Little Tokyo mom-and-pop businesses continue through rough times

LOS ANGELES — A handful of mom-and-pop retail stores in Little Tokyo have survived economic downturns to become almost permanent fixtures, hanging on for anywhere from 68 years to more than a century.

In fact, Fugetsu-Do Confectioners has been around since 1903, Mikawaya started in 1910, and Rafu Bussan, S.K. Uyeda Department Store, Bunkado and Anzen Hardware commenced operations right after World War II.

Fugetsu-Do. photo courtesy of Brian Kito

Fugetsu-Do. photo courtesy of Brian Kito

Fugetsu-Do Confectioners
Seiichi Kito, who came from Gifu to Los Angeles when Japanese residents in the area numbered 3,000, established Fugetsu-Do Confectioners in 1903. Kito and his wife, Tei, had six children. One son, Roy, a Kibei (educated in Japan), became involved in the business from 1935.

The Kitos were among the 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry who were rounded up during World War II and sent to American-style concentration camps. The Kito family was incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo.

When the war ended, the Kitos returned to Little Tokyo and re-established Fugetsu-Do on Boy’s Day, May 5, 1946. The business moved back to its current site in 1957 with Roy Kito as sole owner. Roy and his wife Kazuko’s youngest child Brian took over operations in 1980.

“It’s a mochi store,” Brian Kito described his business. Mochi is a Japanese confection usually in the shape of a small, round rice cake which can be eaten with condiments such as kinako (roasted soy bean flour), manju (sweet red bean paste), soy sauce dip and seaweed.

Buddhist temples and Japanese grocery stores are regular customers, and Fugetsu-Do generates extra business with special mochi and manju for New Year’s Day, Girl’s Day (March 3) and Boy’s Day (May 5).

Popular items at Fugetsu-Do include the contemporary mochi like strawberry mochi with peanut butter and dango with dips that are more appealing to kids, Kito explained. “We still make very traditional stuff … but we’re moving toward things that the younger kids would have a better palate for.”

Little Tokyo is almost back “to the old days where you had people walking up and down the street all day and all night,” Kito observed. “I’d say in the last couple of years it’s really taken off.”

He attributed the hike in business to the increase of residents in the area, more new market-rate residential projects, and more ongoing housing developments. “When it’s all said and done, I think we’ll probably have about 20 times more people living in

Little Tokyo than we did 15 years ago.”

The increase in younger residents, rather than just tenants at the senior citizen housing projects, helps the security by having more people around, Kito noted. “And it’s helped the night life here, it’s helped the daytime businesses, it looks like Little Tokyo is going through a new life cycle.”

All kinds of customers are attracted to Fugetsu-Do: Shin-Issei (postwar immigrants), Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei, and non-Japanese Asian customers like Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese, the Manju Man noted. “It’s quite a wide array, but predominantly it’s Japanese American.”

An important event for Kito during his tenure as the owner-operator of Fugetsu-Do was the store’s 110th anniversary celebration earlier this year. During the celebration, Kito presented some awards to his loyal employees. “I thought getting to the 100th anniversary was a big deal, but actually the 110th was probably more emotional than the 100th,” he related.

Fugetsu-Do is doing “pretty well now,” stated Kito, who for years has joined with volunteers to patrol Little Tokyo and clean it up. “In general, when Little Tokyo does well, we do well. All the efforts of trying to take care of the neighborhood as we’ve been doing over the last 25 years have finally paid off.”

Twenty years ago it “looked pretty dim,” Kito pointed out. “But we’re back up and running, and it feels good. I’m very proud to see the community flourishing again, not just solely for business but for the longevity of Little Tokyo.”

Fugetsu-Do
315 East First St., Los Angeles
(213) 625-8595; www.fugetsu-do.com
Business hours: Sun.-Thurs. 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Mikawaya
The business that popularized the mochi ice cream got its start in 1910 when Issei immigrant Ryuzaburo Hashimoto established Mikawaya in Little Tokyo, and named the store after his hometown of Mikawa in Aichi Prefecture.

In 1925, Hashimoto sold the business to his nephew Koroku Hashimoto and Koroku’s wife Haru, who operated the bakery and confectionery store until World War II, when the family was incarcerated at Poston, Ariz. Their daughter Frances, who would later take over Mikawaya, was born at Poston in 1943.

After the war, the family returned to Little Tokyo and Koroku and Haru reopened their business on Dec. 23, 1945, and carried on for almost three decades. Their daughter Frances, a University of Southern California graduate who taught elementary school for four years, took over in 1970. Frances ran the business with her husband, Joel Friedman, until her death in November of 2012. Their empire now includes three retail outlets — in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village Plaza, in Gardena and one in Torrance.

Despite the economic downturn of recent years, business “remains constant,” Friedman said. “When people are having financial difficulties, they look for inexpensive things they can enjoy. Our product is relatively inexpensive … During the Great Depression back in the ‘30s, Mikawaya’s business actually boomed for that same reason.”

Mikawaya’s success continued with the popularity of their traditional Japanese pastries, or wagashi, in addition to a unique new product — Mochi Ice Cream.

