Sawtelle Japantown: A return to one’s roots?

A Los Angeles neighborhood is struggling to preserve its unique cultural identity

by

Contributing Writer

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Sawtelle can strike visitors from Japan as a little kitsch at first sight.

Tacky signs advertise pan-Asian restaurants, and while some Los Angeleans still refer to the neighborhood by its “Little Osaka” moniker, it looks less like Japan’s second city than it does a mecca for hard-core fans of tapioca tea.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Sawtelle offers a fascinating insight into the Nikkei experience.

From the first wave of Japanese farmers-turned-gardeners to World War II internment through to its current incarnation as a vibrant ramen district, the neighborhood’s evolution reflects the remarkable adversities the immigrants have overcome.

Once an enclave for the Japanese diaspora that largely sheltered them from wider discriminatory policies and attitudes, Sawtelle has changed dramatically in recent years, prompting the Japanese-American community in California to express concern over its future.

Tight-knit community

Nijiya is a supermarket that stocks Japanese ingredients.
Nijiya is a supermarket that stocks Japanese ingredients. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

The historic district is centered along Sawtelle Boulevard, which is located east of Santa Monica in West Los Angeles. The neighborhood houses several shopping centers that include Japanese supermarkets, restaurants, a karaoke bar and brands such as Daiso and Beard Papa’s.

Aside from commercial establishments, Sawtelle is also home to the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, a Methodist Church founded by Japanese immigrants and the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, which offers programs in judo, kendo and Japanese language.

Sandy Toshiyuki, 64, was born and raised in Sawtelle. Toshiyuki’s father was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore on Sawtelle Boulevard for more than half a century.

“(Sawtelle) was a very tight-knit community,” Toshiyuki says. “This was my turf. We knew everybody. The best thing was that you knew who you were: You were not Japanese, you were not American — you were 100 percent Japanese-American. You were obviously raised with Japanese values by your parents who were the progeny of immigrants.”

Judo instructor Kenji Osugi
Judo instructor Kenji Osugi | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Kenji Osugi, 68, is a judo instructor who has lived in the area since he was 9. In 1960, Osugi started practising martial arts at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, where he now teaches. While he describes his childhood as a “melting pot,” boasting a racially diverse mix of friends, he claims to have a strong sense of ethnic identity.

“The Nikkei families that were farmers that lived here put emphasis on Japanese arts such as dance, kendo, karate and judo,” Osugi says. “They taught the cultural things of Japan. Because there were so many Japanese people, they would gather around community centers like the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. At one point, close to 300 different dojos were operating in this area.”

Humble beginnings

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the United States entered after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which brought about agricultural decline and societal reform. Many Japanese left their homeland to fill a shortage of laborers across the Pacific that was sparked by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put a moratorium on labor immigration from China.

Many Japanese immigrants who relocated to California settled in the Sawtelle neighborhood.

“They couldn’t buy in other areas such as near UCLA, Bel Air, Brentwood, or Pacific Palisades,” says historian Jack Fujimoto, 89. “That was all ‘white man territory.’ … You were a persona non grata to the white man.”

Ethnic enclaves were formed in less desirable neighborhoods, which were typically close to industrial areas. These new Japanese immigrants often became farmers, laboring in celery and bean fields. They also worked in plant nurseries, and by 1941, 26 garden centers had been established in the area.

The Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship — chiefly, first-generation Japanese immigrants — from purchasing land. Many immigrants tried to circumvent this law by buying land under their American-born children’s names or via intermediaries.

However, the immigrants were unable to obtain bank loans, forcing Nikkei communities to develop a credit system called tanomoshi (a type of community credit association) that Fujimoto describes as a “poor man’s way of capital formation through forced savings.”

Using these loans, immigrants could make a down payment on a property and repay mortgages, which ultimately helped to create a uniquely Japanese community.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066, which forced anyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to go to several designated internment camps in remote areas such as Manzanar and Tule Lake.

More than 110,000 people were incarcerated despite having committed no crime and the lack of hard evidence to support the suspicion that they were a security risk. Many were second-generation immigrants.

Many Nikkei who were incarcerated in the internment camps kept their experiences to themselves due to trauma, shame and their philosophy of perseverance.

“It was a time they would rather forget,” Toshiyuki says. “It was disgraceful that they were treated like spies. It was so foreign to most of these people — all they knew was America.”

Green thumbs

While many Japanese immigrants moved to other cities in the United States after the war, a small but thriving community rebuilt their lives in Sawtelle over the subsequent two decades.

In the years immediately following the war, many returned to live in one of many boarding houses that had been constructed in Sawtelle.

