A Shop That’s a Gift to the Community

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By June Aochi Berk

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Bunkado owner Irene Tsukada Simonian models a hairpiece in her historic store, located on First Street in Little Tokyo. (Photo courtesy Irene Simonian/Discover Nikkei)

Down Memory Lane: From Juilliard to… Bunkado?

Reminiscing with Irene Simonian, the third-generation, current owner/operator of Bunkado, brought back fond memories of Little Tokyo…

Irene was 5 years old, when she started working in the backroom of the family store, Bunka Do, applying price tags to each item, and being so engrossed she wouldn’t know that it was time to go home.

She loved the smell of the imported Japanese items–from the Japanese dolls, the incense, the kimonos, the art pieces, and the sounds of the Japanese music she would hear throughout the store. Her parents assumed that one day, their daughter Irene “Tomoko” would own and operate the store.

She would come home from Maryknoll School to “help” in the store, or walk through the streets of Little Tokyo with her sister. This was her playground. She knew all the store owners and she was known as the “Bun-ka Do no mu-su-me-san.” Life was indeed like the candy store Maruya, which she loved to visit.  Her life seemed to focus around the store and Little Tokyo.

But Irene had other dreams that would take her away from her beloved family and store.  She dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. She studied ballet under Yvonne Cusack and Stanley Holden and spent her summers on scholarship at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada. She went to New York to audition, and was accepted into The Juilliard School.

With this acceptance, she didn’t “ask” her parents, but rather “announced”–that she was going to move to New York, at age 18, to attend Juilliard.

Despite the fact that her parents wanted Irene to stay and work in the store, Masao and Kayoko Tsukada supported their daughter’s decision. She was eighteen, and alone in New York. She was the only student of Japanese descent in the Julliard Dance Department during this time.   But she loved living in the Upper Westside and spending her days in dance and other classes, attending concerts, and eventually graduated with a BFA on the Dean’s List, honorary scholarships and solo roles. It was a dream come true.

After graduating from Julliard, she worked, danced and lived in New York for 17 years; got married, traveled around the world and ended up working at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Life was so good.

Then one day, she began to think about the store and the family she left behind, and became homesick for the familiar places, people and the feeling of community in Little
Tokyo.  She wanted to go back home and be a part of that community again.

She asked her mother if she would like her help at Bunkado. Her father, Masao, had died two years before, and her mother was struggling with the day-to-day operations of the store, so when Irene offered to come back to help, her mother was overjoyed. The two of them began to operate the store together. She learned well from her mother.

In 2005, Irene lost her husband to lung cancer her mother, and a few months later, her mother passed away. Feeling very alone, Irene had to decide what her next steps would be. She decided to stay on and continue to operate Bunkado.

A neighborhood friend introduced her brother, Steve Simonian, a widower, a former Montebello police chief, to Irene. They fell in love, and were married in 2009. Irene gained an instant family: a son, a daughter, their spouses, five grandchildren and Steve’s mother. Irene felt very fortunate to have a new life, and through the many turns in her life, she remembers, today, with fondness, all of the people who affected her life.

The first generation of the owners of Bunkado was her Aunt Suye, who was married to Tokio Ueyama. Suye was “Bachan” to her and raised Irene like a daughter. Tokio was an accomplished artist and she grew up with his paintings all over their house.  His paintings were exhibited at museums, and he is most famous for his paintings while being incarcerated in the Japanese Internment Camp in Amache, Colorado. Irene’s favorite painting, which hung on her family’s wall was that of Suye in camp, called simply “Evacuee.”

Tokio and Suye helped Irene’s parents open the Tsukada Gift Store, which was located next to the railroad tracks on Moline Alley in Little Tokyo. When the Tsukada store had to move and make way for the Japanese Village Plaza, Suye Ueyama asked Irene’s parents to take over the Bunkado store.  Suye lived with the family, and was “Bachan” to her.

Bunkado first opened in 1945, on the site of the first established business in Little Tokyo, Kame Restaurant (1800s).  This was at the time of the resettlement of Little Tokyo just after WWII. People who have grown up and remember Little Tokyo fondly, will, as they walk down 1st Street, stop and come into the store, exclaiming “I can’t believe this store is still here.. and it still looks the same!” It is a must-stop for visitors and local residents who shop for Japanese gifts, music recordings, DVDs, videos and decor. Bunkado was known to have the largest selection of Japanese music outside of Japan.

Bunkado was also known for the lovely ladies who worked at the store. There were at least four marriages where romance bloomed between staff and customers. Somehow the men knew where the pretty ladies worked, and they would come into the store to buy an item, using that as an excuse to meet the ladies.

One such young man was Joe Harada, an MIS veteran who came home from Iwo Jima, and went to Bunkado to visit his friend, Masao Tsukada, also an MIS veteran. Her father would tell his friends to be sure to visit Bunkado when they are in Los Angeles.  He met Yukino Okubo, a lovely Japanese dance teacher who worked at the store, and a year later they were married.

There are many stories of Bunkado–about Tokio and Suye Ueyama, Masao and Kayoko Tsukada, and their relatives who owned the Tokyo Shokai  and Hagi Store down the street, and the Narumi families, who owned Narumi Sporting Goods and LA Mercantile.  All related, all family, and all good friends who lived, worked and played in Little Tokyo. This was their home, their community, and you can still feel the warmth and friendliness of their spirit welcoming you as you walk into the store, and you can still imagine seeing Masao-san and Kayoko-san smiling and greeting the customers.

Bunkado is more than a store, it is a treasure trove of memories, and in the heart of Little Tokyo, and on occasions, you can find Irene and sometimes Steve Simonian at the cash register, greeting old and new friends.

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