It was a first for me. Talking with James Ota, owner of Oiwake, for the story I wrote on the restaurant’s closing, I found myself choking up, having to briefly compose myself during our interview.
Ota’s heartbreak and pain over the closure of Oiwake is so evident. He’s a young guy with strong J-Town connections and an entrepreneurial drive, but he couldn’t make the business work anymore.
“It wouldn’t be Oiwake anymore,” he said with regret.
I understand what he was saying. It’s about more than one restaurant in JVP: it’s about Little Tokyo versus J-Town.
“Little Tokyo,” as a marketing retail concept for developers, real estate agents and politicians, is doing great these days. “J-Town,” on the other hand, is struggling.
To me, J-Town is where you see Mr. Maehara walking down First Street and say hi to Craig Ishii over at Suehiro, it’s having beers at Oiwake and a Spam gatcha at Mitsuru Grill, it’s buying a wedding present at Rafu Bussan or a calendar at Bunka-do. It’s layers of tradition and history in a real neighborhood in DTLA of all places.
I don’t think it means that J-Town is closed to outsiders or those who are not Japanese, however J-Town is a place where folks who want to work in the JA community can still make a living doing the things they love. There is a profound difference between a neighborhood and an ethnic-themed shopping district.
But if more of the small businesses find they can’t be themselves anymore in this new environment, then I fear for J-Town. Last Wednesday at an all-committees meeting of the Little Tokyo Community Council, a listing of properties that have been sold in recent years showed the extent of the changes. The meeting was called to discuss the city’s plans to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) for Block 7 in First Street North, one of the last three city-owned parcels in Little Tokyo. How that land will be developed will continue to be a topic of discussion, but the undercurrent of the discussion was the impact of all the recent real estate deals in J-Town.
Just one example: Brunswig Square on Second Street was sold last year for $33 million, according to a report by the L.A. Downtown News, and soon after longtime tenant Kokekkoko and others on the ground floor found themselves in need of a new home. The yakitori restaurant was able to find a space in Weller Court, but aren’t places like Kokekkoko precisely what make Little Tokyo unique and appealing?
What’s more, the storefronts of Little Tokyo represent the blood and sacrifice of so many: a community that has risen from the ashes of war has been sustained by those same businesses. A certain amount of generational change is understandable, but J-Town merchants have weathered so many ups and downs, it’d be tragic if they cannot endure the success of “Little Tokyo.”
Society these days is so divided between the haves and have nots: the top one percent and everyone else. Here in J-Town it increasingly means that the real stakeholders are those with property and parking lots; the rest of us are at their mercy.
I think that those with means will have to be approached and serious discussion needs to take place about how to preserve J-Town. There is hope, but I think the clock is ticking.
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George “Horse” Yoshinaga wrote two columns a week for over 60 years.
That’s an ironman accomplishment worthy of Cal Ripken, Ichiro Suzuki or Serena Williams. It means writing when you’re tired, when you’re sick and maybe hardest of all, when you have no clue what to write about.
That kind of consistency gets built into your very being, so when Horse couldn’t make his deadlines anymore, I’m sure most readers knew that something was up.
Thank you to everyone who has sent email messages, calls and cards to express condolences on the passing of Horse. It has been our ritual that every Monday and Thursday I would stop by his home in Gardena to pick up his column.
For the last few months as his health declined, the visits were more to say hello and see how George and Susie were doing. The will to write was still strong and Horse usually promised that he would have a column completed soon.
“I’ll get on track, I promise,” he said to me the last time I saw him, just a few days before his passing.
Horse was one of a kind. I think to call him a journalist would have many of my colleagues chafe, since he told jokes that were un-PC, he tended to play loose with the facts at times, and he would fire off opinions that others would never have the guts to say out loud.
As English editor, I’ve been in the position of having to defend George for something he has written, and also to tell him when he had crossed a line. While he may be one of Heart Mountain’s most famous internees, he gave the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and Norman Mineta such a hard time over the years on a number of issues that it is understandable if they aren’t singing his praises.
At the service there was a time for mourners to speak and many were those who knew Horse as a father figure when they grew up in Gardena. Mayor Paul Tanaka spoke of the Yoshinagas as the family in the neighborhood that welcomed all the kids on the block; George was an authority figure who could be stern and scary, but also was a mentor.
I think the Horse I knew, unlike Naomi Hirahara or other Rafu editors, was in the winter of his life, maybe not filled with melancholy for that wasn’t his way, but one who had slowed and mellowed somewhat.
We have lost many of our Nisei writers — Horse, Harry Honda, Bill Hosokawa, William Hohri — and it’s been a privilege to work with all of them. It’s also the wives like Susie Yoshinaga and Micki Honda, who showed incredible support and patience, that I am appreciative of.
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It’s been a trying time here in J-Town and Rafu in recent weeks, so I’d like to close on a tasty note.
Despite the scorching temperatures, summer is finally over, but not before my husband Eric gave it a proper send-off. A couple Saturdays ago, we went to the Farmers Market in Wilson Park in Torrance in search of peaches.
Sure enough, despite most stands having a variety of peaches and plums, most of the flavor had faded. Fortunately, the farmers of Arnett Farms still had some wonderful yellow peaches, though not as sweet as earlier this summer.
We selected a bagful and with a homemade crust, simple glaze and fresh whipped cream, we enjoyed a last taste of summer. David Mas Masumoto in his writings has done more to herald the simple perfection of the peach. Except in our household, it’s all about Eric’s peach pie.
Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.