West L.A.’s Sawtelle neighborhood, which has been known as a Japanese American community for decades, was officially designated as “Sawtelle Japantown” by the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday.
The designation was approved by all 14 council members who were present (Jose Huizar was absent). Last week, the City Council’s Education and Neighborhoods Committee recommended approval by a vote of 2-0.
Jean Shigematsu, a member of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council and West L.A. JACL, was part of a contingent from Sawtelle at the council meeting.
“I want to thank all of you for doing the great job that you’re doing,” she told the council members.
Jay Handal, chair of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council, said, “Not only do we enthusiastically support the renaming to the Sawtelle Japantown area, we’ve actually put in the application to change the name of our council to the West L.A./Sawtelle Neighborhood Council to fully incorporate the historic meaning of our district.”
He added that the designation will help West L.A. to become a more identifiable area: “Everyone understands Beverly Hills, Palms, Mar Vista and Brentwood – no one has a clue where West L.A. is. If you’re a real estate agent, it starts at La Brea because it brings the house prices up, but the fact is Sawtelle is a truly historic area.
“This is a historic day for the people who have fought so hard and gone out and gotten the signatures they need and the support they need in the community, and your support just puts the icing on the cake.”
Randy Sakamoto, who has documented Sawtelle’s history in several books, noted that there is a large concentration of Japanese Americans in the area due to race-based restrictions on buying homes from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
“Our request for the sign is in recognition of the people that live there, the people that got educated there, the people that had jobs there, and who have had large families, and they’ve all moved out to various parts of this country and in this city,” Sakamoto said. “We’d like to get recognition for the historical presence of the Japanese community in West Los Angeles. There are three large churches there, there’s an institute of language … Sawtelle Boulevard itself has been revived and it’s a very active community.”
Greg Ericksen of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council said the renaming will “honor the historical and cultural roots of our Japanese American citizens and also bring together synergies around our community to engage new residents and new community members to participate in our neighborhood council and participate in our city.”
City Councilmember Mike Bonin of Council District 11, which includes Sawtelle, said, “On the Westside, there’s a number of pockets of my district that have historically had large populations of the Japanese American community, in Del Rey and particularly in the Sawtelle neighborhood …
“It is a multigenerational neighborhood. There are folks that have been there for many, many years. It is a place that has wonderful Japanese nurseries, has a wonderful Japanese American community, and it’s a community that over the years has suffered persecution through restrictions on where they could live, through internment … a very strong and vital neighborhood …
“Informally, the neighborhood has been known as Sawtelle or Little Osaka over the years, but there’s never been a vote or canvas of the neighborhood to determine how they would like to be referred (to). Residents of the community and the neighborhood council went out and they canvassed, and they decided they wanted to be known as Sawtelle Japantown …
“I look forward to this being approved and getting the signs made and installing them with the members of the community.”
Councilmember Paul Koretz of Council District 5 commented, “For my entire lifetime, this has been one the areas with the best Japanese restaurants, not surprisingly, in Los Angeles, and I still get out my passport and cross into CD 11 every once in a while and meet friends at one of the truly fine restaurants in Sawtelle, one of many notable things in this area … I’m glad to hear that we’re taking this step.”
Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo of Council District 1, who grew up in Boyle Heights, recalled, “My best friends were Japanese American, they lived right around the corner from me. And then they moved to the Westside. I remember it was a big deal … On occasion they’d come back to Boyle Heights and tell me where they lived, and they lived over towards the university …
“Later when I went to UCLA, I discovered Sawtelle, and have been going back ever since. I was just there recently …
“What you’re basically doing is acknowledging a reality that Paul and I have known and observed for decades. A reality of a very vibrant, unique, special community … that deserves its own special designation.”
Bonin is planning a celebratory unveiling of the “Sawtelle Japantown” sign, according to Len Nguyen, his senior field deputy.
According to the “Preserving California Japantowns” website, “Becoming a part of greater Los Angeles and renamed West Los Angeles (WLA) in 1929, ‘Sawtelle’ still commonly refers to the commercial corridor of Japanese businesses and restaurants along Sawtelle Boulevard between Pico and Santa Monica boulevards, and the residential neighborhood surrounding it. By 1941, Sawtelle boasted 26 nurseries/florist shops, eight boarding houses, eight gas stations/garages, four churches, three grocery stores, five shops, four barbers, two sewing schools, one beauty salon, and one Japanese language school and community hall.
“Today, only a handful of pre-World War II historic sites remain, but an influx of Japanese restaurants, markets, and the J-pop influence of the Giant Robot store … provide a new identity, often referred to as ‘Little Osaka.’”