Shelter after the storm: Sawtelle’s postwar boarding houses


Pictures, Tesho-Do Drugs. On the corner of hope and hardship, Sawtelle’s postwar boarding houses provided shelter to Nikkei in transition

Pictures, Tesho-Do Drugs. On the corner of hope and hardship, Sawtelle's postwar boarding houses provided shelter to Nikkei in transition

LOS ANGELES — Boarding houses played an important part in the development of the Japanese American neighborhood of Sawtelle in West Los Angeles during the Nikkei resettlement period after World War II, declared participants at a community forum held Jan. 29.

Dr. Jack Fujimoto, who organized the event at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Church, described the Sawtelle Japanese American community as “being a ghetto or a haven — depending on outlook — where Japanese Americans were limited in many ways, such as purchase of real property in the [neighboring affluent] communities as well as job opportunities.”

The Sawtelle resettlement period of the postwar years to 1965 was “a dynamic period of Nikkei entrepreneurship,” according to Fujimoto. “It was the boarding houses that provided some of the impetus for developing Sawtelle as a self-enclosed community.”

About 3,500 persons of Japanese ancestry were directly involved in the Sawtelle community during the resettlement years, he said. The main focus of the forum was a short, one-block section of Sawtelle Boulevard between La Grange and Mississippi avenues, the heart of Sawtelle’s Nikkei community both before and after World War II.

The Kobayakawa Boarding House on Sawtelle Boulevard, which was established in the 1920s, was very popular during the postwar period when Nikkei were returning from concentration camps, Fujimoto stated. “Kobayakawa, along with several other boarding houses and the hostel at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, served as temporary shelters for the Issei and Nisei.”

The historical context in which Sawtelle’s Japantown grew in the postwar era was unique, noted Fujimoto, who stayed at the Nitta House three years while going to UCLA for his B.S. and M.B.A. degrees before earning his Ph.D. “Jobs, primarily in the gardening and landscaping area, were abundant in the redlined communities causing a Nikkei ghetto to exist but filled with dynamic interplay of social, economic and political forces.”

By the 1960s, Sansei and Yonsei received good college educations and joined the mainstream American society, while the Japanese American fabric of Sawtelle’s Japantown started to deteriorate, the noted educator added. “Recently, the last bastion of Japantown, the Yamaguchi Store of the 1940s, was sold, and now, the lively Sawtelle Boulevard is no longer owned or served by Japanese Americans … Today, people from Japan, Korea and others come in to run businesses, but the area still retains its Japanese flavor.”

LARGE-SCALE BOARDING HOUSE — Occupying an entire block of Sawtelle Boulevard, Kobayakawa Boarding House was comprised of several boarding houses, a parking lot, a mess hall and apartment units, and housed up to 60 boarders at its height. photo courtesy of T. Ishioka family

Kobayakawa Boarding House

Tosh Ishioka, 78, whose parents operated Kobayakawa Boarding House, recalled that his Japan-born father, Riichi, left a monastery to join the merchant marines, jumped ship in Seattle, and labored in a coal mine in Murray, Utah, as a dynamiter.

“He made a pocketful of money doing that dangerous work and wanted to return to Japan,” Ishioka said. “But mom stopped him from going back to Japan, otherwise I wouldn‘t be here. So we wound up at Sawtelle and got into the boarding house business.”

The Japanese came to the Kobayakawa House “in droves, mainly from Hiroshima and some from Kyushu,” he recollected. “Between the money he made as a gardener and with the boarding house business, dad built up his business. There were 60 to 70 tenants then. The immigrants established themselves; some got picture brides, and they decided to stay. That’s how the Sawtelle Japanese community developed.”

That all ended with the outbreak of World War II. His family voluntarily relocated to Colorado, where Gov. Ralph Carr welcomed Japanese even though it meant the end of his political career, Ishioka said. “We managed to retain our property in Sawtelle because of our contact, a real estate person who looked after our property … It would’ve been easy for him to take our property, but he had a conscience.”

