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The perimeter of blocks surrounding the West Los Angeles area featuring the busy “Sawtelle,” “Sawtelle Corridor,” or “Little Osaka,” is no longer named any of these, it’s now Sawtelle Japantown. On Sunday, March 29th, Sawtelle and Olympic Blvds became the site host for the unveiling of the Sawtelle Japantown designation. From that corner up to Santa Monica Blvd, where a second sign will guide southbound drivers, the confusion of neighborhood names will no longer exist.

Growing up in the area, the name was always “Sawtelle.” It would be used like: “Let’s go eat on Sawtelle.” Where in LA do you live? Depending on whom you’re speaking with (a Japanese American), your answer could be: “Sawtelle.” They’d know what that is. If not, the other answer was, “West LA,” although West LA is a much wider area, as much as Sawtelle is a much longer street. Yet, as a youth, “West LA” was “Sawtelle,” and “Sawtelle” was the neighborhood surrounding the Japanese / Japanese American area just north of Olympic Blvd.

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My History on Sawtelle

Sawtelle was where I attended Japanese School, Buddhist Temple, YMCA, and day care. In the area was my grandparents’ house, my parents’ past home, where my father worked (at T and T Service Station) — and it’s the area where my parents met. The story goes something like this: my mother and her sister’s car broke down about a ten minute walk away. My father went to help and that’s where they met. I believe he told them that their car was a p.o.s.

I’ve lived just blocks from Sawtelle Blvd for 14 years and that’s where Giant Robot magazine was made —Sawtelle Blvd was where I opened Giant Robot Store in 2001 and GR2 Gallery in 2003. I’ve had gr/eats restaurant for seven years and even kept an office on the block for a few years. At one time, I had four leases on the block, and a home nearby. I still work out of the “home office,” and I’m on Sawtelle five days a week. It’s my life right now.

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The Changes

Many remark that I’ve seen the changes, and it’s true that I’ve seen the changes in the last three years, but I’ve also seen changes in the last 14 which that most don’t recognize. Imagine the block when Giant Robot moved in. What was there? You’d have an entirely different picture and perspective of the area. It would be completely unrecognizable. Knowing the area, it would be somewhat easy to say that the change from 1981 to 2001 would amount to a tiny change in comparison from 2001 on, and perhaps 2012 to now is even faster. The word change for the purposes of my experiences are always about the street of Sawtelle, not the surrounding area or “community.”

Yet one thing that hasn’t changed as much, except for the clientele, is the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, which hosts Japanese School, Judo, Kendo, and plenty of after school programs for kids — and the religious facilities in the area, notably the Buddhist Temple, whichhosts The Obon, and the Methodist Church, who hosts events that are not frequented by typical Sawtelle visitors, but by the remaining Japanese American “community.” I once thought their participation on the street of Sawtelle was extremely lacking but behind the scenes there’s still something strong that has an incredibly dubious future once the “elders” no longer participate. It can slow down dramatically.

Another question I get is about my opinion about the change. I’m aware that Giant Robot went from being the newest business, bringing plenty of press and energy into the area, to now being a business that’s been here so long that people have little knowledge of our history. It’s about fighting for parking and getting a bowl of ramen. It’s become a youthful food area, filled with tasty and savory meals — that will kill you. The entrepreneurs who moved in just a few years ago brought on an onslaught of change. The area went from being neighborly to being strangers. The “community” is now a battle for the dollar. As I now describe the street, it’s “every person for themselves.” Gone are the days when we’d care even just a little about our fellow competitor’s health — now we don’t even know who they are.

Then, to the chagrin of the upstart entrepreneurs, came the latest new business, Lemonade. The “corporate brand” moves in and the neighborhood immediately turns to yet a newer direction. The food revisionist businesses are now threatened just a bit, and the change appears to be exponential. There’s no stopping it. In a few years, we’ll see more corporate entities. Perhaps that’s why the “tribal elders” decided it was time to get a designation. In a short span, the street went from being Japanese or Japanese American owned to an area where “we” are a minority. In fact, I’m willing to guess that there are fewer Japanese American owned businesses on Sawtelle than Japanese owned, who are already outnumbered by everyone else. On top of that, how many businesses are owned by corporations whose officers are not from the area at all? The street isn’t owned by the neighbors, it’s owned by the dollar.

