Sawtelle Merchants Tell Their Stories

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Jack Fujimoto (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

The experiences of Japanese American merchants who established businesses on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles decades ago were shared at the fifth Sawtelle Stories Forum, held Nov. 19 at West L.A. Buddhist Temple.

Organized by former West Los Angeles College President Jack Fujimoto with an advisory committee, the forums have been held since 2008 and have covered such topics as the boarding houses of Sawtelle and dancer Miyoko Watanabe’s roots in the neighborhood.

Fujimoto served as emcee while his son Randy videotaped the forum to be posted at www.sawtellejis.org (Japanese Institute of Sawtelle).

Four businesses were represented on the panel: Yamaguchi’s, Tensho Do Drugs, Sawtelle Food Market, and Safe and Save Market

Sawtelle Food Market

Yuki Toya Sakurai told the story of Sawtelle Food Market, which was operated by her parents, Fusajiro and Aki Toya. “It was a place where the customers came after work to purchase fresh and wholesome foods for their families,” she recalled. “Often Fusajiro Toya could be found sitting on a stool behind the counter rolling his favorite Bull Durham cigarette.  He used that time to think of ways to improve the business and keep the customers happy.”

Yuki Toya Sakurai (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Born in Nagoya, where his parents operated a restaurant, Fusajiro left for America at a young age. He worked on asparagus farms in Walnut Grove (Sacramento County), where he met his wife, Aki Tsuzuki.

In the 1920s, after running a Japanese grocery store in San Francisco, the couple started the Aichi Hotel on Post Street in Japantown to cater to Japanese immigrants. Due to the ban on immigration from Japan and the Depression, the family moved to Salinas in 1932. Fusajiro established Toya Japanese Confectionery Store on Lake Street in Salinas’ Japanese Town, serving the workers from the vast lettuce farms.

When ordered to leave their homes in 1942, the couple and their five children stored their belongings at the local Buddhist church and were held at Salinas Assembly Center for three months, then Poston Camp II in Arizona and Tule Lake in Northern California.

After their release, they lived in a trailer park in Santa Monica, then rented rooms behind Yamaguchi’s Variety Store in the Sawtelle area. “Fusajiro shopped at Sawtelle Food Market, owned and operated by the elderly parents of Mrs. Irene Kaizuka,” Sakurai said. “They wanted to lease out the market and believed Fusajiro could operate the market capably. With the cooperation of the whole family, the Sawtelle Food Market at 2029 Sawtelle Blvd. opened under new ownership in late 1946.

“Soon after, the family moved into the duplex behind the market. Business at the market did well because the Japanese customers just out of relocation camps and settling in West Los Angeles vicinity had yearnings for Japanese food. Fusajiro knew just the kind of food they missed during their confinement in camps. Fresh fish, tofu and tsukemono were some of the items in demand.”

Sakurai worked at the market and her siblings George and Grace helped out after school and on Saturdays. Brother Akira, the second son, drove downtown every other day to purchase produce and fish. “I used to help him when he had to fillet a big tuna or other big fish by holding up the fish by the tail while Akira cut the meat away from the center bone,” Sakurai reminisced. “He became quite skilled at it and hardly left any meat on the bones.”

The family purchased a house at the corner of Mississippi and Corinth. The children and their spouses — Akira and Irene (Morimoto) Toya, James and Marie (Yoshikawa) Toya, and Yuki and Bill Sakurai — began to raise families of their own. The business was sold to the Tokuda family in 1956 and the Kaizuka family eventually sold the property to the Sakai family, who opened Satsuma Gift Shop.

Aki passed away in 1963, and the following year Fusajiro returned to Japan for the first time at age 72. He later returned to the house in Sawtelle and passed away in 1968.

Sakurai went into the real estate business and was an Obon dance instructor for many years at West L.A. Buddhist Temple. Her brother George served in the Air Force and married May Higa. Sister Grace taught at Nora Sterry Elementary School and married Jack Fujimoto. James, the eldest son, worked as a gardener and raised prize-winning cymbidiums.

“The Sawtelle community provided many wonderful experiences and opportunities for us,” Sakurai said. “In our small way, we hope we can continue to serve and contribute for the general good of the Sawtelle community.”

Safe and Save Market

Hank Iwamoto is one of five children of Robert and Tomiko Iwamoto, who founded the Safe and Save Market on Sawtelle Boulevard. The family came to Los Angeles from Lompoc, then known as the flower seed capital of the world.

Hank Iwamoto (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

“The largest seed company in Lompoc … hired a lot of Japanese nationals because they assumed that Japanese are hard workers and honest,” Iwamoto said. “So my grandfather, an Issei, thought it would be profitable if he opened a grocery store in Lompoc to supply the farmers and their families … He was right. It flourished.”

