, stopping in some of the mining and railroad towns in the west, all the way down to San Diego, LA, and then back to San Francisco, and up to Seattle. Collecting the money. So Yangi had made a name for himself as a bagman and with the organization pretty much defunct in LA after Yamatoda... (chuckles). You should know, Yangi was no pussy. He is a tough son of a bitch. So wherever he went, you'd ask, “Who's that cat?” That kind of guy.

He was built for it.

He was a tough hombre, man.

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"Pool Hall Operator Rescues Two As Fire Burns Out Rooming House," The Sacramento Bee, December 18, 1960

Did you know Yangi personally or only by reputation?

I got to know him. I was lucky. I was one of the punks that he kind of liked. He was not an organizational man, so he didn't put the Tokyo Club together again after the war. But J-Town had a lot of chimpira-yakuza—guys who wanted to be gangsters. Yangi kind of took ‘em up under his wing. Yangi was the muscle for the Hop Sing Tong and their gambling joint.

How long was Yangi’s reign in J-Town?

Well, as long as he was alive, there was that part of the community that knew what he was. I'd say probably up until the Eighties.

Whether it’s a park or rooftop, or sidewalk, what outdoor space in Los Angeles have you spent the most hours?

The streets of J-Town. I don't know if you’ve run across this feeling... for a lot us, you got to remember, this is segregation time. A friend of mine once said that the only place in America we belong to is J-Town. And that's what I felt when I lived there in the Eighties.

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East First Street between Central and San Pedro, 1957, photographed by Kinso Ninomiya (CSU Dominguez Hills Department of Archives and Special Collections)

Now most people in LA only know the neighborhood as Little Tokyo. Can you explain why you don’t use that name?

Well, there was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when the Japanese capitalists were trying to penetrate the American market and what they did was they used our communities. The banks came in and some of the Nisei jumped onto that and they wanted to promote J-Town as Little Tokyo. So they used that term and some of us reacted to that.

Would you prefer people use the term J-Town?

Well, the Issei never said Nihon-machi—that's Japantown. They always said Nihonjin-machi —Japanese people's community. So I'm more comfortable with that, but who's to say what people believe now? They don't know nothing about our history, I don't think, because it's never been really recorded. They go with what the media, or whoever coins this shit, puts out there and they buy it.

It happens all the time. All of a sudden an area is designated “the Arts District” and people just pick it up.

I think all of that points to the lack of real democracy. We’re so used to being told what to do, it’s just second nature. That's not what we need at this point.

What did you call Little Tokyo growing up?

Nihonjin-machi. But in English, it was always J-Town.

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Alan Hotel, 236 East 2nd Street, mid-1980s (Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California)

When you lived in J-Town, what was your address?

I lived on the third floor of the The Alan Hotel, right on the corner of 2nd and San Pedro. It was the last of the big residential hotels in J-Town. There was also the Sun Hotel and the New York Hotel, but they were mostly for Japanese people from the community. The Alan Hotel was both a residential hotel and a transient hotel. Anyone could just come in and get a place. So you had people from all over the country coming in, checking out the town. Because of that, it was always considered lower class. People who lived there were looked down on.

How would you describe the atmosphere inside the Alan?

I used to say that I’d come out of my room and instantly I'd be in the mix. Everywhere else you had to hit the street to see what was going on. I could just walk down the corridors of the Alan. A lot of prostitution and drugs and shit came out of that place. Not all the time, but you’d get a hustler who would come in and that was his business so he ran it out of his room. It was really one of the most exciting places because there was always shit going on.

The Alan was torn down in 1986. It was the last of the old hotels in Little Tokyo to be demolished.

We put up a good fight. We formed a tenants association but the J-Town community agencies turned their back on us. There weren't that many Buddhaheads left in the hotel at that time. It was mostly Chicanos and other immigrants that they considered riff raff. So it was just us tenants fighting to get what little money we could for relocation.

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Early postcard for Bimini Baths, Third Street and Vermont, which operated from 1903 to 1951. Demolished 1956. (All Night Menu Collection)

Whether or not you swam, what beach or pool lingers in your memory?

Oh, the Bimini Baths. It was fucking segregated! I went there when we were in junior high school with my crew. We had a couple black guys in there—a guy named Sleepy and his brother Herman. They told them they can’t come in. We said, “What fuck does that mean?” So we went and demonstrated every weekend for a couple months, walking around and talking about how motherfuckers are prejudice and all that shit. And they finally caved.

What a great memory.

