The photo dispay by Randy Sakamoto is perused by Sawtelle Reunion IV attendees.
By George Toshio Johnston, Contributor
The commercial strip of Sawtelle Boulevard near the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles bounded by Olympic and Santa Monica boulevards (and outposts to either side of those streets) — especially the part nearest Olympic — has, in recent years, become a destination for hipsters, Asian cuisine foodies, college students and Japanese expatriates looking for a bit of home away from home.
The area also has seen new — and pricey — luxury condos pop up as the neighborhood continues to evolve.
Decades before the area was “discovered” by the trendy tribe, however, it was a mostly Japanese American community with services, storefronts, a tofu maker, restaurants, a Japanese language school, a judo dojo, plant nurseries, churches and more that catered to a population that came into existence at a time when L.A.’s many ethnic groups were clumped into enclaves dictated by race-based housing covenants.
For longtime residents of Japanese ancestry, memories of those bygone days before one could live anywhere a well-stocked bank account would allow (and when finding a parking spot wasn’t so tough) are, actually, pleasant.
“It was sort of a paradise for us,” recalled Ben Toshiyuki, who grew up in the area and now resides in Washington, Utah.
Toshiyuki shared his recollections at the Sawtelle Japantown Reunion IV, which was held on Oct. 23 at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Sangha Hall. The event, which began in 2010 and takes place every two years, drew 120 participants.
Toshiyuki, who says he’s missed only one of the four reunions held thus far, also noted, however, that he suspects many of the Japanese men from the area who found work as gardeners were college educated but could not find jobs in other lines of work during a time when not all professions were open to Japanese people.
Toshiyuki’s father, John, for example, told his son he had aspirations of becoming an architect. He was instead steered by his father to a different line of work.
“My grandfather made him into a pharmacist,” Toshiyuki said. But his father was able to be in the University of Southern California’s first Bachelor of Science graduating class in the field. Toshiyuki said his grandfather had “maybe three drugstores,” including Tensho Do Drugs in Little Tokyo at First and San Pedro streets.
The Sawtelle reunions are credited as having been started by Dr. Jack Fujimoto, according to Hank Iwamoto, whose family moved to the area in 1946 and opened a small grocery store. “It was all Japanese at that time.”
Iwamoto recalls how Sawtelle was distinctive due to its small-town atmosphere. “Everybody knew each other,” he said. Iwamoto said the Sawtelle area, where Japanese were allowed to buy property, was bounded by Pico and Santa Monica boulevards and to where the 405 Freeway is now and Barrington Avenue.
In later years, Iwamoto, 79, said many Japanese Americans moved from the Sawtelle area to Orange County or Torrance because of the high property values. Nevertheless, “Jack thought it would be a good idea to get together and rekindle old friendships,” he said. He added, however, that the reunion committee is also trying to attract more of the younger generations. “It’s like pulling teeth. They’ve got other things to do.”
Carrie Yotsukura represents that younger age group to which Iwamoto referred. The third-generation alumna of nearby University High School and fourth-gen resident of West Los Angeles became involved with the committee — and was tapped to be the reunion chairperson — after attending the third reunion, which took place before the area got the official “Sawtelle Japantown” designation from the city of Los Angeles in 2015.
“One of the reasons why I was asked [to become involved] was because I am younger — I’m probably the age of their children — and so they were asking me if I would come in and hopefully stimulate more of a younger crowd. It’s just hard because a lot of the people I know, I’m no longer in touch with. A lot of people have moved away,” Yotsukura said. “I just so happen to live in the area. So, it was a challenge that way, but I’m hoping that some of the old-timers who do come spread the word to their children and grandchildren.”
On that topic, Yotsukura said she would “love to see more of a dialogue between younger people and the older generation to keep alive the people who built this area.”
A pair of women who have stories of bygone days are Rose Honda, 89, and Sadie Hifumi, 81, who participated in Japanese American women’s social clubs.
After the war, during which her family was incarcerated at the Manzanar camp for Japanese Americans, Honda was in an organization for working women and those going on to college called the “Windsors.” She and her friend, Mary Ishizuka, became co-advisers for a group of teenage girls who called themselves the “Atomettes,” of which Hifumi was a member; the group was sponsored by Sawtelle’s West L.A. United Methodist Church.
“Sadie and several of us, through the church, have sponsored trips to Manzanar for about eight years now,” Honda said. She graduated from the camp’s high school in 1945. “We mainly did it so that families and young people can learn about what happened.”
Honda continued: “Before the war, this community had Japanese families because we weren’t able to live east of Sepulveda [Boulevard]. We were only able to stay in this community.” Still, she has “wonderful” memories from that era.
“Besides Japanese families, we had Latino families, Caucasian families living here, Afro Americans — but predominantly, it was Japanese,” Honda said. “Sawtelle Boulevard had the markets and the stores, a barbershop and a beauty shop.”
Honda also recalled the many activities, like Japanese language movies for the Issei, that were shown at the Japanese language school and helped keep the community together.
Interestingly, Fujimoto helped get the Sawtelle Reunion committee started, but he called himself an “outsider” who married into the community. Perhaps that’s why he saw the need to recognize what was unique about the community and pass that knowledge on to newer generations.
“It goes back to my way of thinking of furusato,” Fujimoto said, referring to the Japanese word for “hometown.” “What is furusato? Where is home? Do you ever go back to your home? Or is your new home wherever you are now? Is Sawtelle your home?
“I don’t think a lot of people who grew up and became professionals think of Sawtelle as their home,” Fujimoto continued. “But a reunion is an opportunity for them to come and say, ‘Hey, I remember you, you lived over there’ — that’s why it was fascinating just getting together today to talk to a couple of people.”
Then there are those like Ted Tanaka, a biotech joint-venture developer, who grew up in Sawtelle and is putting together a fundraising drive to pay for a couple of wall murals to depict for posterity some of the area’s history. It’ll take several thousand dollars to make his dream a reality, but he’s confident it will happen.
It’s important for Sawtelle denizens like Honda, who want that legacy remembered. “I think the other thing about these reunions, we’re seeing young people and how important it is to remember our Isseis, who really built this community,” she said. “It’s nice to meet old friends and just kind of reminisce when we grew up in this community.”
For Fujimoto, he enjoys the feeling of satisfaction he’s received from the four Sawtelle reunions. Toshiyuki concurs. “It’s all been fun,” he said.