By JORDAN IKEDA, Rafu Contributor
Over the past decade, the evolution of Little Tokyo has been equal parts exciting and frustrating, hopeful and morose, loudly rejected and wholly embraced. But as is the eternal case, the new typically means the end of the old.
When S.K. Uyeda first opened its doors in 1945, it served a new purpose for the returning Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in camps during World War II. It worked as a department store selling hardware, stationery, kitchenware, clothing, toys and other Japanese goods. But as Little Tokyo evolved and brought in new businesses that sold similar products, S.K. Uyeda began to eliminate products as they couldn’t keep up. It eventually morphed into a specialty store offering Japanese kimonos, happy coats, and bedding.
Sadly, after 71 years as a staple in Little Tokyo, S.K. Uyeda will be closing its doors this month.
“I love it and will miss it,” said Tsuyako Kunishige, who has worked at S.K. Uyeda for the past 27 years. “This place, these people have been like family.”
The head of that family has been owner Satoru “Sats” Uyeda.
“The store has really run its course in terms of benefiting the community,” said Uyeda. “Right after the war, there was a need for Issei and Nisei to come to a place they felt comfortable and speak Japanese and get their household goods. Nowadays, everybody goes online, goes to larger chains.”
Uyeda took over the store when his father, who founded it, passed away in 1992. Uyeda had been working at the store since 1977. Before his father died, he made a promise to his parents to keep it open until they passed. Last year, after celebrating her centennial birthday, Uyeda’s mother passed away. Sats began planning.
Part of that plan included selling the building.
“It’s kind of a sad day to see it gone,” said Brian Kito of Fugetsudo, who has been a longtime friend and worked with Uyeda as part of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association. “He’s a good man. The community will inevitably miss having him down here. But I think it’s more of a sad day that he will be selling the building. It’s a big change since he’s an old-time family down here. It feels like it is, though hopefully it isn’t triggering something.”
That something can be interpreted as a changing of the guard, a clear sign of gentrification as developers have swooped into Little Tokyo and been a part of its massive revitalization. Unfortunately, that change has meant many longtime family businesses are closing up shop.
“Most of the buildings here are owned by non-Japanese,” said Uyeda. “As time goes on, there will be less and less Japanese-owned businesses here in Little Tokyo. In the long run, the handwriting is on the wall. The Japanese will become less and less important in Little Tokyo.”
Obviously, the Japanese American community finds this trend troubling, even as many stores have been invigorated by the influx of youth and different cultures and new visitors from not just Los Angeles, but all over the world.
Still, his message is a poignant one. There just isn’t much interest from the younger Yonsei and Gosei generations, who really have nothing connecting them to Little Tokyo. Everything they enjoy doing can be found elsewhere and most have assimilated into mainstream American culture.
“I think it’s unique to the Japanese that we are more likely to assimilate as opposed to keeping a separate ethnic identity,” said Uyeda. “When I was 12 years old, I asked my parents to not speak to me in Japanese anymore. I told them I’m an American and I do everything in English. My kids, in turn, struggled at Japanese school, so they stopped going after a couple of years.”
So, what will bring them back? Uyeda believes sports activities can be the binding tie that brings the community back together and is excited for the coming Budokan. He also believes many of the community organizations that are putting on programs and festivals need to continue to do so. But that they need to continue to evolve the content so that it continues to be fresh and new.
“Unless you come down here,” he said. “You have no sense of place. You can’t feel that connection. You have to physically see the other Japanese Americans around you in order to have a sense of community. Come to the festivals and programs they have here. I think that’s the only way.”
For his part, Sats will continue to come to Little Tokyo and already has plans on opening up an office and keeping busy.
Something new emerging out of something old.
S.K. Uyeda’s last day is Sunday, May 15. The store is located at 320 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more information, call (323) 624-4790.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo