Fukui Mortuary is over a hundred years old and thanks to strong family ties continues to keep their brick and mortar “alive and well” in the community.
Historically this cultural institution and family business has been one of the few options available to Japanese Americans when it came to choosing a local undertaker; however, as traditions change and generations pass over to the next, even a mortuary needs to adapt to the new market trends.
Well-known Little Tokyo and Japanese American community member Gerald Fukui begins to plan for his transition out of Fukui Mortuary leadership as he brings in his nephew Eric Tanaka to lead the business. In this two-person Q & A, funeral directors Fukui and Tanaka share and ponder the next steps for both Fukui Mortuary and Little Tokyo.
Meet Gerald Fukui and Eric Tanaka!
When did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Gerald Fukui: My great-grandfather and his family came to Los Angeles by way of Seattle around the end of World War I and settled the family in the Boyle Heights area. At that time, Fukui Mortuary was owned by a Jewish family and obviously, because the majority of their clients were the surrounding Japanese, he didn’t know the language or customs, so he hired my great-grandfather and two other Japanese people to assist him. Somewhere down the line, this gentleman either retired, passed away, or decided to sell the business to my great-grandfather. In fact, this is the original mortuary that was here in the early 1900s.
It was initially called the “Japanese Undertaking Company” and then somewhere in the ’30s it became “Fukui Mortuary”, named after my family. My father, because he was fluent in Japanese, served in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II and was sent to Japan as part of the Occupation Forces. In 1949, his father, Hitoshi, asked him to come back to L.A. and help run the business. After I received my bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at USC in 1975, I spent a year at Woodbury Business College and then went from part-time to full-time working at the mortuary.
Eric Tanaka: My involvement in Little Tokyo is primary through the mortuary daily operations and through Jerry’s mentorship. I graduated from college with a marketing degree in 2003 and I mentioned in passing how challenging the job market was during that time. Jerry asked me to work for the family business for a year while I considered other prospects. And now, a year has turned into 16 years that I have been serving the community through my work at Fukui Mortuary.
Mortuary is a place a lot of people don’t think about as a 9-5 workplace but at Fukui you had a chance to experience a lot of traditions and meet many people. Do you have any fond recollections of getting to experience some of these traditional funeral ceremonies?
GF: We have directed many kinds of ceremonies: traditional and memorial services for various faiths and family preferences. I think what stands out are the moments of levity, those things that were kind of funny or unexpected. One time a minister was giving the sermon and the widow was sitting there and the husband was lying in the casket and then the priest says, “He was such a great man. He had to have been such a great man for having lived with his wife.” And you’re just thinking, “Wait. What did he just say?”
Another service I recall which was quite memorable: we have a tradition that the minister meets the casket at the curbside and escorts the casket along with the pallbearers in procession into the church, after which we would set the casket and then the minister would have the opening words, the invocation, and then maybe a hymn. So, one time I’m out on the curbside with the pallbearers waiting for the minister to come and escort us in. I am thinking, “It’s getting kind of late,” and then I hear “Amazing Grace” and I realize, “Oh no, he forgot to come out and get the casket.” You should have seen his face when we brought the casket in!
ET: The above would have never happened if I had been directing that service!
Joking aside, experiencing different customs with each minister, church or temple has provided many opportunities to learn and grow as a funeral family counselor. Each family is also different in terms of their preferences and ideas of how they would like to honor their loved one’s life and memory. I have grown to love working with all my families and I hope that in some small way I have helped to bring some much-needed comfort during a difficult time.
If someone was coming to Little Tokyo for their first time to visit and they didn’t have much time to spend in the neighborhood what do you recommend they do?
GF: If they could come during the summer, many of the Nisei Week Japanese Festival events, such as the Grand Parade, Plaza Festival, Gyoza-Eating Contest, Tanabata Festival or Street Ondo Dancing are really great. It’s a younger, different crowd now. I’ve been involved with Nisei Week since the mid-70’s and we talk about sustainability in our neighborhood not only for Nisei Week but for all Little Tokyo organizations. It’s very important that we build and maintain a relationship between generations. So I am really glad to support these organizations, especially Kizuna. These up-and-coming leaders are our future.
ET: The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) would be a very worthwhile place to spend an afternoon. I’ve been there quite a few times, and I know my family really values their work. For visitors seeking Japanese gifts, Rafu Bussan in Honda Plaza still carries traditional Japanese goods.
What makes Little Tokyo different from other neighborhoods?
GF: Since there are lots of Obon festivals and other cultural events in OC, San Fernando, San Gabriel, Pasadena, WLA, Venice and Gardena a lot of people wonder why they should go all the way downtown to see Nisei Week. What I think makes us truly unique, is that we’re still the biggest Japantown, have the longest-running ethnic parade in the United States and are the hub of the J/A and Japanese community. We have JANM, LTSC, Go For Broke, JACCC and many more fine organizations all based within the Little Tokyo area. We’re a diverse, eclectic and forward-moving community.
ET: Little Tokyo feels like an intersection for many different cultures and people. For many of us Japanese Americans, Little Tokyo feels like a second home where we have gathered for years to celebrate and share our traditions and values with our families, friends and anyone else who would like to participate.
What legacy do you hope to pass on with Fukui Mortuary? And what is your hope for Little Tokyo?
GF: Little Tokyo will continue to evolve, but I hope it maintains the character of what my great-grandfather and grandfather wanted to share and preserve: the heritage and the culture that sets our community apart. When I was younger, I saw my volunteer work as more of an obligation. Back then, I just wanted to do my thing, like being with friends, fishing, camping, skiing, or doing what any young adult wants to do. It’s amazing how my attitude has changed.
I know now, for example, if anything ever happened to JACCC we would lose so much of our community’s identity. So, being involved in these organizations like JACCC, LTSC, JAO, Nisei Week and Kizuna in particular makes me realize how important it is to support the community, and specifically, the millennial generation. As I said earlier, they are our future leaders. We need to keep nurturing the younger generations and supporting these organizations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
707 E Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Go Little Tokyo is a Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) project and a community-led effort aimed at highlighting the unique cultural programs, community events, and dining and shopping experiences found in Little Tokyo.