A LOVE LETTER TO LITTLE TOKYO
Fugetsu-Do looked exactly the same when my Uncle Mits brought me here 25 years ago.
Colorful Japanese sweets--mochi and manju--are displayed in the glass cases; black and white photos of Little Tokyo’s past cover the walls; the woodwork throughout the store is straight from Showa-era Japan.
3rd-generation owner Brian Kito steps from the bustle of the kitchen to greet us and leans a hand against the front counter. A sweet smell drifts through the shop as he explains the different products.
“There are seasonal ones here that we only make two months out of the year, and they’re completely traditional and go back hundreds of years,” he says. “The traditional side of this is the most important part of it.”
The confectionery still serves the mochi my grandparents ate, and they still make it the same way they did when they opened in 1903. It’s been around long enough, my great-grandparents may have eaten here after they immigrated from Japan.
Eating Fugetsu-Do’s mochi connects me to a place and a time. The chewy white-and-pink suama mochi reminds me of long summer evenings with my grandma. Their cakey chofu manju reminds me of drinking tea with my mom.
I’m acutely aware that if Fugetsu-Do closes, I’ll lose this direct link to my family and my culture. If it goes away, I’ll lose a part of what makes me who I am.
Just last year, Mikawaya--the only other Japanese confectionery in Little Tokyo--closed their doors after 111 years.
“My feeling was maybe it’s time to slow it down a little bit. I’m getting close to retirement,” Brian says. “Then my competitors closed and left me like ‘Well, here I am.’”
He walks us outside the shop onto First Street, narrows his eyes as he scans his surroundings, gives a nod to an elderly couple as they walk by. He looks aware and at home.
A block to the north, a homeless encampment of about thirty tents has occupied Toriumi Plaza. To the south, chain-link fences, a massive crane, machine sounds from the work on LA’s Regional Connector.
Brian’s eyes hover on the construction.
“My biggest concern is our new metro line coming in,” he says. “Before the pandemic, it was driving rent up. I fear because of the increasing rents that some of the more traditional stores may not be able to stay here.
While Little Tokyo has about 440 small businesses, and 50 legacy businesses over 20 years old, only a handful have survived since Little Tokyo’s heyday in the 1960s, only a few come close to spanning the neighborhood’s 137-year history.
Each of the remaining businesses are a living memory, a generational bridge. The spaces and products, the smells and the food connect us to each other, to our past. To keep the business running is an act of preservation, a stance against loss.
Even since its beginnings, the neighborhood has grappled with challenges: economic depression, blight, displacement from World War II and eminent domain. The community’s ethos is manifest in its struggle to survive, its fight for place.
“Little Tokyo has always been under threat,” Mike Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) tells us. “All this started in the early 20th century with the anti-Japanese laws on the books in California and along the West Coast. So it was decades of hardship and being unwanted in this country.”
A delivery person rounds the corner pulling four boxes of rice flour on a hand truck. They bow at Brian who gives a quick arigatou-ne and shifts casually on his feet.
“We had done this before after the redevelopment of this area in the 80s and the early 90s,” he explains. “All the little mom and pop shops were being closed up because they were redeveloping the buildings here. Nobody knew each other, you didn’t have that teamwork anymore, it didn’t feel like any culture at all.
“Truthfully, I probably should have closed the store in 1993. That was our 90th anniversary. Financially we were hurting. All of Little Tokyo was horrible.”