Sawtelle recognized by Los Angeles as Japantown

The Sawtelle Food Market, circa 1950s. photo courtesy of Jack Fujimoto

The Sawtelle Food Market, circa 1950s. photo courtesy of Jack Fujimoto

LOS ANGELES — The Sawtelle district of West Los Angeles, previously a majority-Japanese American neighborhood that thrived in the prewar years and again in the postwar period during the 1940s and 1950s, recently gained recognition from the city of Los Angeles as Sawtelle Japantown.

Symbolic of that designation, officials installed two large signs on March 29, one at each end of the six-block stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard’s historic Japantown business district — Santa Monica Boulevard on the north and Olympic Boulevard on the south. That area in recent years has become a popular dining destination.

Recognizing Sawtelle is significant because “it’s a branding issue,” stated Dr. Jack Fujimoto, 87, a local historian. “Identifying Sawtelle as Japantown is very important because it ties that particular community to the Japanese, the Issei, Nisei, Sansei and so on.”

The Sawtelle Japantown Association, which lobbied for the Japantown recognition, evolved from a historical group organized by Fujimoto about a year-and-a-half ago to try to bring the Sawtelle Japanese American community closer together.

“People were concerned because the area was being called Little Osaka … and the name Sawtelle was being somewhat forgotten,” explained Randy Sakamoto, 68, one of the leaders of the project. “We wanted to get this place named properly with a sign, so that people don’t forget that this was a very strong Japanese American community with a lot of Japanese businesses, cultural events, Japanese churches and lots of citizens.”

Concerned community members formed the Sawtelle Japantown Association and Sawtelle native Carole Nakano wrote a letter to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office. “We had to get 500 signatures of people who lived within what we designated as the boundaries of Sawtelle,” Sakamoto said in an interview.

“We had a booth at the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon festival, we had a booth at the Methodist Church bazaar, and we set up a signing station on Sawtelle Boulevard … We did that a couple of weekends and we got signatures there.”

The Sawtelle supporters took the petition to the city council, and “there were no protests from anyone, no one disputed our claim that the area should be named Japantown,” reported Sakamoto. “We went to the council hearing at city hall, Councilman Bonin spoke, and the official naming got approved in late March.”

Getting the Sawtelle Japantown sign is “just a step towards making sure that everyone remembers what happened here,” he pointed out. “The sign reflects the history of Japanese in America. Like a lot of the communities in California and in the United States, Japanese Americans lived in the neighborhood for a reason, because there were restrictions as to where they could live.”

The Ikkanda Nursery in the early 1900s in Sawtelle. photo courtesy of Jack Fujimoto

The Ikkanda Nursery in the early 1900s in Sawtelle. photo courtesy of Jack Fujimoto

A Japanese Ghetto
Japanese immigrants began settling in significant numbers in the Sawtelle area back in the 1920s, according to Fujimoto, a retired college administrator. “The Issei adopted Sawtelle as their community, because they couldn’t get jobs elsewhere, and they couldn’t buy houses anywhere.”

Asian immigrants were prohibited from owning land under the state Alien Land Law, which banned landownership to those aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship, like the Issei, under a federal law that stood until 1952. Furthermore, restrictive housing covenants kept Nikkei and other minorities from living in neighboring white areas.

Before the war, the Japanese found work in nurseries or as laborers in the celery and bean fields, explained Fujimoto over the phone. “There was a big Japanese community here but it was a ghetto, segregated from the mainstream, and from the rich white communities of Westwood, Bel Air, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.”

By 1941, according to the californiajapantowns.org Website, Sawtelle had 26 nurseries and florist shops, eight boarding houses, eight gas stations, four churches, three grocery stores, four barbers, two sewing schools, one beauty salon, one Japanese language school and community hall.

With the start of World War II, West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated inland. Most Nikkei from the Sawtelle neighborhood were sent by bus to a concentration camp at Manzanar, Calif., Fujimoto stated.

After the war, many Nikkei came from Manzanar and other camps to Sawtelle. Most stayed temporarily at the boarding houses, because nobody owned any property, Fujimoto explained. Ex-inmates also stayed at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, which served as a hostel.

Gradually many Nikkei built up businesses that flourished in the late 1940s and 1950s along Sawtelle Boulevard, Fujimoto pointed out. “That’s when you got all these different services being provided, like Tensho Drugs, Yamaguchi Department Store, Safe and Save Market, Toya’s Fish Market and others … So Sawtelle was pretty booming in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. That was the heyday.”