Returning after the war to Sawtelle from Denver, where his father worked as a gardener in the summer and in the stockyards the rest of the year, Ishioka said the boarding houses “were getting tenants in droves as people returned from the camps or other areas. We had 200 people living in our boarding house, most from Manzanar.”

The Sawtelle Nikkei rebuilt the community “rather quickly,” Ishioka related, “because we were closely situated to our customers [in Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills] who needed our gardening services.”

Businesses such as Safe & Save Market, Yamaguchi Store, nurseries, barbershops, Tensho-Do Drugs and others began after the war, said the retired pharmacist, who still lives near Sawtelle. “The Japanese boarding house era ended in the 1970s because there was no more need for them. We quit the business in 1979 … Nowadays, Sawtelle has become a restaurant row.”

Hollywood-area native Tom Maeda, M.D., 81, one of the oldest surviving residents of Kobayakawa Boarding House, remembered, “My mother and her three children were sent to Hiroshima in 1933, when I was 3-and-a-half years old, and we came back when I was 10. We moved to Kobayakawa Boarding House because that’s where my father had moved … We stayed there until March 1940, then we moved to our own home on Mississippi Avenue.”

Ishioka’s mother ran the boarding house, Maeda recalled. “To the many Japanese bachelors living there, she was their American mother. The older men had their own gardening routes, while the younger ones in their late teens and early 20s worked for the older men. The rent for the bachelors was $25 a month for room and board, and the gardeners usually earned $5 a day in wages.

“I enjoyed living at the boarding house,” said the Gardena, Calif. resident. “Tosh, who is three years younger, and I became good friends; he was one of my first English teachers … Milk trucks, meat trucks, bakery trucks delivering bread and pastry, and ice cream trucks came by regularly. Bread in one-pound and one-and-a-half-pound sizes sold for eight and 10 cents, but because the boarding house bought so much, they only paid six and eight cents each. Doughnuts were 30 cents a dozen, and gasoline was 17 and 19 cents a gallon.”

In 1942, the Maeda family moved to Idaho, voluntarily relocating at the outbreak of World War II. “We stayed there until 1948 so I could finish high school,” Maeda said. “My next contact with Kobayakawa was 1948, when I came back in September to attend UCLA. Room and board was $35 a month … A Purdue grad who was an engineer and I were the only non-gardeners there. I shared a room with Tosh. My parents later came back from Idaho and lived at the boarding house. In 1952, I moved with my family to our own house.”

Tsukasa Mukai, a former Kobayakawa resident and past president of the Bay City Gardeners Association and Hiroshima Kenjinkai, came here in 1961 to join his father to work. “There were many boarding houses,” he related in Japanese. “The food was good at the other boarding houses, but Kobayakawa was the best place to find work. The rent was $65 a month.”

Mukai, a 50-year U.S. resident, said Tosh Ishioka’s mother was very strict. “I found work and learned to be a gardener. I was only 22 years old and didn’t know anything about American bathing customs, so the first time I took a bath I didn’t drain the tub. And she really got on me and told me this was not a Japanese furo, you have to drain the tub.”

DOWN IN THE ’HOOD — Sawtelle District/West Los Angeles Japanese American businesses on the 2000 block of Sawtelle Boulevard (generally post-WWII). map created by Ben Pease © 2011 for Japantown Atlas (

Japanese Peruvians

Chieko Kamisato, whose parents ran Kamisato Boarding House in the postwar era, recalled that her family was among 2,200-plus Japanese Peruvians forcibly removed from their homeland and shipped to the U.S. on American Navy ships to be held at Texas’ Crystal City incarceration camp as hostages for prisoner exchanges with Japan.

“During the war, about 900 persons were sent to Japan in the exchange program,” she said. “After the war, the government tried to deport us to Japan, saying we were illegal aliens. But that wasn’t true. They brought us here from Peru and took away all of our documents, our passports and everything. Almost all the Japanese Peruvians left for Japan, except for about 350 of us that were against it because we had nothing there. My parents came to Peru when they were very young, and the Peruvian government didn’t want them back after the war.”