Business was so good that the family opened a supermarket. Unfortunately, that was in 1941. “Two months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked,” he said. “So we lost everything. We lost our store, our home, our savings.”

Before the internment orders were issued, the family decided to become “voluntary evacuees” and leave California. They tried to farm in Utah, but it wasn’t easy, Iwamoto said. “The first time that we got there, somebody threw a bomb at where we were staying. That was a rough start. Then they leased us land that was covered with rocks … My father figured that he was no farmer.

“So he found a job that the government offered at the foreign language school in Colorado teaching Japanese to the Naval Academy ROTC … Fortunately, living near the campus, the people were very understanding. But then the government for some reason decided to move the program to Stillwater, Okla. …The Oklahomans had never seen a Japanese before and when they found out who we were, everything started. We had racial slurs, we had rocks thrown through our windows, burning of crosses at our front door, fighting at school.”

When the war ended, Robert Iwamoto considered restarting the family business and returned to Lompoc for a visit. At a coffee shop there, no one waited on him and he was told, “We don’t serve your kind.” Then some customers whom he had known before the war came up to him and said, “Bob, we don’t want any Japs here.”

“Luckily, he had a friend that lived in the Sawtelle area who called him and told him, ‘Why don’t you come down and start your business here, because there’s a lot of Japanese living here.’ And so in 1945, my father came over here … bought a small grocery store on Sawtelle Boulevard … and had the business from ’45 to the early ’70s, when he sold the business,” Iwamoto said.

“If it wasn’t for that incident that happened, our family still would have been in Lompoc probably, and not had the opportunities that we had living in this area. We were blessed because we got both the best schools and we had all the opportunities. I personally was fortunate to attend UCLA and SC, so for me it was a godsend …

“We were one of the few families that didn’t go to camp, but I think we as a family suffered more indignities and injustice than people that were in camp under the protection of the federal government.”

Three of Iwamoto’s siblings also attended the forum.

Tensho Do Drug Store

Ben Toshiyuki, who was accompanied by several members of his family, talked about Tensho Do Drug Store, whose history goes back more than a century. His grandfather Ben (Tomiji) and his older brother Jim (Taizo) started Tensho Do Jewelry and Watch Repair in San Francisco in 1903, but lost the business in the massive 1906 earthquake.

Ben Toshiyuki (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

“When they redeveloped that area, they didn’t want Chinese or Japanese back,” Toshiyuki said. “So Taizo and Jim went to Fresno. They had a very thriving farming community, good for Japanese people. They opened Tensho Do Drug Store on F and Kern Street … They did really well except they couldn’t get along together. So big brother sent my grandfather to Los Angeles to start Tensho Do No. 2 on First and San Pedro.”

Business was good, and the elder Ben started the Miyako Hotel with some partners. Toshiyuki heard that they spent thousands of dollars to furnish the hotel so that the 1932 Japanese Olympic team could stay there.

“My grandfather paid a white physician to buy a home in the West Adams district so that my father (John) and his brother Frank could go to Los Angeles High School … Even though they got in, they ended up at Manual Arts anyway because of the kind of stuff that Hank was talking about.”

During the war, the family was incarcerated at Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas and Amache in Colorado. After being released from camp, the family tried to get re-established in Little Tokyo, which had become a predominantly African American neighborhood called Bronzeville. The Miyako Hotel had become the Civic Hotel and Tensho Do Drug Store #2 had become Civic Pharmacy.

“When Japanese Americans left the camps and wanted to come back to J-Town, it was a little bit difficult,” Toshiyuki said. “So … we came to Sawtelle Boulevard … into the middle of the block … two doors south of the Toya Fish Market. I remember that place. I remember the big tunas, but mostly remember the tofu …

“My dad started this drug store at 2035 Sawtelle Blvd., next door to Maruyama’s Barber Shop. Next door to what was Lucky Market at one time, later on a pool hall, and I believe the original George’s Hardware was next door to that, and so was Mori’s Dry Goods Store, where you could buy khaki pants and boots and hats, the kind of stuff that gardeners wore … Right after that was Milton Inouye’s optometry shop, and next to that was Yamaguchi’s … I remember their parents — they were so nice.”

For about a year, the Toshiyukis lived at 7th and Towne — “It was Skid Row then, but we weren’t all that picky and we were just trying to find a place to stay” — then moved to a house at Missouri and Berry. “We were lucky to get that,” Toshiyuki said noting that some families were still living at churches and boarding houses.

The drug store was known for its fountain, which was a popular hangout. “It was a terrific place for everybody,” Toshiyuki remembered. “Coffee, pies, ice cream, banana splits and things like that. Even sandwiches for a while. My mom used to work there …

“That was 2035 Sawtelle Blvd. We did very well there too, and we were able to expand to the corner of Mississippi and Sawtelle, 2068 Sawtelle Blvd., that’s directly across the street from Yamaguchi’s place, and catty corner from Fujimoto Shell Station … We had a grand opening and we didn’t open a fountain. It was a lot of work and the health department was always watching us and causing some problems, so we thought we’d let that thing go. I missed it, but I was glad I wasn’t washing any dishes or anything like that.”

The store closed in 1987, and the site is now occupied by FuRaiBo restaurant.

Several members of the family went to USC and became pharmacists — Ben’s son John, grandson Ben, and granddaughters Tani and Melanie; Jim’s sons, Michio and Louis, and Michio’s adopted sons, Mas and Sats Nitta.

“I’m a third-generation pharmacist,” Toshiyuki said. “My daughters … they’re fourth-generation pharmacy, and then just a week or two ago, my granddaughter (Michelle Imamura), out of the blue said that she wants to go to SC Pharmacy. So we’ve got our fingers crossed. That’s all we’ve ever done since we got off the boat, that’s all we do.”

The Sawtelle neighborhood, he concluded, is the result of “the tireless work that… the Issei put into that place and were able to pass on to Nisei and Sansei and Yonsei — and now we’ve even got Gosei.”

Yamaguchi’s Variety Store

Prior to the war, Henry Yamaguchi’s parents ran a hotel in Stockton. They were interned at Rohwer with their three sons and came to West L.A. in 1946 after his father found a position with David Akashi as a gardener an his mother found work as a housekeeper.

Henry Yamaguchi (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

The parents bought a property that included an old, small building. “Our mother decided to open a store,” Yamaguchi said. “She was able to do this because she had gone to business school in San Francisco prior to her marriage. At the beginning, she sold such items as pencils, tablets, candy and soda while our father worked as a gardener.

“We also helped our mother after school on a part-time basis even during the years that Jack and I both attended UCLA. Jimmy, who is 10 years younger than myself, went to USC and became a pharmacist. Our parents called the store the Sawtelle Variety Store.”

The store was expanded a few years later and a small rental space was leased to optometrist Dr. Milton Inouye. The Yamaguchis added dry goods to their inventory and packing and shipping operation so that people could send these goods to relatives and friends in Japan. “We would often do the packing after the regular store hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and often wouldn’t finish until well after midnight,” Yamaguchi said.

In the mid-1950s, the store was expanded again and its name was changed to Yamaguchi’s. The store’s merchandise included Japanese imports and antiques.

“At the age of 50 in 1959, our mother passed away of an aneurysm, and so Jack and I joined our father full-time in the operation of the store, and continued to do so for 47 more years,” Yamaguchi said. “In the 1960s, we further expanded the interior of the store to include part of the house in which our parents lived, but sadly, in 1971 our father passed away.

“He was sorely missed by all the customers who would stop by to talk to him, some on a daily basis. During all the years of the operation of the store, we hired many students as salespeople, and many of those same students have become permanent parts of our lives as friends.”

After 60 years of operation the property was sold in 2006 to Manny Salzman, who asked if he could continue to use the Yamaguchi name for his new business. The family agreed. “We felt that our parents, who had worked so long and so hard to build a business that was part of the Sawtelle community, would be pleased,” Yamaguchi said.

Russell, Jack’s son, was an integral part of the family business and was once recognized by a customer while swimming in Hawaii. “Once when I was in Cambria, I heard our name called out from a shopkeeper, and Jack continues to hear the same thing as he waits for his grandchildren outside of their elementary school,”  Yamaguchi said.

“If you were to ask Jack, Russ and I what is the one thing that we miss the most about Yamaguchi’s, we would all have to say that it is the people and customers that we interacted with every day. I don’t think that will ever change.”

Topics for future forums will include bonsai and orchid cultures, Nikkei nurseries, and the wartime experiences of Sawtellers.

Fujimoto also wants to do a program on notable individuals from Sawtelle. He noted, “We have many … that live outside the Sawtelle community now, but they have their roots here. What were those roots like? How far did they extend?” Among those he would like to invite are John Tateishi, former national director of the JACL, and Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki, who presided over O.J. Simpson’s civil trial.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks, JK, for following up with a commentary on the recent Merchants of Sawtelle event..
    As we continue to document the rich history of Nikkei in the Sawtelle area of West Los Angeles, we are learning that there are many interested in past experiences of a dwindling Nikkei population in the area. Today, the number of local Nikkei merchants has decreased to a handful, mainly nurseries. Local shops are primarily chain or franchised with operators in general running the show. Eric Nakamura continues to be a local Nikkei operator along with the nurseries such as Hashimoto, Yamaguchi Bonsai, FK Nursery, and Tabuchi Nursery. So, JK, I hope that you continue to grow in your understanding of the Sawtelle Nikkei community and remind the readership that local community documentaries are vital to keep the story flowing.

  2. Pingback: Sawtelle Stories – Businesses of Yesteryear « Giant Robot

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