“In 1994 we started selling our Mochi Ice Cream, which has become a big hit everywhere,” declared Friedman, who took over Mikawaya‘s management after his wife died. “Our company brought out Italian gelato, which we are still making. Then we decided to take the gelato and put it in mochi, and we came up with Mochilato.”

In the pastry line, the main customers would be the Japanese, as well as Korean and Chinese, according to Friedman. “Our most popular item is Mochi Ice Cream, that’s enjoyed by all ethnic people — Asians and non-Asians.”

After 103 years, Mikawaya still looks to the future. “We’re going to add five new flavors to Mochi Ice Cream, and we’re going to continue looking to create more different, unique dessert items, either in the pastry or ice cream field,” the Mikawaya boss revealed.

The most satisfying aspect of this business, Friedman said, is “making a product that people love.”

Mikawaya
Japanese Village Plaza, 118 Japanese Village Mall, Los Angeles
(213) 624-1681; https://mikawayausa.com
Hours: Mon. and Sat., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri., 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Mitsuwa Marketplace
21515 Western Ave. Torrance; (310) 320-4551
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Pacific Square
1330 West Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena
(310) 613-0611
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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S.K. Uyeda Department Store
Japanese Americans returning to California after languishing in wartime concentration camps — some for as long as four years, many impoverished and homeless — became very familiar with the S.K. Uyeda Department Store in Little Tokyo.

Satoru Uyeda, current owner of the S.K. Uyeda Department Store, explained that it is not a department store any more. “Back when my father, Kiichi Uyeda, came out of Manzanar camp and started the business in 1945, the government was interested in Japanese coming back to Los Angeles having a place to buy whatever they needed to move into living quarters. Most of the people coming back didn’t have anything, so the store had everything a department store would have, like hardware, stationery, cookware, sewing patterns … and underwear and shirts and ties.”

It helped that the Issei felt more comfortable shopping in Little Tokyo and congregating with other Japanese-speaking people, Uyeda said. “He got a lot of business from people all over Southern California. They would come down from Fresno or Bakersfield to spend a weekend in Los Angeles and buy all the goods they needed. They were also coming from San Diego to buy stuff because my father had anything that people would need to run a household.”

It was truly a department store then, Uyeda explained. “Right now, all we do is specialize in ethnic goods; we have kimono and futon primarily, and we have shoes and slippers, geta, the tabi and socks, and we have different things like hair pieces.”

Today, three-quarters of the store’s customers are non-Japanese, the owner revealed. “It’s different from what it used to be. I remember my father used to have a supplier from Japan and they’d have all these nice ningyo and doll cases, and the Issei used to come in and buy for their Nisei kids. When the Issei passed, the Nisei weren’t buying those ningyo for their Sansei, so that was the demise of that.”

The level of sales has stayed even during rough economic times, revealed Uyeda, who took over the business in the early 1990s. “But it’s really hard for me to estimate what our sales are going to be for the following month … There’s good days and there’s bad days.”

For the future, Uyeda disclosed, “I think we’re just going to hold tight. We’re probably not going to change our inventory, but we might try going online … We don’t even have a Website now.”

The satisfaction he derives from his ownership of this store is that “it’s something to have here in Little Tokyo because we’re the only ones that sell futon in the area, and we have a wide selection of kimono and happi coats. To me, keeping the store is promoting Japanese culture here.”

Uyeda is looking forward to seeing the Budokan gymnasium built in Little Tokyo. “It’ll bring a lot of younger Sansei and Yonsei and their kids,” he said. “I think of it as preserving Little Tokyo, because we have a large influx of non-Japanese opening up businesses here and we have a lot of non-Japanese property owners. The complexion of Little Tokyo is a lot different than it was back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

S.K. Uyeda Department Store
230 East First St., Los Angeles
(213) 613-0450
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

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Bunkado. photo courtesy of Bunkado

Bunkado. photo courtesy of Bunkado

Bunkado
Tokio Uyeyama and his wife Suye established Bunkado shortly after the end of World War II, following their release from a concentration camp at Granada (Amache), Colo.

Tokio Uyeyama, who taught art at the camp, came to Little Tokyo in 1945 and opened up the store that has remained at the same location on First Street. Suye Uyeyama’s brother Masao Tsukada, and his wife Kayoko, parents of present owner Irene Tsukada Simonian, took over the store around 1970.

In those days, the Nikkei “really patronized” the Little Tokyo shops, Tsukada Simonian remarked. “We bought a lot of our stuff in Little Tokyo, we purchased our shoes at Asahi Shoe Store, and televisions and stuff at Ginza Gift. There was a lot of mutual support.”

The store right now sells “a pretty large range of things,” she said. “Dishes are probably our mainstay, and we have a lot of tableware, kitchenware, décor like lanterns, screens, and we also have traditional Japanese cultural items — fans for Japanese dancing, hair ornaments, calligraphy supplies, origami, ikebana flower arranging supplies, tea ceremony supplies, traditional Japanese toys, Japanese-themed books and Japanese stationery.”

