New Otani/Kajima Hotel
or the Three-Headed Monster
by Tony Osumi

On the outside, the New Otani is a beautiful place. As one of Los Angeles’ luxury hotels, the accommodations and banquet facilities are first class. Since its opening in 1977, many of us have held our business and organizational functions there.

But behind New Otani/Kajima’s elegant architecture and five-star service, rears three gruesome heads of a corporate monster with a history of creating fear. But like the Japanese American Redress movement, justice can prevail.

Head Number One: Kajima’s War Crimes

50 years ago, as many Sansei took their first steps, Kajima Gumi (Group) forced 986 Chinese labors to slave in the Hanaoka mines in Japan. In response to the inhumane treatment, the workers rebelled and in retaliation, Kajima employees and police tortured 100 workers to death over the following three days. By the end of W.W.II, 418 of the workers died from the brutal treatment.

In 1996, eleven of the surviving Chinese laborers, many now in their late 70s and older, filed a groundbreaking law suit for redress and reparations. Part of their suit calls for two peace monuments, one in China, the other in Japan and a acknowledgment and apology by Kajima. In response to the lawsuit, Kajima stated, "we were not responsible and should not have to pay reparations".

Head Number Two: Kajima’s Little Tokyo Evictions

The Japanese American community has called the Little Tokyo area home for over 100 years. Kajima on the other hand is a newcomer, but it’s presence has changed Little Tokyo’s landscape drastically.

During Little Tokyo’s redevelopment in the 1970s, Kajima moved to transform Little Tokyo, the heart and soul of the Japanese Americans community into an economic showcase and tourist center for Japanese big business.

In 1972 plans were made to build the New Otani Hotel and Weller Court. By the time dust cleared, over 120 Issei/Nisei and Mexicano residents, and numerous small businesses and culture and community groups were evicted to make room for luxury suites and hi-tone tourist boutiques.

Part of Kajima’s redevelopment contract with the city’s CRA and the community was the condition that they make investment options available to the local Little Tokyo residents.

In an August 1973 interview with Gidra newsmagazine, a Kajima representative was quoted as saying, "The investment is going to be a joint venture between the local and Japan-based people... You see, our posture toward the local people is one of openness."

But not only did Kajima disregard the moral question of putting its profits before Little Tokyo residents, but possibly legal ones as well. Promises of a "community partnership" and "openness" were broken and to this day, no investment ownership share options were ever made accessible to the local Japanese American community.

Head Number Three: New Otani/Kajima Intimidating Workers

With 280 employees, the New Otani Hotel is Little Tokyo’s largest employer. Like the Issei, almost all are first generation immigrants. Approximately 70% are Latino/a and 25% Asian Pacific American (mostly Japanese and Pilipino).

Over several years of declining work conditions, including elimination of both paid healthcare and 1/2 lunch breaks, and annual raises of only .03 to .15 cents per hour while receiving increased work quotas, New Otani workers turned to Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11 for help.

For the last 2 1/2 years the employees have taken up the task of forming a union. They hope to gain healthcare, wages, and worker’s security and pension plans similar to those at union hotels like the Westin Bonaventure, Wilshire Plaza, Hyatt Regency and Omni Hotel. In addition to material gains they are also fighting for justice and respect.

At the same time, the New Otani/Kajima management has waged an aggressive anti-union attack. Outspoken workers have been subject to intimidation, including excessive monitoring by management and video taping of their conversations with union members outside of hotel property. Although unsuccessful, management has filed court injuctions to stop Local 11 from conducting house visits with employees (house visits are a vital part of union organizing because workers often fear reprisals from management if they appear pro-union at the workplace).

Longtime employees Ana Alvarado, Juventina Barajas and Margarita Salinas, each with 16 years of service at the hotel, were fired for their courage to speak-up in favor of the union. In other cases, whole departments such as the laundry and security departments were mass fired and replaced with cheaper less experienced contracted labor.

In June 1995 a report from the Community Fact Finding Committee made up of Mike Yamamoto (Japanese American Bar Association), Rev. Grant Hagiya (Centenary United Methodist Church), Rev. Rick LaPaz (Filipino Christian Church), Julie Su (Asian Pacific American Legal Center) and Royal Morales (UCLA Lecturer) looked into the mass firing of the security department. They concluded the mass firing to be "an abusive management practices" and the decision to fire workers without notice "morally and ethically irresponsible." One of the workers interviewed stated, "...people get sick over watching these injustices. And the hotel knows that we’re scared and they use it against us. The set an example that no matter how loyal you are, we can fire you if we want."

When attempting to meet with hotel management, the committee stated: Despite repeated attempts by the Community fact-finding committee to meet with manager Kenji Yoshimoto, management brushed-off community members.

Recently, many of these same sentiments have been repeated through an open letter written by over two dozen employees to hotel management stating:

If we try to talk to our co-workers at work, they are afraid to be fired because of the environment psychological intimidation that you have created with the aid of union busters. We have no where to go in the hotel about this intimidation because Human Resources works for the company and not for the workers. Because of this, we have had to resort to talking to our co-workers outside of work and here also you place obstacles in our way... Your company propaganda stated that we don’t have the right to talk with any of our co-workers outside of work and you know that this is not true.

You can not silence us or make us believe your fantasy. We will voice our opinions as long as our working conditions are unfair.

In this environment of fear and anti-union activity the hotel owners has printed paid advertisements in both the Rafu Shimpo and La Opinion calling for an immediate National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

What New Otani/Kajima management fail to tell us, is that by keeping the anti-union pressure on the workers, votes can be swayed. In addition, having the legal option to appeal the election results numerous times and delay the final decision for years, a union victory would be almost impossible. Is this what New Otani/Kajima means by protecting the worker’s "democracy"?

Justice Now! Boycott Now!

As members of the Rafu Shimpo’s "Through the Fire" column, we add our voices in support for the workers and call for an immediate end of management’s anti-union campaign.

By honoring the boycott against the New Otani/Kajima Hotel we also stand together with the 11 diligent Chinese elders in their quest for justice. At the same time, we help heal the wounds Kajima’s inflicted on an earlier generation of immigrant workers in Little Tokyo--our pioneering Issei.

From halfway across the world, the New Otani workers have united with the Chinese slave labor survivors against Kajima’s treatment of workers. Numerous Asian American organizations have also endorsed the boycott, understanding that higher wages and benefits mean workers bring larger paychecks back to their neighborhood economies, including Little Tokyo’s. Individually and within our businesses and community groups we have the opportunity to strengthen this multicultural alliance.

Together we can slay the New Otani/Kajima three-headed monster.


Postscript: On Friday, May 3 at 5p.m. the New Otani Workers’ Support Committee will sponsor a Children’s Human Rights Rally at the corner of Second St. and San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo. Also on May 3 at 7:30p.m., NCRR will co-sponsor a talk featuring Takashi Niimi, attorney representing the 11 Chinese survivors of the Hanaoka mine massacre in Japan during WW. II. at the Little Tokyo Towers.

Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, April 30, 1996

Updated: 8/17/02

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