Sitting at a small wooden desk, Ishibashi began to tell his story. It is a story of generations. A story of immigration. A story that pays homage to the same ancestors immortalized in the black and white photos that surround it. He is the last generation to work in the Japanese gift shop that has been in his family for decades.
Little Tokyo, home to hundreds of Japanese family shops, is changing rapidly and drastically, business owners said. According to the Little Tokyo Community Council, it is one of three remaining historic Japanese neighborhoods in the country, emerging at a time when Japanese immigrants were pushed into ethnic enclaves due to racism and to survive.
The community and business district have long drawn tourists and non-Japanese alike intrigued by the culture, its food, entertainment, and billion-dollar comics and animation media. They come in droves to explore the tiny shops, where millions of shoppers flock to its narrow streets to buy everything from figurines to video games. The community thrived.
But all of this popularity has also brought many non-Japanese national brands to their streets looking to cash in on the location, its atmosphere, and the money. Suddenly, the small Japanese gift shop disappears, replaced by a bigger business that can pay raise rents and sell expensive goods. Locals said they fear the changing shopping landscape will begin to erase the established culture created and nurtured by the original Little Tokyo shop owners, who settled in the city 135 years earlier.
And what is lost are the stories, the culture forged in adversity and the cohesion that for more than a century has defined Little Tokyo and seen it through its worst times.
“In many ways, it’s cool to see a Jamaican restaurant or a Korean barbecue restaurant,” Ishibashi said. “But I understand my grandmother’s generation, they say, ‘What happened,’ you know?”
Gentrification does not provide easy answers, he said. It’s a reality, but for Ishibashi who is stuck between generations, it’s a tension he’s learned to live with. He said he wondered if there was a way to achieve a better symbiosis between the new and the old in Los Angeles.
“I think there’s a balance that could be maintained between maintaining the spirit of Little Tokyo and stepping into new ventures,” Ishibashi said. “I don’t think some companies care much about this aspect.”
On the other side of Ishibashi’s shop, a tunnel takes visitors to Little Tokyo Mall, where the pop-up Dreamland Maid Cafe opened on June 10. They provide customers with unique Japanese-style dishes and desserts while entertaining them in elaborate dishes. maid costumes – a commercialized version of a Japanese experiment.
Housed in a cafe of vibrant pinks, patrons are surrounded by flashing lights, booming music and balloons. The cafe attracted a large following in a short time. Groups of housekeepers perform cute dances and wave neon light sticks to music, which accompany the dining experience. The style of the store is influenced by all things adorably Japanese known as kawaii culture.
Marina Young-Meyers is the founder, owner and CEO of Dreamland Café, where she sought a community that would accept her unique business and allow it to thrive.
“[W]We are in Little Tokyo, which is the hub of Japanese-American culture in Los Angeles, if not the entire state. So it made a lot of sense to be here,” she said. “And I knew the people here were going to be the ones who understood what was going on and appreciated what we were doing.”
Young-Meyers’ company represents a new type of Japan-adjacent business that co-opts culture and place to present experiences customers rarely find in Los Angeles.
“If I had done this 5 years ago, it might have been a completely different audience or reaction, but these days…people are really into this stuff and they’re open to it,” a- she added. “People are starting to understand kawaii culture. It’s family, it’s not sexual. It’s just fun and cute.
What would once have been odd is now an integral part of Japanese trends and culture. Coffee reflects the changing culture, but is often not considered traditional in small Tokyo and Japanese American life, Ishibashi said.
Beyond fun trinkets and delicious food, gentrification has come to Little Tokyo. Decades of endurance and tenacity of Japanese family businesses have been recognized by a wave of Japanese culture enthusiasts in recent years.
Due to this sudden popularity, other companies became interested in grabbing a share of the profits, riding on the success of the town founders. While this push of businesses from outside the community allows for diversity, it may also displace many Japanese-owned stores.
Back at the gift shop, Ishibashi descended the same staircase to Bunkado’s entrance. There he grabbed three picture postcards of the same ancestors hovering above him upstairs.
He pointed to a photo of a young Japanese couple – the first generation of Little Tokyo. Another photo showed the second generation, a young Japanese man with a simple but gloomy expression, dressed in a military uniform and a beret. The final postcard was of her aunt, smiling sweetly in bright red lipstick and holding a vintage Japanese vinyl.
Ishibashi sells these postcards at his trinket shop so customers can walk away with a piece of Little Tokyo history.