Sawtelle’s Japantown businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic

Map by Ben Pease / Japantown Atlas

Sawtelle’s Japanese American coommunity, which thrived in both the prewar and postwar periods as a majority-Nikkei West Los Angeles neighborhood, has now seen many of its businesses suffer financial losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The area was recognized by the city as “Sawtelle Japantown” in 2015.

Sandy Toshiyuki, owner of a building on Sawtelle Boulevard that formerly housed her father’s pharmacy and is now leased to three businesses, stated via e-mail that the most hard-hit of her tenants are the restaurant and the karaoke bar.

Neither FuRaiBo Restaurant nor Karaoke Bleu has outdoor serving space, she reported. “The bar has been closed from mid-March and has had zero income since. The restaurant is small and has tried to sustain itself with takeout orders. Both businesses had to lay off employees.”

The other tenant, Giant Robot 2, has been able to take online orders for merchandise, Toshiyuki related. The Asian pop culture gift store has “decreased store hours since there is far less traffic due to the pandemic, and opens to customers via appointment in order to exercise safe health protocols.”

“I can only speak of my tenants,” she said. “They have had substantial loss of business, and as their landlord, I have been supportive during these challenging months. I do not know if any businesses (in Sawtelle’s Japantown) have closed permanently. The only business that appears to prosper at this time is the grocery store.”

Toshiyuki said she is “one of a handful of Japanese Americans that own Sawtelle commercial properties that are leased to operators. There are about three nurseries and one plumbing service that are owner operations … I think there is far less than 15 percent JA owned and/or operated businesses. There are at least five Japanese corporate operations on Sawtelle (restaurants, market, travel agency), but I think they lease the properties from American corporate entities.”

The Sawtelle native who grew up in a residential neighborhood one block west of Sawtelle Boulevard, estimated the number of Nikkei residents on her family’s block “was once 98 percent Japanese American and now it is probably under 30 percent.”

Noting that Sawtelle Japantown’s character is being threatened as real estate developers seek to buy Nikkei properties, Toshiyuki revealed, “I have had, and continue to get, offers to buy my property, before and during this pandemic. I do not know about offers to my neighbors.”

She is concerned about how gentrification — with the building of large office towers and apartment and condominium complexes — would affect the neighborhood to the point where Sawtelle’s Japantown loses its Japanese flavor and its cultural history. “I want to safeguard our unique community for as long as possible.”

She wants the ethnic enclave to survive. “I hope it can, if we make properties available to businesses that are in sync with our cultural background … I want to hold on to my little piece of family land for as long as possible so the next generation can savor a Japanese or Japanese American experience.”

Sawtelle Is A Great Area
Eric Nakamura, owner of the Giant Robot gift store and Giant Robot contemporary art gallery, said over the telephone that his businesses “are surviving, for sure. But compared to last year, I took a financial loss, no doubt. I haven’t been open since March.”

However, some of the businesses near his store are not doing well, he reported. “I don’t know if anyone is doing better. People don’t really talk … No one is going to say they’re doing awful and no one is going to say they’re doing really well.”

Nakamura, who has been in business in Sawtelle for 20 years, said of the pandemic’s impact, “There are way less people walking around, and … after 5:30 or 6 (p.m.), it dies down rapidly. There’s nobody hanging out at night as much as they used to … Now the foot traffic is virtually gone.”

Sawtelle is a huge destination for restaurants, the entrepreneur pointed out. “But in order to survive, some were doing outdoor dining. Some didn’t do outdoor dining, they just did takeouts. Even when the government allowed outdoor dining, some of the restaurants didn’t do it … because they were thinking it wasn’t going to be worth it, that they would lose more money.”

He heard that some property owners are getting offers from real estate developers. “But I don’t know if anyone is selling. To my knowledge, in the last 10-15 years only one building has been sold, the Yamaguchi Building, which was a general store. Now, it’s a development with retail on the bottom and expensive apartments on top … The building owner is not Japanese American.”

Nakamura, who grew up in Sawtelle, thinks a small percentage of the properties on Sawtelle Boulevard are owned by Nikkei. “I think on the block I’m on, about half could be owned by Japanese Americans. Both of my landlords are JA … As for the residents, I think the number of Japanese or Japanese Americans who are residents of the area is decreasing … Most everyone I grew up with is gone.”

Sawtelle’s Japantown will keep changing, Nakamura speculated. “It’ll be busier probably; the businesses will grow … and there will be more development. Eventually, I’m assuming, the Japanese American nurseries will be sold. They’re huge properties of valuable land … it’s possible that one day they will become giant buildings, unfortunately.”

“I like Sawtelle, it’s a great area, and I’m happy to be here,” Nakamura declared. However, he was worried that Sawtelle’s Japantown might lose some of its Japanese identity as it becomes gentrified. “But the city of Los Angeles made it an official Japantown in 2015. I think part of that is to make sure Sawtelle retains its historical significance. It’ll always be Sawtelle’s Japantown from now on.”

Businesses Down 50-60 Percent
A Sawtelle restaurant owner who requested anonymity said in a telephone interview that the pandemic “has affected us a lot. Most businesses are 50-60 percent down, especially affected are restaurants doing takeout, and without outdoor dining.”

However, the community is “going to be fine,” the businessman reassured. “It’s just like everyone else, we’re just trying to survive COVID. The culture’s still there, as well as the history. The Japanese influence is still going to be there.”

Nikkei-operated businesses are less than 50 percent of the enterprises in Sawtelle’s Japantown, he said. “Right now, we have a lot of Chinese restaurants there, probably about 20 percent of the restaurants in Sawtelle are Chinese.”

The area is changing, the restaurateur added. “It’s evolving like everything, including property values … but it’s still a good, solid, unique area. When the economy is good, it’s a very busy area. It’s a very expensive area per square footage … It’s a high end, probably one of the more expensive areas. It’s close to UCLA and Santa Monica.”

Nursery Not for Sale
Hashimoto Nursery, which has been in business in Sawtelle since 1927, is the oldest and largest retail plant nursery in Sawtelle’s Japantown. The owner Yotaro Joe Hashimoto said his nursery closed from March to July last year because of the pandemic, but they reopened in July.

Hashimoto said in a phone conversation that, unlike many Sawtelle businesses, his nursery is “doing real good business. Lots of people are coming here.”

Amid reports of real estate developers seeking to purchase Sawtelle properties, Hashimoto replied emphatically when asked if he would ever consider selling, “No, No! Never happen!”

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