The Kamisato family instead went to New Jersey’s Seabrook Farms, which recruited Nikkei from Crystal City for farm work. “The only reason we could stay in the U.S. was that they sponsored us,” Kamisato stated. “Then we got a sponsor in L.A., so we came here. After camp, life was difficult. My parents didn’t speak English, and I was a young teenager. My father worked as a janitor, while my mother was a cleaning lady.”

Her father somehow managed to acquire a boarding house business in Sawtelle through tanomoshi — a cooperative venture where members pool their resources and put up money for a member to buy a house or a business — revealed the retired fashion designer. “I was in high school then, and we had a boarding house. My mother did the cooking, and we did all the cleaning, and my father was still working as a janitor … We had about 40 people living there, mostly gardeners and mostly Kibei.”

Wonderful Times

Mats Nitta said his father was sent to the U.S. by his parents to become a medical doctor, but he never made it back to Japan. He had built up his medical practice on Beloit Avenue in Sawtelle, but died just prior to World War II, when Mats was 12. The Nitta family spent 1942 to 1945 in a U.S. concentration camp, where Nitta’s mother remarried. She and her new husband returned to Sawtelle after the war and operated the Nitta House, whose tenants were mainly gardeners or UCLA students.

BACK ON THE BLOCK — (From left) Jack Fujimoto,Tom Maeda, unidentified, Tosh Ishioka, Mats Nitta, George Wakiji, Chieko Kamisato and Lilyan Nitta. photo courtesy of Jack Fujimoto

George Wakiji from Pasadena, Calif., who stayed at Nitta House while attending UCLA from 1953, said, “I enjoyed my stay at the boarding house. I remember the brown bag lunches we got to take to UCLA. We even organized a basketball team in the NAU [Nisei Athletic Union] … My times at Beloit Avenue were wonderful — it’s part of my history.”

An interested audience member, Sandy Toshiyuki, informed Nichi Bei Weekly that her father, John Y. Toshiyuki, initially operated Tensho-Do Drugs on the west side of Sawtelle Boulevard in the postwar period. “By the mid-1950s, which may have been the heyday of postwar Sawtelle, Tensho Do Drug Store had moved to the east side of Sawtelle at Mississippi Avenue. To the north of the drug store were the offices of the WLA Medical & Dental Offices and Ben’s Jewelry.

“Sawtelle was a great place to grow up and is still one of the unique ethnic zones of Los Angeles,” proclaimed Toshiyuki, a former Nisei Week Queen. “I hope we can retain the Japanese characteristics for few more decades — at least!”

One response to “Shelter after the storm: Sawtelle’s postwar boarding houses”

  1. Terry Tokuda Avatar
    Terry Tokuda

    After the war (parents met at Heart Mt) my parents (Tadd and Lili Tokuda) moved in with my mother’s mother in Hollywood, CA…they wanted their own place and got a small house on Barrington Ave across from University High School and lived there for several years…they then bought a small two-story boarding house (4 or 5 boarders) 2015 Purdue Ave. and ran it for about ten years with single nisei men as tenants…some were students and some worked…my mother worked hard at cooking and washing for the “boarders” and it must have been difficult for her to have to wait on all of us men (father and 3 boys of her own)…as always, she never complained and did it with apparent ease…in the early 60’s my parents built their own home adjacent to the boarding house and rented the boarding house out to a family from Japan…the boarding house was defunct by this time…it was odd for us kids growing up in a boarding house who, in the back of their heads, wondered who these men were…I remember one tenant had me scratch his back on occasion…kind of yucky it was…
    I also remember a large boarding house in “Lark Allen” lot across from the Japanese school (block: Olympic/Corinth:Purdue/Mississippi)…we use to shot birds there with our slingshots…
    Terry Tokuda 2/14

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