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Ayako Masada, Jack Fujimoto, Randy Sakamoto, Hank Iwamoto, Marlene Sakamoto, Randall Fujimoto, Councilmember Mike Bonin

What’s in a Name?

I’ve been asked about my feelings about the name “Sawtelle Japantown.” After a lifetime of knowing it as another name, and then hearing later iterations, it’s a welcome change. I’ve been asked about Little Osaka numerous times and, although I’d hate to take credit for it, I said it about 12 or so years ago on a whim in an LA Weekly article. If I’m responsible for that name, I apologize. I’m not necessarily a fan of Osaka — I prefer Tokyo, and it’s something that shouldn’t have stuck.

Yet the big question is what’s in a name? What does this mean for the future? Will there be a quota of Japanese themed or owned businesses? It’s been said that it’s up to the landlords, many of who actually care, but ultimately will be governed by economics. Can anyone control to whom they give leases or to whom they can sell their property? These are the questions going forward. Now that a name is essentially branding the area, the next phase is to live up to it. Can “we?”

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This past Sunday at noon, a decent sized group gathered at the corner of Sawtelle and Olympic. LA Councilman Mike Bonin, Consul General ofJapan Harry H. Horinouchi, and a group of locals (I’m continuing by joke referring to them as “tribal elders”), who worked hard to get the name designation got together and presented the new sign. It was warm and people’s spirits were exceptionally high. There was as many smiles, clapping, and cheering as I’ve ever seen on the street. It was a great day for the locals, many who’ve been here for their entire lives. I actually believe that their gift to the area is this sign and designation. It’s huge. It’ll outlive us all and in a way, preserves a legacy for future generations to figure out. 

Although it didn’t ruin the joyfulness of that moment, I couldn’t help but notice an employee from Lemonade shamelessly step up in front of everyone, media, cameras, and the Sawtelle Japantown sign to hand a branded cold drink to Consul General Horinouchi to hold during the photo op. Even a pristine and historical designation event got branded by the largest new business — one that’s completely not Japanese or Asian at all. It was a tactless yet “business-wise” move and shows clearly where the street is at.

Later in the afternoon, in front of GR2, I helped save two baby birds with some help. After seeing one get hit by a car and miraculously survive, we scooped them into a cardboard box with signs saying to leave them alone. Hundreds walked by and did the opposite. Some even questioned why they were in a box rather than, I suppose, being left alone to be further run over by cars. The street isn’t about helping, taking action, and being neighborly like the neighborhood it once was — it’s respectfully and perhaps rightfully about business, and that’s the biggest change of all. I’m up for this too, but I just need to stop caring too much.

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Ironically, it took a person from Venice, Laura Lee to answer the call to take care of the bird. Today, it’s thriving.

3 Comments

  1. Great essay, Eric. This could only come from your POV. Keep fighting the good fight on Sawtelle!

  2. Can’t stop what you don’t got.

  3. …well, growing up in Tokyo–then arriving in LA in the 80s and seeing places like Little Tokyo turn into a horrible place…it was nice to come to Sawtelle about twenty years ago. Even if it wasn`t really anything Japan about it.

    Growing up reading Giant Robot, seeing what you and Martin (Wong) are doing now, it only makes sense you guys are living out those ideals for the long haul.

    I always thought `Little Osaka` was a welcome distinction to the malaise that DTLA had become…and then living for a few years in Osaka actually, much prefer it if…tons of tons of bicycles started descending up and down Sawtelle more and more.

    The only way I knew about Japanese-American communities was by what locations had my Sunday basketball teams: I played for Monterey Park Mustangs–but also played games and tournaments against in Torrance, Venice, Montebello, etc. This probably still connected the dots in all those communities spreading out over the decades. Now, living back in Japan again, I`m still learning about the long history of Japanese migration in places like California.