LITTLE TOKYO INC.: Karate Discipline and ‘Irasshaimase!’ Create Restaurant Empire

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jon kajiBy JONATHAN KAJI

This is an American success story that I’ve had the personal pleasure of witnessing first-hand. I also believe it’s a testimony to that combination of immigrant tenacity, hard work and intelligence that continues to infuse the American economy with dynamism and growth.

The story begins at former Recreation Park (now Mas Fukai Park) in Gardena. Back in the late 1980s, I’d wake up early and head over to the concrete basketball courts to shoot around as part of my daily exercise routine. (Way back when my friends and I used to play in the NAU and church leagues.)

I was usually the only one at the park, interrupted only by the city landscaping crew leaf-blowers or an occasional jogger. Then, one morning, I walked towards the hard courts and saw an unusual sight.

There, on the wet grass, was a solidly built Japanese guy with a crew-cut, going through a series of karate kata, barefoot, wearing his karate gi. I stopped to watch him go through his routine, before I decided I should give the guy some distance in case he was looking for a sparring partner.

I have to say, I was impressed by this fellow, practicing his punches and kicks against the eucalyptus trees. One hard-core karateka, he reminded me of some of the old-time masters I’d read about in Black Belt magazine. I remember hearing him snap the sleeves and pants of his gi as he punched and kicked.

After a few weeks, I’d pass by him on my way back to my car and wave hi to him. “Oosuuu!” with a slight bow and clenched fists he replied.

A few years later, my firm was managing a retail center in Torrance. One of the tenants, a Japanese restaurant, wasn’t doing well so we began a search for a new tenant.

So, guess who walks through my office door? You guessed it. “Mr. Karate.”

He introduced himself to me. His English wasn’t that good and neither was my Japanese, but we managed to communicate. He told me that he had moved to Los Angeles from Japan in the late 1980s with a goal of investing in real estate. Then the “bubble economy” crashed in Japan, so thoughts of making it big in American real estate faded away.

We talked about the Japanese restaurant. I was curious what qualified him to run the restaurant. Did he have restaurant experience? He was working part-time at a Japanese restaurant in Gardena. What was his background? Civil engineering. The interview seemed to be going sideways as I was becoming less convinced that he could pull off a turnaround.

“Okay, so why should we believe that you can make this restaurant a success?”

“Because, I will work hard. Oosuu!”

Sometimes, beyond the tenant application, credit reports and financial statements, you have to underwrite a deal based on certain intangibles. Restaurants, being a service business, require not only good food and great locations, but also that other intangible that creates a memorable guest experience.

We decided to take a flyer on “Mr. Karate.”

Fast-forward to 2014.

Shinsengumi Restaurant group, which started in that first restaurant in the Torrance mini-mall, has now expanded to 16 locations, in both California and Japan. Mitsuyasu Shigeta, the founder and chief boss (kyokucho) of the group, has more than 350 full- and part-time employees. He has sponsored charity fundraising events, most recently for the earthquake and tsunami victims in Tohoku. (Visit www.shinsengumigroup.com/en/aboutus/)

Many Rafu readers have probably been to a Shisengumi restaurant. Visit the original yakitori restaurant on Western Avenue and 186th Street at night. The line forms before 6 p.m. Be prepared for a raucous time!

You step through the noren and crack the door and get hit by the immediate “Irrashai!” Not a wimpy welcome, more like a martial arts kiai. It’s smoky, noisy, eating charcoal-grilled tasty morsels of grilled and salted delight, perfect with a cold beer or sake. You get the picture. Think “under the tracks” Yurakucho, full-contact izakaya-style social eating.

Shigeta-san will readily admit that success did not come easy. However, he and his group members continue to strive and convey a true sense of Japanese food culture, passion and enthusiasm that distinguishes his restaurant group and has created a number of copy-cat knock-offs.

Shigeta-san and I still get together when we can. We’re now working on real estate deals together. I joke with him that someday soon, I may be his tenant.

“Oosuu!”

Jonathan Kaji is president of Kaji & Associates. He was a member of the President’s Export Council under President George H.W. Bush (1990-1992) and served as the director of the State of California Office of Trade and Investment. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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