By KRISTEN HAYASHI
For decades, Japanese Americans have shaped Los Angeles’ domestic, private, and public spaces as flower growers, gardeners, and proprietors of cut-flower businesses and nurseries.
Yuki Sakai, her daughter Sumi Kozawa and their long-standing floral business Tokio Florist in Silver Lake represent the ways in which Japanese Americans have contributed to the region’s floricultural industry.
Although Tokio Florist closed in 2006, the buildings and components of the site related to flower-growing remain intact in a neighborhood of Northeastern Los Angeles where flower stands and nurseries once dominated the landscape.
In 1929, recently widowed Yuki (Kawakami) Sakai, with four young daughters and a son to support, opened a flower shop on Los Feliz Boulevard, which she called Tokio Florist.
Successfully operating the business came against the odds and carried great pressure.
The Alien Land Law placed stringent restrictions on land use as well as ownership for Issei. Barred from naturalization and denied the rights of citizens, Japanese immigrants, like Sakai, had to be creative to find ways around this legislation. Yet, Tokio Florist kept company with many other Japanese-established flower farms and stands on Los Feliz Boulevard.
Every member of the Sakai family helped with daily operations, cultivating poinsettias, carnations, gladiolas, and ranunculus, pulling bulbs, and keeping the store open seven days a week. Although Tokio Florist opened just ahead of the economic downturn of the Depression, it managed to gain steady business. Perhaps it was the shop’s location across the street from the Brown Derby that brought clientele from the still-deep pockets of Hollywood.
Just as the Sakai family appeared to have weathered the Depression, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor changed their lives as well as those of every other Japanese American family on the West Coast.
The Sakais had to settle their business and personal affairs in a short time frame. They stored many of their belongings at the family’s Sun Valley flower ranch and made an agreement with a neighbor to take care of Tokio Florist for the duration of the war. Following the Sakai family’s return from Manzanar, it took a few years before they revived the flower shop.
In the early 1960s, Tokio Florist and other small businesses around it were displaced as apartment towers began to spring up on Los Feliz Boulevard. The changing real estate market held greater value for residential development than flower cultivation.
Additionally, many mom-and-pop flower shops were forced out of business over the next couple of decades as supermarkets and corporate chains began garnering the lion’s share of the market. Federal subsidies to overseas growers paved the way for imported flowers from countries where fewer environmental and labor regulations enabled cheaper production and distribution.
It was the beginning of the end of the Japanese American flower farms and stands in the area, but not for the Tokio Florist, which would reopen less than a mile away.
From 1960 to 2006, 2718 Hyperion Ave. in Silver Lake was the site of Tokio Florist as well as the residence of Yuki, daughter Sumi, and son-in-law Frank. Here, the business persisted for well over half of its life as it weathered the continuous reshaping of the built environment and community life that characterized the historic neighborhoods of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Edendale that surrounded it.
The loyal customers who had been frequenting the flower shop for decades allowed Tokio Florist to flourish. Customers meandered through the Japanese garden that Sumi and Frank designed.
The expanse of land at the rear of the property held flat ground for growing Iceland poppies, sweet peas, coxcombs, and seasonal flowers. Every open space in the front and back of the property was used to grow flowers. This was partly to create an aesthetic, but also to ensure that fresh flowers were always available to sell.
Although the business has been closed for over a decade, the integrity of the property remains, including the iconic Tokio Florist sign off the street, which makes it easy to imagine what the flower shop looked like when it was in operation.
The long history of Tokio Florist anchors several integral themes to Los Angeles’ past. It also reflects the contributions of Japanese Angelenos to agriculture and horticulture. Moreover, the history of Tokio Florist highlights the contributions of women to the region. For these reasons, this site exemplifies significant broad cultural, economic, or social history of the city and local community.
Over the past year, numerous individuals have been working to capture the rich history of Tokio Florist and the family that operated it for decades. With an impending change of ownership of the property, a group of historians and preservationists began to compile the history of the site in preparation to nominate it for a Historic Cultural Monument designation from the City of Los Angeles.
In May, the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) submitted a historic cultural monument nomination to the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources.
If designated, Tokio Florist would become the eighth, out of more than 1,100 City of Los Angeles HCM designations, that outwardly reflects the rich history and contributions of the Japanese American community in the region.
The other designations are: Manzanar (HCM #160), Site of Tuna Canyon (HCM# 1039), Union Church (HCM# 312), Koyasan/Aoyama Tree (HCM# 920), Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (HCM #313), Holiday Bowl (HCM# 688), and the Japanese Hospital (HCM# 1136).
While all of these sites are emblematic of the Japanese American experience, none of them highlight the economic contributions of Japanese Americans as well as those specifically of women. Additionally, Tokio Florist exemplifies a multigenerational Japanese American residence and family-owned and operated business.
The City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission will discuss the Historic Cultural Monument nomination at its upcoming meeting on Thursday, July 18, at 10 a.m. at Los Angeles City Hall, 200 N. Spring St. The Little Tokyo Historical Society invites members of the community to provide a letter of support for the designation or attend the hearing and make a public comment.
If you are interested in writing a letter of support to the Cultural Heritage Commissioners, you can submit it to: [email protected] and copy (cc) the LTHS at [email protected] If you’d like more information about the hearing or would like to receive a template for a letter of support, contact the LTHS. The CHC must receive letters of support by July 17.
Rosalind Sagara and Catherine Gudis also contributed to this article.