“I think one of the things that really helped the development (of the neighborhood) were the boarding houses,” Fujimoto says. “The people helped each other.”

Not only did the boarding houses give immigrants a place to exchange information that was helpful in day-to-day life (for example, recommended places for gardeners to buy lawnmowers), but they also became an intrinsic part of the community.

“Counseling was important, the credit association was important, finding a woman or a man was important,” Fujimoto says. “All of those things took place in the boarding houses.”

For a time, plant nurseries flourished and the West LA area quickly became known as the “garden district.”

Hashimoto Nursery occupies an impressive space on Sawtelle Boulevard.
Hashimoto Nursery occupies an impressive space on Sawtelle Boulevard. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

One such establishment is Hashimoto Nursery, which was established in 1927. It’s one of three Japanese plant nurseries that still exist in the neighborhood, and has since grown into a three-generation family business. The lush oasis is dense with plant life. A palm tree — one of Los Angeles’ most recognizable images — sits at the front, while succulents, orchids, edibles and all manner of potted plants are crammed in the back.

Yotaro Joe Hashimoto, who immigrated to the United States from Fukushima Prefecture, co-owns the nursery with his two sisters.

Unlike many Nikkei who were coerced to sell their properties for humiliating sums before being forcibly moved to internment camps, Hashimoto says they were fortunate to have a trusted friend of the family look after the nursery while they were incarcerated.

When Hashimoto’s family were freed from the internment camp, business flourished.

“In the postwar years, real estate was booming and people became wealthy,” Hashimoto says. “There are rich areas close to here — Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Santa Monica — and they would buy from us.”

Many Nikkei became skilled landscape gardeners and, even today, many of the houses in Sawtelle have immaculately manicured Japanese gardens in the front of their homes, a legacy of these green-thumbed residents.

As the immigrants secured a better education, fewer people wished to work in the gardening sector.

“Gradually, the Mexicans that the Japanese hired took over,” Hashimoto says. “All of our staff are now Mexican; not a single one is Japanese. It’s hard to find successors.”

Hashimoto admits he is unsure about whether his nursery has a future. Other Japanese-American residents share his concerns.

“It’s a bit melancholic, as Sawtelle was historically a place for Japanese,” says Hashimoto’s sister, Chimie. “There is now less of a community.”

Jack Fujimoto poses for a photograph at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple.
Jack Fujimoto poses for a photograph at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Ramen revolution

In recent years, the neighborhood has witnessed the growth of another Japanese-inspired development: noodles.

Tsujita, a popular tsukemen franchise from Tokyo, opened its first branch in Sawtelle in 2011.

Yuino Kumamoto, a PR representative for Tsujita, says the initial customers were “pretty much impressed, and then they were kind of addicted to it — like a drug.”

“They in turn brought more customers,” Kumamoto says. “I think American people liked it.”

Influential food critic Jonathan Gold described Tsujita as “life-changingly good” in an LA Weekly article the year it opened.

Kumamoto says that positive reviews in the media and on Yelp.com have been instrumental in creating an interest in the restaurant. She believes — somewhat surprisingly — that the traffic congestion caused by Tsujita’s customers has even forced the city to install a set of signals on Sawtelle Boulevard.

Tsujita has since opened a second outlet that specializes in tonkotsu ramen, Sushi Tsujita and a tantanmen eatery called Killer Noodle, with plans to open a miso ramen shop. Other ramen joints have followed suit: Nine ramen restaurants are operating in Sawtelle, with more than 15 in the greater West LA area.

While these outposts have introduced authentic Japanese food to American palates, the ramen boom has created other changes in the area. The West LA neighborhood has become increasingly pan-Asian and the residents racially diverse — a trend that is viewed positively.

However, some have criticized new businesses in the area for not being involved in the local immigrant community. They claim the multilevel residential development projects and generic chain stores are usurping traditional smaller stores that optimize the fundamental idea of a “community.”

Name change

Sandy Toshiyuki grew up in Sawtelle.
Sandy Toshiyuki grew up in Sawtelle. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Fearing that the area will lose its Japanese-American identity, members of the neighborhood successfully petitioned the Los Angeles City Council to change the official name of the district to “Sawtelle Japantown” in 2015.

Seventy-eight-year-old Ted Tanaka, whose father was one of the 10 original co-founders of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, was forced into an internment camp between the ages of 2 and 5.

Tanaka’s firsthand experiences in the area are invaluable to understanding the immigrant experience, and he works with the nearby University of California Los Angeles to give tours that inform students about the neighborhood’s historical roots.