Bunkado was at one time the largest retailer of Japanese recordings outside of Japan, the owner reported. “We had a lot of famous Japanese recording artists, like Misora Hibari, who came to our store … The recording part has been phased out now.”

Bunkado also sells a lot of lanterns and décor to movie set designers and the movie industry, she added. “That’s a nice segment of this business because they come in, buy a lot and really fast.”

Because of the koban (Japanese neighborhood police station), volunteer patrols and clean-up activity, business is improving, commented the owner who took over the shop in 1992. “It’s very lively around here at night. Little Tokyo got on the map as a trendy place … There’s a lot of interest in Japanese culture, not necessarily the traditional culture … They associate the anime movement and even Hello Kitty with Japan.”

The majority of the customers coming to Bunkado, about 60 percent, are Japanese or Asians, she observed. “There’s a big component of Japanese American families who have been coming to Little Tokyo, and Bunkado especially, since they were kids … They find it very nostalgic.”

Some of Bunkado’s clientele are Japanese corporate people who have lived here for a few years, reported the L.A. native who speaks Japanese. “They shop in Little Tokyo and in our store. We get even tourists staying next door at Miyako Inn who feel comfortable being able to speak Japanese, and they buy omiyage to take home because it’s unique.”

It’s hard to predict the future, conceded the businesswoman. “We have to compete with online shopping … The only thing we have going is the nostalgia factor, the uniqueness of a mom-and-pop shop, where you can touch and feel the merchandise.”

Working here was the last thing she wanted to do, confessed Tsukada Simonian, who lives in La Habra with her husband, Steve Simonian. “But here I am. I really love it … I keep it open for more reasons than just a business, it’s a labor of love.”

Bunkado
340 E. First St., Los Angeles
(213) 625-1122
http://bunkadoonline.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Rafu Bussan
Yukio Tanaka and Junichi Onishi founded Rafu Bussan in late 1945, starting as peddlers bringing Japanese imports to enclaves of Japanese farmers in Orange County, Gardena, San Fernando Valley and Oxnard, according to company spokesperson Carol Tanita.

“In the early days, they used to fill up their vehicles with basic Japanese staples like rice, tea, Japanese canned goods, rice bowls and chopsticks,” Tanita related.

Current owner Skip Kawaratani and his wife took over in 1958 and enlarged the inventory to include not just the staples but also household goods like rice cookers, pots, tea sets and platters. “Now, it’s pretty much very unique items that most of the other stores don’t have, like Japanese large imari ware, iron ware, they’re almost like art pieces,” Tanita continued. “Then we have clay, Japanese classic dolls, ikebana vases, lacquer ware, mingei or folk items, origami.”

The store, about 7,000 square feet in area, formerly housed the Sho Tokyo Theater, and the front space that Kawaratani also took over was the Oka Grill, a Hawaiian Japanese coffee shop.

“I think it’s the most beautiful store in the area,” Tanita exclaimed. “It’s not the largest, but it offers the largest selection of Japanese imported items.”
Business is up and down like everybody else, Tanita disclosed. “The Issei customers have either passed on or moved out of the area. But with the new residents in the area, we’re getting a new generation of shoppers.”

The new customers include Shin-Issei, Sansei, Yonsei and also transplants that have moved into the area. “They’re all coming down here to shop and eat,” she said. “About half of the main customers are Japanese Americans, and the other half are mixed among Asians, hakujin (white), Hispanics and African Americans.”

Rafu Bussan
326 E. First St., Los Angeles
(213) 614-1181
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. every day except Wednesdays when they are closed.

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Anzen Hardware
Owner Norihiko Takatani, who immigrated from Hiroshima after World War II, has worked at Anzen Hardware since 1954, when he was still in high school. He took over 12 years ago from Tsutomu Maehara and Takatani’s cousin Glenn Morioka, who started the business in 1946.

Anzen sells specialty Japanese knives that are favored by chefs, along with tabi, saws, scythes and general merchandise such as bonsai tools, cutlery, cooking knives and kitchen ware.

“Japanese carpenter tools are very popular too, like Japanese saw, chisel, planer, and I do sell quite a bit of sushi knives, water sharpening stones,” Takatani said. “If you sharpen the knife, I don’t recommend the steel sharpener. I recommend to use the water stone.”

As for how his business is doing, Takatani said, “I survive. I think business is better than it was three or four years ago.”

He said his customers are about 70 percent hakujin.

“I have a customer that likes my knives and comes in from Texas,” Takatani said. “I have a lot of out-of-state customers. I have some from Massachusetts. They come to buy katsuo-bushi kezuri, the bonito slicer. I can’t explain why they come to my store from out of state. Maybe because I have a lot of unique stuff.”

None of his five kids is interested in taking over his business, he divulged. “I’m an old man now, 75, so in the future, maybe I’ll donate my stuff.”

Takatani said he loves boxing more than he likes hardware. “I am a boxing manager and have had three world champions.”

Anzen Hardware
309 East First St., Los Angeles
(213) 628-7600
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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