But they closed after that earthquake. They said some tremors closed the vent to the hot springs. But you can still go get that water in Koreatown.

It's hard to believe there's still hot springs underneath Beverly Boulevard. Did you ever go inside Bimini?

I never went into the baths but we used to go and hang out in the pool. I helped integrate Los Angeles (laughs).

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"Constituents, Teen Age Club, Gives Unselfishly to Shonien Fund Drive," from a front page article in Crossroads, November 21, 1952. 16-year-old Mo Nishida is at the far left of the back row. (Courtesy George Nakano)

What movie theater would you bring back from the dead?

When I was a youngster, there were three movie theaters that Japanese people from the Westside went to. For us kids, it was the Western Theater. It was on the south side of Expo, which was the white side of the tracks. It showed cowboy movies. During my junior high school days, we used to go down there and fuck with the white girls. We’d always have to fight coming home. Sometimes we’d have to leave real quick and maybe liberate some bicycles to get home.

The Baby Seinan guys went to a theater on Washington by Vermont called The Boulevard. They went up there and they contested with the white guys from the north side of town. Then the Seinans used to go down to the Shrine. The Shrine was whites only. They wouldn't fucking tolerate nobody's ass down there! The Seinans used to go and bump heads with the rednecks down there. So we all had our theaters (laughs).

What is a bar or nightclub you loved that no longer exists?

Of course, the Holiday Bowl. Everybody drank at Holiday. It was where you went for a lot of things. Getting into trouble was one of them. Go there, fuck around, get loaded, get high, then go in the parking lot and fight. We used to call it the Saturday Night Fights. Then a guy who bartended at Holiday opened up his own place on Crenshaw up around Slauson. That was called The Alibi.

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Matchbook from The Alibi, 5353 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles, CA (All Night Menu Collection)

What was special about the Alibi?
It's where I joined the movement. We used to have meetings on Wednesday night. The owner said it was cool as long as we drank. So he gave us a kind of storage area in the back. We used to go back there and talk about what the hell was going on. That was a real start for me.

How did you first get politicized?

It was the late Fifties, early Sixties. I had graduated from Cal State LA and the civil rights movement came to the West Coast. A lot of my black friends were sticking us, right? Asking whose side are you on? And you couldn't just sit around and watch this shit on television. So about a half dozen of us starting meeting at the Alibi and talking, and then we got tired of talking and said, let's go out there and do something. So we went out and hit up the black community, and then when we all got back together again, the message was the same. Black folks weren't interested in us. They weren't looking for older Buddhaheads. They were looking for young blacks to serve their people. Then one lady I was talking to told me, "You need to go look in the mirror. 'Cause you ain't white, so why are you coming down here acting like a white boy?" She said, "You ought to check out your own community to see what the hell's going on."

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Mo Nishida, late 1960s, reprinted in the article "Yellow Power," Giant Robot no. 10 (1998)

What household threw the best parties or the parties that you remember best?

Well, there was a place that used to have some real nice house parties. It was on Western Avenue right below Pico. Of course, they had a real fucked up one because a couple of guys got stabbed there.

Whose house was that?

It was nobody's house. I think you could rent the fucking place. That's what I remember. But yeah, one of the Seinan guys. His brother from Chicago got stabbed. Then one of our homies got stabbed by Ray Tasaki. I think it was the same place.

That was in the days of the Constituents?


Ray Tasaki had been your enemy when you were teenage gangbangers and then became your ally when you both joined Asian-American Hardcore, which was a corollary to the Black Panther Party.

We had a pretty good militant image and reputation. I've got these internationalist tendencies, or roots, that I'm really proud of. Going to Alcatraz. Going to Wounded Knee. I went to Wounded Knee, man. We were ready to fight and die. The Vietnam War had come home.

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Ku Klux Klan members march down an empty street in Fontana, CA, November 28, 1981 (Mike Mullen / LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection)

What is a memory of specific action you took with Asian American Hardcore?

Kaiser used to have that steel plant out in Fontana. There was a black working class community there and the Klan was fucking with them, burning crosses on the lawn and shit like that. They just said, fuck this. We're going to confront this crap. They organized a demonstration marching from Fontana City Hall through the white community then into the black community for a big rally. So a friend of ours, a worker out there, said come on and help us out. We went down there and acted as security on the fringes of the crowd, so the demonstrators didn't run into any surprises. Since we weren't black, we weren't that suspicious.

I was proud of that.

What was your first earthquake or worst earthquake?