“We have found a kind of synergy, as UCLA is just 15 minutes away,” Tanaka says. “We are lucky to have a proximity and connection that many Japantowns don’t have. We come up with some ideas together, and that will only grow.”

Such concerns are not unfounded. Prior to World War II, more than 40 Japantowns once existed in the state of California. Of these, only a handful remain, including those in San Jose (whose official website calls Japantown an “endangered species”), San Francisco and “Little Tokyo” in downtown Los Angeles. The remainder — for example, Sacramento Japantown — have disappeared, succumbing to public redevelopment, urban renewal and gentrification.

Nikkei locals who are struggling to preserve Sawtelle Japantown’s cultural identity look to one of the community’s better-known figures: Eric Nakamura, owner of pop culture store Giant Robot.

Indeed, Toshiyuki goes so far as to describe Nakamura as being the neighborhood’s “only hope.”

Fujimoto agrees.

“I really look to Eric Nakamura to provide a vision of what Sawtelle Nikkei and today’s Japantown could be,” Fujimoto says. “His generation is going to have to combat the big buildings, the ‘mansionization’ (of the area) and so on. In my time, the only thing that really mattered was that the Japanese were able to live here in the ghetto.”

Giant Robot’s legacy

Eric Nakamura is the founder of the Giant Robot store and GR2 gallery.
Eric Nakamura is the founder of the Giant Robot store and GR2 gallery. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Nakamura, 48, also owns GR2, a museum that sits on Sawtelle Boulevard. The Giant Robot store is crammed with zines, comics, T-shirts and caps as well as pins and character goods, while the museum across the road features (but is not restricted to) a roster of Asian and Asian-American artists such as David Choe, James Jean and Katsuya Terada.

Nakamura’s father was a gas station worker who met his future wife in the neighborhood. Born and raised in the area, Nakamura went to the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, Japanese language school and participated in a Japanese-American baseball league.

He cites his love of robots and Japanese pop culture as an extension of his childhood visits to Yamaguchi, a defunct Sawtelle Boulevard general store that sold imported toys such as super-alloy and soft vinyl figurines as well as kaijū monster toys.

Giant Robot, which started as a monochrome photocopied zine in 1994, eventually morphed into a successful magazine, store and gallery.

The publication’s early interviews included Japanese noise band the Boredoms, sumo wrestler Sentoryu Henri, whose father is African-American, and artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara in 2000.

At the time, Nakamura says, “the artists were very underground in Japan.”

While many facets of Japanese pop culture have since become mainstream in the United States, Nakamura says there was very little recognition of Asian or Asian-American culture when he first started.

Although many younger Japanese-Americans have since left Sawtelle, Nakamura has stayed behind and is emotionally invested in its future. Despite having roots in punk with an ethos Nakamura describes as “anti-establishment,” he is now vice chairman of the West LA Sawtelle Neighborhood Council. Nakamura feels that Giant Robot is not only a business but a community hub with a racially diverse fan base of “geeks.”

The GR2 gallery
The GR2 gallery | MANAMI OKAZAKI

GR2 offers free comedy performances and regular video game nights, and during the o-Bon summer celebrations it exhibits the work of a Japanese or Japanese-American artist to promote traffic with the temple.

Nakamura acknowledges that Sawtelle is experiencing unprecedented gentrification and is “one of the hottest places to live.” He says his own residential property is worth an estimated $1.3 million, but adds that it is “frankly worth bulldozing.”

“Once you leave, you can’t come back,” he says. “Maybe this is their family home, and then they get married, move, start a new life and it is too expensive to find a house in the area again.”

However, Nakamura expresses hope for the future — albeit with a caveat.

“I wish there would be a little more retail,” he says. “It’s all restaurants and I do hope it that it retains its Asian-ness.

“Everything is very corporate. I wish there was an izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) that is 50 years old — that kind of shibui (old school) vibe — but we are losing all that original charm. Here, everything is rush, eat and you are out. An izakaya is a community and you can be there for hours.”

Fujimoto recognizes that, much like the Giant Robot fan base, the future Sawtelle community will not be defined by “Nikkei and Nikkei but more about ethnic inclusiveness.”

Fujimoto ultimately believes that Sawtelle will serve as a kind of furusato (hometown) neighborhood for Japanese- Americans in California. With Japanese-Americans scattered across the wider Los Angeles area, they have fewer and fewer opportunities to reconnect with their cultural roots. Neighborhoods such as Sawtelle provide a place for Japanese- Americans from all walks of life to come together to celebrate their heritage.

“Such reunions keep us bonded,” Fujimoto says.