Preserving Memories of Sawtelle, One Book at a Time

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Rose Honda with a book about the Manzanar trips that she organized, published by Randy Sakamoto. Behind her is a photo of Sawtelle residents at Manzanar during World War II. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Randy Sakamoto has published several books about Sawtelle, also known as West Los Angeles’ Japantown, covering its history as well as recent events. But you won’t find the books in stores.

Randy Sakamoto with his book "Sawtelle: A Collection of Photographs and Articles." (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Titles on display at the Sawtelle Reunion, held Memorial Day weekend at West Los Angeles Buddhist Church, included “Traveling to Manzanar with Rose Honda”; “A Steve Yagi Collection”; “Flying Lions: West Los Angeles, Sawtelle, CA”; “Reverend Gail at WLAUMC”; and “Photos from Fumi Yotsukura Tsuruda, Sawtelle, California.”

There is a more comprehensive history, “Sawtelle: West Los Angeles’ Japantown” by Jack Fujimoto (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), that is available to the general public. But Sakamoto’s books focus on individual stories within that history and are aimed at a smaller audience.

“I live just down the street (from the Buddhist church) in my grandmother’s house, so that’s where my interest starts,” said Sakamoto, who was born in 1946 and grew up in the neighborhood. “Then I inherited some photos from my grandparents and I started looking for photos, and I’ve been collecting them ever since.”

Sakamoto started out by exploring his own background in a book titled “From Fukushima: Sakamoto Family History.” His grandparents, Katsujiro and Masa Sakamoto, came from Taira, Fukushima Prefecture, around 1918. “My grandfather … was the first director of the Japanese language school. Then he was one of the founders of the Methodist church over here. So that’s how I happen to have some of these different photographs. He had a store on Santa Monica and Sawtelle that was called Grand Central Market … So our family has been here for quite a long time.”

The store still exists, but under different management and a different name.

“To put a book together like this it doesn’t take long. You can do it in about a week,” Sakamoto said. “But the difficult thing is finding the pictures and then the stories that go with them … I’m the historian of my church (West L.A. United Methodist), so I’ve been collecting photos for my church also … Then people give me pictures. Then I add that to the collection and try to put together some sort of book.”

The reunion was a great opportunity to get more information on old photos. One was from the dedication of the Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute on Aug. 18, 1929. Others included Japanese school students in 1936 (from the Jim Shimizu collection), Sawtelle residents interned at Manzanar, sixth-grade students at Nora Sterry School in 1957, and a judo dojo in July 1961.

Ben Toshiyuki and daughter Tani. The Toshiyuki family operated Tensho Do Drug Store, which closed 25 years ago. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

At Sawtelle-themed events, Sakamoto makes new contacts and picks up new leads. “We kind of trade emails and maybe they’ll send something and I’ll scan it and return it back to them … Some of these pictures (on display) I’ll send to people who used to live here a long time ago, and they’ll identify the people … The people who live here (now) don’t know.”

For one book, Sakamoto collected and organized photos taken in the 1950s and ’60s by Steve Yagi, a leader of the West Los Angeles JACL, using negatives and articles contributed by Yagi’s wife, Aki. “His wife is a good friend of my mother, so I made a copy and gave it to her,” Sakamoto said.

Another book is about trips to Manzanar organized by Rose Honda for members of WLAUMC in 2007, 2008 and 2009. “Going to Manzanar was a very arduous and difficult time for our parents and grandparents … The trips arranged by Rose were our opportunity to learn a little about the Japanese American relocation in 1942,” Sakamoto wrote in the introduction. Honda was assisted by Mary Ishizuka, Fred and Sadie Hifumi, Otto and Eleanor Nakano, Stan and Stuart Shimotsu, Rev. Gail Nakamura Messner and Rev. Becky Hirata.

“Sawtelle: A Collection of Photographs and Articles,” whose cover features an old image of Santa Monica Boulevard, includes this disclaimer: “This book is not organized as a chronology or a story. Many of the photos have no words of explanation. I shall update this with stories and more photos in the future. But for now, it is simply a collection. It will be of interest only to a small set of people and that is okay. Hopefully, it triggers some memories of the past and adds to your life in some small way.”

“These books are generally not for sale. It’s just what I do and I give it to a friend or something like that,” Sakamoto said while holding a copy of “Sawtelle: A Collection of Photographs and Articles.” “Some people ask me for this book, so I just send them a link and they can order it themselves off the Internet … If I have the book all composed, I can upload it and offload it in 30 minutes, then it will be printed in five days, then it gets shipped to me, so within 14 days I have a book.

“A book like this is about $50. You can print one copy. You don’t have to print lots of copies. These are all done on modern, high-precision color printers now. So they can just print one copy and it’s economical to do just one.”

Those interested in obtaining a copy of a book or sharing photos and stories can contact Sakamoto at [email protected]

Reunion participants were asked to identify people in this 1929 photo of the dedication of the Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

From right: Jack Fujimoto, author of "Sawtelle: West Los Angeles' Japantown," with Ted Tanaka, Glenn Kaisaki and Fujio Nakagawa. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

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