The biggest one, I guess, was Northridge. I was living in J-Town. The reason why I remember that one is some sucker was driving along on the freeway and the goddamned thing collapsed under him (laughs). That’s when you know your shit done run out. You ain't got nothing good left. Your karma is ka-poot.

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Little Tokyo Towers, 455 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA. The low-income senior housing project was completed in 1975 after elderly residents of local residental hotels were displaced due to redevelopment. (Photographed in March, 2024, by Sam Sweet)

If you had the power to preserve a space or building in Los Angeles, what would you protect? Not necessarily for the public good but for personal reasons.

If we could gain control of it, I would pick the Little Tokyo Towers and the J-Town Community and Cultural Center right next to it.

What is the significance of the Towers for you?

They were a community effort. All of us came together, from the radical left all the way up to the right-wing businessmen. We wanted that for our people. When we were demonstrating in the streets, there was a group of elders that went and chased George Romney, who was the Minister of Housing at the time. We forced him to make a commitment that he would get funding for the Towers. So I've always felt good about it being built. But how it’s being used is another story. All these places are run by corporations that are supposed to be 501c3. Therefore they have obligations to serve the community but they don’t. They make connections with their own people. You heard about what happened in Chinatown, right? Fuck, you got a 16-story building full of elderly people, with only two elevators, and they let both elevators go down? Even a couple of days of that is bullshit, let alone a couple months. And then the motherfucker that owns the building is still walking around. What kind of shit is that?

It’s disgusting.

See, I ain't one of those do-gooders. If you can't solve a problem one way, then there are other options.

With the Towers, do you place blame with an individual, a group of individuals, or a corporation?

It’s a class thing! These petit bourgeois suckers that claim to be our leaders act like we’re their resource bank—that they can do whatever they want with us and we’re supposed to follow them. The Towers were built for our elders in the community who didn’t have any money. Now I see this lady there who was the head of Nanka Fujinkai Renmei, the Japanese Women's Society of Southern California. What the hell is she doing in the Towers? I checked up on her and she’s living there fully subsidized. What the fuck?

But I know how they do that. Rich people go to a lawyer, and the lawyer takes their assets and puts it in their kid's name, and it certifies that they ain't got no money. So that son of a bitch is getting in while working people who busted their ass are left out on the street. Then goddamn people with money look down their nose on anybody else getting benefits.

And the reason the Towers have such significance to you is that they’re a symbol of what can be accomplished when the people work as one faction?


How did you come to understand that taking care of elders is essential to community health?

That's a good question. That's the way we were brought up. It's what you're supposed to do. I was fortunate that I was around my maternal grandparents all the time. They had children to help take care of them. But shit, all them people in J-Town didn't have no kids. Part of it comes from that feudal morality. Confucianism doesn't just go one way. The top has got to take care of the bottom. If you're an honorable person, then you have to take care of people that showed loyalty to you. I saw older people who just worked their asses off and were being thrown away. It wasn't right.

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Mo Nishida's home office, 2022 (Sam Sweet)

Conversely, what’s something you would tear down?

Well, for practical purposes, of course, I'd take back what they took from us, which would be the land they used to build Parker Center. But if it was just for the hell of it, I'd take down City Hall. If you're gonna let me have my wish, then what the fuck! (Laughs.)

Besides the traffic, what’s one specific change you've observed in Los Angeles over the period you’ve known it?

J-Town. You know, J-Town used to be a red light district. A GI town. There were all these little down-and-out beer and wine bars. We used to call ‘em nomiyas. Main Street at that time was the same way. They try to bullshit people today about our history. They’re trying to make it all look middle class. They lie. Our history is as an oppressed community that was struggling under segregation. Shit wasn't pretty but that’s what it was.

For such an iconic neighborhood, it's striking how much of the underground history of that neighborhood is totally disregarded.

I don't like this fucking whitewashing of our history. They make it sound like we were all these fucking kiss-asses. Japanese people always had that part where they're kissing somebody's ass. That's what we used to fight about most of the time, whipping these guys that wanted to kiss everybody's ass and those guys that thought that we were pushovers because we were Asian. Fuck that.

Conversely, what’s one thing that hasn't changed—in other words, one thing in Los Angeles that is timeless?

East LA. Brooklyn and Soto. The developers can do what they want but that's part of Aztlan. I don't give a fuck who thinks they can do anything. They're doing it right now. They're attacking it, coming down Sunset.

This is what people have got to get their minds into. We look at the tall buildings downtown and get awed but what we don't realize is that it's people like us that built all that. We may not be the ones that planned it but with training, we could do all that. We need to get out of being in awe and helpless. Then we can tear all this shit out and build what we want. And that's what we got to do.

