By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
“Welcome to Sawtelle Japantown!” 11th District Councilmember Mike Bonin declared to the applause and cheers of more than 100 who had gathered on Sunday at the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle boulevards.
The crowd watched and snapped photos as city workers hung the large blue Sawtelle Japantown sign on the lamppost on the northwest corner of the busy intersection. It was the culmination of a year-long effort by community members to officially recognize the historic Japanese American neighborhood.
Sawtelle Japantown today is a bustling neighborhood of trendy restaurants, stores and markets, as well as a few of the original merchants that made the neighborhood the main commercial corridor for Japanese businesses on the Westside. Often called either Sawtelle or “Little Osaka,” the new designation affirms the neighborhood’s unique history and identity.
Bonin, whose district includes Sawtelle, said that support for the name change came from a coalition of organizations, including the neighborhood council, which officially changed its name to the West L.A./Sawtelle Neighborhood Council. The new designation was approved by the Los Angeles City Council on Feb. 25.
Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, West L.A. Buddhist Temple and West L.A. United Methodist Church were also strong supporters of the new designation.
“Let’s thank the generations of Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei that are here today to honor the Issei and the contributions they made in founding this neighborhood,” Bonin said.
Consul General Harry Horinouchi said that the unveiling was a historic day for the Japanese and Japanese American communities.
“In the old days, there were 43 Japantowns in the whole state of California. But today there are only three: San Francisco, San Jose and Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. All the others are gone through demographic change and new development. But today Los Angeles city recognizes the rich history of Japanese Americans and officially names this place Sawtelle Japantown,” Horinouchi said.
Randy Sakamoto of the Sawtelle Japantown Association noted that Sawtelle was founded approximately 100 years ago by Issei pioneers.
“They built businesses, they built churches, they attended the local schools and many (people here today) are descendants of these people. This is a very special area,” Sakamoto said. “This sign is partially to honor all the Japanese who have been here and created their lives here, but it’s also the sign of the future. We are still going to be strong and vibrant and we want to make Sawtelle grow and be very healthy for a very long time.”
Many longtime residents, some in wheelchairs, joined in the celebration, including 102-year-old Stanley Ikeda, who attended with his daughter Irene Hirose. Ikeda was a gardener and moved to Sawtelle from Hawaii in the 1950s, residing first at Takasumi Boarding House.
Janice Ikkanda-Trost was at the unveiling with her mother Haruko (Kiriyama) Ikkanda, 91, who said she was happy to join in the celebration.
“I’ve been here a long time. I attended grammar school here,” Ikkanda said.
At a reception held afterwards at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, Rose Honda shared her memories of the neighborhood. Honda, who has lived in Sawtelle Japantown since she was four, said it was a “glorious day.”
“Looking back, I remember the days when the iceman came to place the block of ice in our ice box,” Honda recalled. “There was Miyazaki Jewelry Store, Hashimoto Fuschia Nursery, my mother’s pansy nursery, Lucky Market, a pool hall, gas station and farmlands that grew corn and string beans.”
Honda said that in 1942, Sawtelle residents were among those sent to the Manzanar concentration camp.
“In 1945, many families returned to Sawtelle to establish and rebuild the community once again,” she said. “Yamaguchi Store, Sawtelle Fish Market, nurseries, Grace’s pastry bakery, and many more.
“Today is a very, very special day. History has taken place in this town that we love and live in. Sawtelle Japantown.”
— Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted); additional reporting by RYOKO NAKAMURA