Tanabata festival celebrates Boyle Heights’ Japanese-American past*

Mariachi Plaza/Photo by Payton Chung/Flickr

By Samuel Temblador

From the Mexican restaurants that line its commercial streets to the musicians that roam Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights is widely known as a bustling domain of Latino culture. However, this same neighborhood filled with stores and landmarks bearing Spanish names was once  home to a large number of Japanese immigrants and their families.  Today, Friday July, 13, this little known chapter of Boyle Heights history will be remembered and celebrated  by the holding of a traditional Japanese Tanabata festival at Mariachi Plaza.

The event will feature traditional Japanese arts and crafts, such as Tanzaku, wishes written on slips of paper, and Kazari, lanterns. Musical performances will include Mariachi music played by members of the Japanese American community and a set by DJ Gingee.  Malissa Strong of the Boyle Heights Historical Society, which is co sponsoring the event in partnership with the Little Tokyo Historical Society,  said the festival will serve as an entertaining way to learn about neighborhood history.

“Most people aren’t going to read a history book,” she said. “History through arts and culture is the best way to educate the community.”

The Tanabata or “star festival” celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by actual celestial bodies, who can only come together once a year on the 7th day of 7th month, according to Japanese folklore. Tanabata is traditionally celebrated in Japan throughout July and in mid-August in Little Tokyo.

Inspired by the legend, the aim of today’s event is to encourage residents of both Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, which are separated by the Los Angeles River,  to visit and explore each other’s communities in the hopes of promoting cultural and communal solidarity.

Adding another layer of symbolism and solidarity to the celebration, the Boyle Heights Historical Society has been collecting Tanzaku wishes from several sites around the community – including Malabar Library, Benjamin Franklin Library and Keiro Retirement home – to be put on display at the upcoming L.A Tanabata festival in Little Tokyo.

Event sponsors Leo Hayashi, a resident of Boyle Heights and local business owner for over sixty years, and Arturo Yoshimoto of Hayashi Realty have committed themselves to promoting the culture and history of the Japanese-American community in the area.

Born in Japan, Hayashi moved to the U.S in 1948 at the age of 17. He can still recall a time when the community’s demographics reflected  a mix of Jewish, Russian, and Japanese families.  He notes that the Tanabata festival is being held as Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo have been reunited in the same council district – Council District 14 – as part of the recent remapping of council lines.

“They try to divorce us … now we are married again,” said Hayashi in reference to the re-mapping of the council districts and the symbolic unity of today’s festival.

In line with the Tanabata tradition of Tanzaku writing, in which a wish is written on a slip of paper, is hung, and later burned, Strong expressed her hope of bringing the people of both communities together through the festival. “Everyone has wishes.”

Click here for event information.

* Correction: A previous version of this post said that today’s Tanabata festival came about after the Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo historical societies collaborated last year on the “Images and Essays” exhibit. That’s wrong. “Images and Essays,” an exhibit of the early history of Boyle Heights, was sponsored by Boyle Heights Historical Society alone.


  1. Great article. Just one correction the photographic exhibit Boyle Heights Images and Essays 1850 – 1900 is about the early history of Boyle Heights and was sponsored by Boyle Heights Historical Society alone. The Japanese American National Museum did a great exhibit a few years ago called Boyle Heights Power of Place and it focuses on the Japanese American community in Boyle Heights.

  2. very informative article of LA history

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