Los Angeles

Japanese Culture Thrives in Sawtelle Neighborhood

A thriving Southland community known for its ramen and boba offerings is facing the challenge of honoring its past while serving the future as one LA’s hippest destinations.

Sawtelle JapanTown – or "Little Osaka" – is a Westside neighborhood blessed with tradition and a flood of new creativity. Once a small ethnic enclave, Sawtelle has become a cosmopolitan destination just a few blocks west of the 405 Freeway.

There, pre-war Japanese nurseries co-exist with a thriving pan-Asian restaurant row.

"It’s just a fun place to come and chill and hang out with friends," said Karin Chan, a West LA resident.

Eric Nakamura started his own brand, Giant Robot, a store dedicated to Asian pop culture, on the same street where his parents met in the '60s.

What started as a low-cost magazine grew into a shop and, later, a gallery called GR2 that features the work of local artists as well as imports.

"I think it builds a culture that’s unique and kind of fun," Nakamura said.

Decades ago, before the pop culture and hip eateries, there was one business that thrived on Sawtelle for generations – garden nurseries.

Issei – first-generation Japanese immigrants – who arrived from Japan in the early 20th century grew their roots in the then-unincorporated Sawtelle, a less urban alternative to Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles.

But when WWII broke, they were told to get rid of all of their property and move into internment camps.

Overnight, Sawtelle became a virtual ghost town.

"It’s daunting to think what they had to go through," said Ron Kageyama, whose grandparents had to give up their nursery during the war.

Years later, his father and uncle now proudly run FK Nursery.

"The land is so valuable. They’re selling the land," said Kageyama. "Sawtelle has just become the hippest place in the world."

Harold Sledge, owner of Furaibo, a restaurant known for its chicken wings, saw Sawtelle’s potential 30 years ago. He brought back Nagoya's famous chicken wings from a globe-trotting adventure and jumped at the chance to set up shop on Sawtelle.

"Everything changes, but the wings remain the same," Sledge said. "We’ve got to remember the past to move into the future."

But there are also fears that the future will eliminate Sawtelle’s past.

"I don't see the next generation taking it up, so we could be the last," Kageyama said.

"It's not the same," said Jack Yamaguchi, whose mother opened the Sawtelle Variety Store 70 years ago. "I miss the old Sawtelle."

But amid the new, some traditions never fade.

Every Saturday, the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle teaches the youth the native language of those who started the Little Osaka community.

"You get a feeling there’s something good here," said Jack Fujimoto of the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle.

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