Picture New York’s East Village on an autumn afternoon, the sun setting on dirty and chipped pavement below old, red brick buildings with black fire escapes on the facades. Three boys try to identify flags that hang from a restaurant’s wooden shed on the side of the road. Down the street, a group sips matcha lattes at small, metal-framed tables.

The front door to one of these buildings opens, and Bon Yagi rushes out — walking past the group drinking tea at the store he owns, past the small and empty wooden tables at a sake bar that he also owns, and past the bank on the corner at the end of the block. A true New Yorker, his steps are brisk, his gaze is focused.

Yagi, 73, is head of T.I.C. Restaurant Group, and wields a quiet but immeasurable influence over how New Yorkers understand and consume Japanese cuisine. Born in 1948 as Shuji Yagi, he arrived in the city in the mid-1970s and opened his first Japanese restaurant, Hasaki (named after his hometown of Hasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture), in 1984, selling affordable sushi among the East Village’s no-frills, 24-hour Ukrainian diners.

“Every time you run into him on the street, he wants to stop and ask how your business is,” says Rick Smith. He and his wife, Hiroko Furukawa, own Sakaya, a specialty sake shop they opened on East Ninth Street in 2007. “He’s always interested in how we’re doing.”

Today, Yagi owns 10 locations, most of them on East Ninth and 10th streets between First and Third avenues — typical East Village blocks lined with third-wave coffee shops, bohemian restaurants and Japanese-owned-and-operated restaurants, bars, vintage clothing stores and barbershops. Informally, these streets are known as New York’s “Japan Town” or “Little Tokyo” — and Yagi is the unofficial mayor.

People stroll past the noren curtain for Soba-Ya, one of Bon Yagi’s many Japanese restaurants in New York’s East Village. | SPENCER COHEN
People stroll past the noren curtain for Soba-Ya, one of Bon Yagi’s many Japanese restaurants in New York’s East Village. | SPENCER COHEN

A circuitous journey

Yagi’s hometown, Hasaki, lies on a peninsula between the Tone River and Pacific Ocean, bodies of water rich with sardines, mackerel, pike and sanma (Pacific saury). There were so many sardines, his parents used them as fertilizer.

“I grew up watching the ocean,” Yagi says, adding that, as a child, he imagined swimming across the Pacific to Hawaii or the mainland United States. His summers were spent in the river and sea, drenched in sun on the shores.

On trips to Kyoto with his father, who collected battery cases from across Kanto, Yagi was called “Bon Bon.” His father began to use the nickname on their return home, and the name “Bon” stuck. But when Yagi was 4, his father died, leaving his mother to care for five boys on her own. That’s when “life changed.”

When he was 15, Yagi joined a preparatory course for the naval academy at Etajima — “I wanted to get some discipline,” he says. After a year, he returned home to attend regular high school in preparation for university, but Yagi arrived late to the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo, missing his chance. “So I told my mother, ‘Can I use that money for my trip to the United States?’”

In the months before his departure, he worked as a waiter at the Dai-ichi Hotel and on the U.S. military base, Camp Zama, as a driver, where he practiced English as he drove officers to and from Tokyo in large, American-made Cadillacs. On nights out, Yagi feigned employment as their translator, drinking for free at bars and clubs; at the on-base store he bought sought-after Marlboros, which he gave to friends.

At this time, Yagi befriended two American soldiers, Louis and Small, bringing them to sentō (public baths) in Hasaki.

Yagi boarded a ship bound for San Francisco in October 1968 with just $500 and a passport to his name. Once in California, he sent the second half of the ticket — a return trip to Japan — home to his mother and took a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia, where Small’s parents picked him up and brought him to the family home in Germantown, an area in the northwest of the city.

In Philadelphia, Yagi met Rocco, an “Italian guy in the Mafia” who came to Germantown to collect betting money each week and introduced Yagi to a halfway house, where he began work as a dishwasher in the kitchen.

After traveling across the U.S. and abroad, Yagi returned to Japan in 1974, where he sold metal name-shaped brooches on the street. He couldn’t get a job: On an examination for a position, he couldn’t name the current Japanese Prime Minister.

