Brightly, patterned origami paper, maneki neko figures, and other unique Japanese goods you can’t seem to find anywhere else line the aisles of Bunkado, a treasured gift shop in the historic district of Little Tokyo.
Founded in 1946 by Suye and Tokio Ueyama after returning to Los Angeles from internment, Bunkado opened at the exact location of the first Japanese business in Los Angeles (Kame Restaurant). A few generations later, Bunkado is now owned by their niece, Irene Tsukada Simonian, who has found fulfillment in continuing the legacy of her family’s store, embracing Bunkado’s rich arts and cultural foundation, honoring Little Tokyo’s history and sharing it with generations to come.
How did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Irene Tsukada-Simonian: I own a gift shop in Little Tokyo called Bunkado that has been open since 1946. My aunt and her husband, Tokio Ueyama, started this store and I’m a third-generation owner.
At that time, my family had a lot of relatives who owned businesses in the neighborhood – about six storefronts, all in Little Tokyo. Aunts and uncles and cousins, all with different businesses within walking distance. One was a furniture store, another a sporting goods store, and a couple of gift shops. It was safe enough that my parents allowed us kids to just run around and visit our family.
I used to be a ballet dancer and went to Julliard. When I was growing up, I think my idea was that I wanted to do the opposite of this. But when I was 22, I was told that I had to lie about my age because I was too old to dance professionally, and there’s nothing like feeling old when you’re 22! So that’s when I stopped and I never regretted it.
After that, I worked in New York for 17 years. My parents thought I’d never come back. In the meantime, my father passed away, and my mom was running the store all by herself. It was clear she needed help, so I came back to L.A. It was the best decision that I’ve made as an adult because it’s been so rewarding.
It’s not about making money, it’s more than that. It’s for my family and the community and I like being here.
What is your most memorable experience in Little Tokyo?
ITS: When I was young, every year my sister and I used to get dressed up in kimonos and sit in front of the store to watch the Nisei Week Parade. We never danced and just watched. But we still got dressed up. And we dressed in real kimonos, not just the yukata, the hairdo, obi, and everything, which we loved. It made us feel like princesses.
It was so lively back then. There were so many people, you couldn’t walk along the sidewalks. All the businesses had to close because nobody could move during the parade. I have this strong memory of the pageantry and the float with the princesses coming by and all the dancing.
Now I have grandkids, and when they were a lot younger, they started coming to the Nisei Week Parade. Now they insist on coming every year and it’s a nice tradition.
If I had one hour to do something in Little Tokyo, what would you recommend?
ITS: I can’t say I have a favorite restaurant or shop, but I love Nijiya Market because I go there almost every day. It’s on my way to the car. If it wasn’t for Nijiya, my husband and I would never eat any fresh vegetables! I have to say that I’m just grateful that there’s a market right there.
Also, I love the Japanese Village Plaza as a whole. The current owners have done a great job making it look great, and it’s clean and beautifully landscaped. I really appreciate it and it’s helped bring people back to Little Tokyo.
I think Anime Jungle also helped make Little Tokyo popular with young people, and that’s whom I’m seeing now. Ten years ago I asked some students who were interviewing me from the USC School of Journalism, “Do you think Little Tokyo is cool?” and they said, “Yes we do.” And that was news to me!
What makes Little Tokyo different from other neighborhoods?
ITS: To me, it’s the history of arts and culture. I’ve done a lot of research into this neighborhood’s history and between the 1920s and World War II, this community had a ton of arts and culture. A pioneering modern dancer, Michio Itō, was here. Edward Weston, the photographer, exhibited here in Little Tokyo. There were poets, opera singers, piano lessons, traditional Japanese arts, violin makers, music, playwrights and more. I’m really proud of that history and presence of art in this area over time.
Bunkado actually means “house of culture” in Japanese, and my uncle who started the store was a very accomplished artist. He was a friend of Diego Rivera and they collaborated together often. My uncle even went to Mexico to visit him, so there was a cross-current and collaboration happening here. I like to think that Diego Rivera influenced my uncle and vice versa, and that kind of went all over the place. From Little Tokyo, our humble Little Tokyo.
What do you hope for the future of Little Tokyo? What legacy would you like to leave?
ITS: This store has been around for so long, and just the fact that this store survived even a little bit longer, and I had something to do with it – I’m very proud of that. There are very few of the old businesses left, and the fact that we’re even here is a fantastic thing. Hopefully, this store helps draw attention to Little Tokyo’s history and is part of the mix that makes it so interesting and important to L.A.
Meet Little Tokyo is brought to you by Go Little Tokyo, a community-led effort by the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) aimed at highlighting the unique cultural programs, community events, and dining and shopping experiences found in Little Tokyo.
Bunkado Gift Shop
340 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90012