Fujimoto estimated there were 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese families in Sawtelle in the 1950s. “It was pretty big, with about 15 boarding houses. The young guys in the boarding houses had to get jobs, so Ishioka-san, who owned Kobayakawa Boarding House, counseled these potential gardeners on how to garden. A lot of them were Kibei Nisei (born in America but reared in Japan). They needed money to buy a truck and gardening equipment, so they formed a tanomoshi (informal credit union) and got enough money to buy things.”

From the 1960s on, the Nisei had developed enough businesses so that their offspring, the Sansei, received college educations, no longer lived in Sawtelle, and became assimilated into the bigger society, Fujimoto noted.

“Around 1965, Sawtelle became much more integrated,” he added. “Japantown gradually went down, and the number of nurseries dwindled from 10 nurseries to about three or four right now. The Japanese gardeners got too old and young people never went into gardening. Some of the old nurseries still exist. They’re run by Nikkei-jin.”

Other than the few remaining nurseries, there are many restaurants now, “many run by non-Nikkei such as Koreans, some white, serving typical Japanese food — ramen, sushi, udon and curry dishes,” said Fujimoto.

The community continues to “flavor” Japanese, he remarked, “but the okyakusan (customers) are from neighboring communities … some from San Francisco and others from San Bernardino. Sawtelle has got a very good reputation as far as food goes.”

JA Population Dwindling
The name, Sawtelle Japantown, is very timely, Fujimoto observed.

“With Google, Yahoo and other technology companies coming into Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City, their workers will have to live someplace, and West L.A. and Sawtelle are the places … Some developers come in with plans for four-story and five-story apartment buildings. So this bedroom community will be a big apartment complex pretty soon.”

Sawtelle will not be a solidly Nikkei community, predicted Fujimoto, who still lives with his wife Grace in West L.A. “The Nikkei population here is diminishing because us old-timers shinde shimau (are dying off), so the Nikkei will just be a small part of the Sawtelle community. Their offspring don’t live in this area. They live, like my kids, in places like Torrance, Pacific Palisades.”

Fujimoto, who grew up in Encinitas in the San Diego area, said he likes Sawtelle. “I’ve been here since 1952. It’s a very nice community, a nice area to live. I contrast it to the Imperial Valley. When I was superintendent down there, boy it was hot. West L.A. is the best.”

Childhood Memories
“Growing up in Sawtelle was very nice for me as a kid because we knew all of our neighbors,” said Sandra Toshiyuki, 62, who was born and reared in Sawtelle. “Everyone on our block was of my father’s generation, Nisei. They all had the camp experience. My father and his family were sent to Jerome, Ark.”

Toshiyuki grew up on Corinth Avenue, one block west of Sawtelle Boulevard and across the street from the Buddhist temple. Sawtelle Boulevard was where most of the businesses were — the markets, her father’s Tensho Drugs, the barber shops, garages, gas stations and gardeners’ lawn mower shops, she recalled.

“When I walked home from school, I could go to just about any place, and since I didn’t carry any money at 7 or 8, I would just charge it,” Toshiyuki reminisced. “I could pop into Ketchie’s and have a hamburger. My father would pay my bills on the first of the month. It was nice. It was like a small town.”

The local Japanese market closed recently, Toshiyuki lamented. “I was heartbroken. Until then, even though I lived in Venice, I would always go to Safe and Save Market for sashimi or anything every week or two, and it was just like going home because I knew the owners.”

Sawtelle was much more of a Japanese American community in the 1950s and 1960s, she said. “But even when I was going to UCLA, many of the Japanese Americans were not able to stay in West L.A. because houses were expensive. They would go to other places like Torrance, the Valley, Orange County or even Venice, where the houses were less expensive back then … The houses in Sawtelle now cost over a million dollars, and they were built in post-World War II.”  Toshiyuki said she feels “very lucky” that when she grew up in West L.A., Sawtelle was much more of a Japantown than it is today.

It was “a sleepy area of mostly single-story homes. Now it’s become more diversified, with more Caucasians than Japanese Americans in the area.”

The Japantown Committee is committed to trying to redevelop the former Japanese school at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, which used to be a community center.

The problem with Sawtelle was that there was never a great community center, Toshiyuki said. “The JIS is old and we need more space … If we had a real gym like the other Japanese community centers, we could’ve had more youth programs like basketball leagues. But on the other hand, parking is terrible on the Westside. It’s almost like Little Tokyo.”