“They flunked me,” he says. “I couldn’t pass the test. (I thought) ‘Japanese society doesn’t want me.’” And so, in 1976, he headed back to the United States.

The scaffolding-covered facade of Saint Marks Place. The blue sign for basement izakaya pub Kenka can be seen through the construction. | SPENCER COHEN
The scaffolding-covered facade of Saint Marks Place. The blue sign for basement izakaya pub Kenka can be seen through the construction. | SPENCER COHEN

East Village attitude

“You know why I settled (in the East Village)?” Yagi asks. Because of Saint Mark’s Church, he says, and because it was home to the tomb of Commodore Matthew Perry, of the infamous “Black Ships” that arrived on Japan’s shores in 1853.

Saint Mark’s Church has stood on 10th Street and Second Avenue as an architectural stalwart since its construction in 1799. It has weathered the area’s historical evolution as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the arrival of Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and Italians decades later; when it was the center of punk and art in the 1970s and ’80s; and still stands today.

In 1976, the East Village was plagued with endemic crime and abandoned buildings, but it was also home to a thriving art scene.

“You certainly saw punk rock originating in this area. You saw a huge number of galleries emerging at that time,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of the nonprofit Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

For Yagi, the East Village became a rough and tumble slice of New York he could call home. “The whole place was like a war zone,” he says. You couldn’t leave laundry unattended at a laundromat. Yagi learned the hard way, finding his missing clothes sold on the street; he knew they were his by the Japanese brand names written across the front.

With his childhood friend Kazuo Wakayama, who arrived six months later, Yagi managed to open a wholesale vegetable business and lived in a walkup on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, storing leftover produce on the third-floor stairwell outside his apartment.

In 1980, Yagi opened a 24-hour diner called 103 Second Avenue, catering to the creatives who lived in “Alphabet City,” the easternmost section of the area. The decor was simple and sparse. Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Belushi and Madonna were regulars; Keith Haring painted over the black bathroom walls. “A very good canvas,” says Yagi, who later covered the work.

Given the neighborhood’s reputation for punk and the avant-garde, there were few Japanese restaurants — in 1983 there were only Mie and Sapporo East, according to food critic Robert Sietsema, writing in the Village Voice. Although the 1980s kickstarted America’s “sushi boom,” most Japanese restaurants in the city that sold sushi were clustered farther north, among the lavish high-rise offices in Midtown.

“We don’t need a fancy Midtown restaurant,” said a letter from neighborhood residents addressed to Yagi in 1984. He was about to open Hasaki, a small, subterranean sushi spot on Ninth Street. In the East Village, you ate pizza while standing, or maybe the pierogies at Veselka, a longtime Ukrainian restaurant on Ninth Street and Second Avenue. You did not eat the raw fish on rice — that was for the bankers.

Nevertheless, Hasaki thrived. The sushi was cheap and fresh. “I want my customers to enjoy Japan,” says Yagi, his mantra to this day.

Soon, Yagi opened additional restaurants, notably Decibel in 1993. The shop, located down the street from Hasaki, is said to be New York’s first sake bar. The entrance is easy to miss, with rickety, metal stairs leading to a sticker- and graffiti-covered metal door that opens to a dark bar with walls plastered in graffiti and ink and an image of Mount Fuji. Today, Decibel is cited as a vestige of an older, grungier East Village, an anchor of Ninth Street that helped to lay the foundation for Yagi’s restaurant empire.

Bon Yagi in his office. Behind him sits a mikoshi (portable shrine) for the East Village Japanese festival he’s run since 1990. | SPENCER COHEN
Bon Yagi in his office. Behind him sits a mikoshi (portable shrine) for the East Village Japanese festival he’s run since 1990. | SPENCER COHEN

Setting trends

Yagi’s ventures formed the backbone of a blossoming “Little Tokyo,” which expanded from a few Japanese stores and restaurants to many in the 1990s.