People have more power than they realize.

Shit, they’ve got the ultimate power. They don't have to put up with this shit. Since the Panthers, the movement has been doing all these social service programs. Now the government's taking them over and offering all these jobs and shit like that. But when you go back to the hunter gatherer stage of society, who took care of it? We did. The commune, the collective, the whole people. Today, you got the same problems. You have people alienated, helpless, needy children, all of that. It ain't like these are brand new problems. We have to take it to the people and say, “Hey, you are the People's Liberation Army. You are the ones that can take care of each other.”

When people get fed up, they get fearless.

We're alive because we learned don't make waves. We're post-traumatic stress victims. That longitudinal, intergenerational stress of what happened to us generations ago. We don't have the confidence. We got that beat out of us. We have to make living safe for all of us to feel confident. Then we can take all these motherfuckers out.

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Groundbreaking ceremony for a Shinto temple in Little Tokyo, July 27, 1966 (UCLA - Los Angeles Times Collection)

What is a place in Los Angeles that was described to you but you never got to see for yourself? In other words, a place that lives only in your imagination?

There’s still a lot of wild animals left here in Chinatown. I’ve seen badgers, possums, and coyotes. But never seen a mountain lion.

What demolition broke your heart?

It’s gotta be Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill represented how capitalism looks at its past. That they can take their own glory and shit on it. They threw it away just because those useless people lived there. They couldn't use it. Then to put in what they did? Ain't nobody living up there for chrissakes. Some of the old hoes that used to service J-Town lived up there.

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Conner Palmer, Bunker Hill, November 15, 1968. Caption: "The Castle and Salt Box, once at 325 and 339 South Bunker Hill Avenue, ready for the move to Heritage Square. They were vandalized and burned soon after." (Huntington Library)

Were there actual brothels or just boarding houses?

They had all of that I'm sure. I wasn't big enough to go to all them places but I'd go up there and run around. Everybody was pretty friendly (laughs).

Whose backyard you would return to if you could?

My backyard where I grew up on 10th Avenue. We loved animals. I had this Dalmatian named Toshi, big old dumb sucker, but friendly. They'd have these ducklings they'd give away on Easter, so I had a duck. And I had a rooster and a black cat. Somehow they all got along. They would all hang out together in the backyard but sometimes the duck would go out to the front yard to fuck with the animals in the neighborhood. A dog would see him and say, "Oh man, I’m gonna get this sucker." So he’d chase the duck into the backyard and then all four of 'em would jump the motherfucker (laughs). First time I saw that man, I fell out. Can you imagine that? A duck come flying back in there with some goddamn big old dog chasing him. All of a sudden, he look out the corner of his eye, here come this Dalmatian after his ass—he look to the other side, a big old cat's on him. He turns around and the rooster is flying through the air going after his tail. He goes back yelping and screaming out the front door. Ha ha ha! I'm telling you, animals know how to get along. They don't just kill each other like us.

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3037 (left) and 3035 10th Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 2023 (Sam Sweet)

What was your childhood address on 10th Avenue?

3037 10th Avenue. Add that up and it comes out 13, which is bad luck in America. And then add the numbers in 13 and it’s 4, which is bad luck in Asia.

What is the current view out your window or a view that you see on a daily basis?

It's my yard, right here in Chinatown. This is our ceremonial space. We do a native purification ceremony in the sweat lodge. That’s my vegetable garden out there. My fruit trees are growing—a loquat tree, a mango tree, and a papaya tree. There’s a hawk eating my loquats up there. Wingspan about five, six feet. There are poles for a blessing with tobacco ties. Each one is has a different prayer inside for the cardinal directions. You go to any ceremonial space, you'll see 'em.

You have empty lots on every side of you. There’s still a little touch of the rural on this corner.

Yeah, we're lucky. They won’t develop those two lots until they get my lot. So as long as we stay, it stays rural (laughs).

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Can you describe a personal memento of Los Angeles—a token of the city you’ve kept in the form of an image or an object?

We put in a peace pole when we moved here. Each side says "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in a different language. The peace poles started with a sect in Japan that was going to plant them everywhere they went to promote peace on earth. In the Seventies, they started planting them outside of Japan. Now they’re all over. You go to Angels Gate in San Pedro, there’s one at the top with the Korean Peace Bell. Go to Big Mountain, the center of the struggle against Peabody Mining Company over the Sundance Ground. You see one there. You go up to Wounded Knee, you see one there. And we got one right here on New Depot Street. ◆