Bustling Like Crazy
Sakamoto said of the Japantown designation, “We all feel really good since it’s something that everybody worked on together. It was quite a celebration and many of the people who used to live in Sawtelle came back to see the sign put up.”
The Issei came here, led their lives here, had their babies here and their children went to school here, he commented. “No one wants to see any of that forgotten.”

Sakamoto, a Sansei born in Sawtelle after the war, revealed that most of his family was incarcerated at Manzanar, except for his grandfather, Gisuke Sakamoto, who was picked up on Dec. 7, 1941, and locked up in a federal detention center at Missoula, Mont. His grandfather was a community leader and member of a group of retired Japanese army soldiers.

After the war, his grandfather came back to West L.A., and when he entered a restaurant with a sign saying “No Japanese allowed,” the proprietor greeted Gisuke Sakamoto with a big hug to welcome him back, Randy Sakamoto said. “There were a lot of good people. I’m sure there were people who were not happy to have the Japanese come back. But I don’t recall one story in the newspaper of any bad violence.”

Sawtelle today has a lot of Asian businesses — Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and others, Sakamoto pointed out. “If you were to come by the area on Saturday or any weeknight, you wouldn’t believe how many people there are out here. It’s bustling like crazy.”

“There is still a fair number of Japanese Americans living in Sawtelle, although not like in the ‘50s,” Sakamoto said. “My two brothers still live in Sawtelle, but I live in Torrance … I go to the West L.A. Neighborhood Council meetings whenever I can.”

The outlook for the future of Sawtelle as a Japantown is “very good,” declared Sakamoto. “The businesses are very healthy, the churches are very healthy, the Japanese school is teaching many, many children. I think Sawtelle will be around as a Japantown for a long time.”

Sense of Community
Carole Nakano, one of the activists responsible for collecting the petition signatures necessary to bring the Japantown proposal to the city council to be approved, began attending meetings with other concerned residents at the West L.A. Neighborhood Council when she heard of a developer’s plans for a large project in the area — five stories, 80 units.

The Sawtelle Neighborhood Association — Nakano’s grassroots group — joined forces with the Sawtelle Japantown Association as well as the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle seeking to have an influence on the neighborhood’s future. Residents she talked to, Nakano stated in an e-mail, commented that they moved to West L.A. “because of the sense of community, knowing their neighbors, having a garden, seeing the sun, seeing the sunset … having a sense of living in a safe area.”

With all the developments being proposed — with small restaurants on the bottom and living space on top — West L.A. “is losing what it used to be,” she complained. “Most of the restaurants and small stores want a liquor license, and want to stay open until 2 a.m. … Patrons who visit businesses on Sawtelle leave their trash on residents’ lawns, block the driveways, and residents have a hard time parking near their homes.”

The Neighborhood Association tries to present the developers another point of view regarding their projects, Nakano explained. “The developers will still make money. Their project does not have to be a rectangular building seven stories high to break even. It can be three or four stores high and the developer will see the return.

“Change is coming to West L.A. and Sawtelle like it or not,” Nakano acknowledged. “We are trying to slow it down.”

Comments

  1. great memories of Sawtelle Blvd. I lived at 1806 Sawtelle Blvd and my Father and Mother owned the ABC Cleaners next to Geanada Market and the Tempura House. Growing up on Sawtelle was different since Sawtelle was lined with Nursery’s and the Boarding house for many of the gardeners.
    My favorite place was Grace’s Pastry. All the teens used to hang out at yamaguchis after school and we always flipped bottle caps. There used to be a soda fountain I used to order a cheery coke in those days. I loved Lonnies hamburgers and the tacos.
    When we got older we hung out at Fujimotos Shell station gasing up our hot rods while Larry had to work.
    I remember I used to tease Sandy and always called her drip when we were growing up.
    I wish Sawtelle were put into a time capsule and not the way it is now. It lost its charm and more commercial and doesn’t have the same feeling. One day I’ll get back to Sawtelle and walk from Santa Monica Blvd to Olympic Blvd.

    I could name every store going down Sawtelle.
    Joe Mi plumbing, Dr Inouye,DrTira, the clothing store, Osho restaurant, Futaba restaurant, Bens Jewlery, Yamos, Tensho Drugs, Safe and Save, Granada Market, Grace Pastry, Tempura house, ABC Cleaners, and so on

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