Take Stuyvesant Street, which stretches from Third Avenue to East Ninth Street, and is today a micro-center of Japanese culture: In 1994 Angel’s Share opened, introducing New Yorkers to Japanese-style bartending. That same year, Panya, a self-styled “Euro-Japanese” bakery, began serving onigiri rice balls and pastries next door. Japanese supermarket Sunrise Mart soon followed.

Daniel H. Inouye, then a doctoral student in history at New York University, first visited Sunrise Mart in the 1990s. Now a lawyer and visiting scholar at NYU, Inouye has spent much of his academic career researching Japanese communities in New York.

“By the ’90s, you started to see more of the Japanese students or people who had recently graduated from NYU,” he says. “A number of them settled in that area’s apartments, Ninth Street, Eighth Street, in that area, and I think that was really when it started to develop.” While the East Village never quite developed a rich, multidimensional expat and immigrant community like other ethnic enclaves across the city, it did thrive as a center for Japanese food and culture.

“Things like the Mart … definitely signaled that this sort of ‘Little Tokyo’ was getting bigger, more substantial and spreading out beyond just being a couple of nice restaurants,” Berman says.

But according to Yagi, Japanese visitors often viewed the neighborhood as unsafe. “Salaryman, business Japanese people, they didn’t come to Decibel because the Japanese government said (the area is) too dangerous, ‘don’t go.’” So in 1996, he opened Sakagura, a sake specialty restaurant, in the basement of an office building near Grand Central Station in Midtown.

Nevertheless, yakitori shops and ramen bars gradually opened on Saint Marks Place. The center of punk became increasingly interwoven with Japanese restaurants and stores such as Kenka, a campy izakaya pub Umeki Yuji opened above his vintage clothing store Search and Destroy, its window cluttered with baby dolls, skeletons and even a Mickey Mouse.

All the while, Yagi remained silently at work. With each opening, he introduced New Yorkers to new Japanese dishes, whether they knew he was behind it or not. In 2000, unable to find the ramen he craved, he opened Rai Rai Ken, selling “Tokyo-style ramen” before New York’s ramen boom; in 2000, he opened Otafuku, a small, street food-style stall that sells takoyaki and taiyaki; in 2013, he crafted Hi-Collar, a kissaten-style cafe by day and sake bar at night that’s become a neighborhood fixture. “Enjoy Japan Without Airfare” remains the company’s motto.

The growing allure of Japanese cuisine in the 2000s accelerated the neighborhood’s shift. With Yagi’s accessible Japanese fare at the helm, the East Village became a destination for good, trendy food from Japan and other Asian countries. Ramen chain Ippudo opened its first international store in the area in 2008; Michelin-starred dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan opened a branch in 2017; and the city’s bubble tea boom took hold in the neighborhood, catering to NYU’s blooming Chinese student population.

“I guess you could say (East Village) has a very different vibe than it used to in a lot of ways,” Berman says.

Lingering legacy

In early October, I meet Yagi at his office, near his restaurants. He’s wearing a suit and a blue button-down. His right wrist is adorned in bracelets, and a small metal pin of a Dharma Wheel is stuck into his lapel. A large photograph of Grand Central Station and kanji-clad papers hang on the walls. We sit at a long wooden table next to a bona fide mikoshi, used for the East Village Japanese festival, which Yagi has organized since 1990. On first look, you wouldn’t know this was the man who received Japan’s prestigious Order of the Rising Sun in 2019.

“Right now, I have so much stress with the business,” he says. COVID-19 has hit New York restaurants especially hard. During the height of the pandemic, Yagi’s establishments, along with many across the city, temporarily closed; the industry has not yet fully recovered.

When T.I.C.’s restaurants reopened for takeout only in spring 2020, his daughter, Sakura Yagi, who has helped to run the business in recent years as the COO, brought meals to hospitals. “The most rewarding part of this is the reminder of how resilient we are,” she wrote that May.

Near the end of our meeting, Yagi pulls out black-and-white pictures of his parents in a green frame. Even behind a mask, his smile is visible.

“Life is always like a roller coaster. So, when you’re up and high, I don’t know when, but I got to be ready to come down,” Yagi says. “But again, that’s life.”

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