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The First and Last Record Store in Little Tokyo

Record stores are making a comeback these days, as evidenced by the number of new ones popping up in the past few years. Many of them are heavily curated, boutique stores where mostly scruffy men flip through rows of albums at 100mph without saying a word—not exactly a salon for discussion on the latest topics. But historically many record stores have served as community and cultural hubs. Dolphins of Hollywood on Central Avenue, Sound of Music on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., Hatikvah Music on Fairfax Avenue—these stores were reflections of the community, where one could walk in and see your friends, maybe even see a record by your friend’s band, pressed by the store. It was a place that made you feel at home.

(Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa)


Entering Bunkado’s music section is like stepping into a time capsule. Its wood-paneled walls are lined with neatly packed shelves filled with endless rows of factory-sealed cassettes, CD Maxi singles, never-opened 8-track cartridges. Misora Hibari, Kitajima Saburo, Kudo Shizuka—you may have never heard of those names, but they’re titans of Japanese music, at least to a certain generation. You’ll find entire discographies of their work here, gathering dust, waiting to be bought by a customer base that may no longer exist.

“This shop was considered the largest Japanese record store outside of Japan,” recalls Irene Tsukada-Simonian, the current owner of Bunkado, located on a historic stretch of Little Tokyo, owned and operated by her family since 1945. At its peak during the 1970s-90s, the demand for music was so high that they would receive monthly, sometimes bi-weekly, shipments of new releases directly from Japan. “Enka was always extremely popular. Ton of J-Pop, stuff I’ve never even heard of. Traditonal music was very popular. Children’s doyo music, folk music. We had a very loyal clientele.”

The demand was high, but not every album was a bestseller. “Sometimes we just don’t sell certain titles, and they’re stuck here for decades and decades. Because my mother didn’t believe in having sales or closeouts, if they didn’t sell we had this enormous collection of something that’s 20 years old. We’re really big on the ‘80s collection here [laughs].”

Bunkado's music section remains largely unseen (Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa)

Bunkado was founded in 1945 by Tokio Ueyama and his wife Suye—Irene’s uncle and aunt—shortly after returning from internment at Granada Camp in Amache, Colorado. A prolific and well regarded artist at the time, Tokio had exhibited his paintings throughout Los Angeles and the country prior to being sent away to camp, where he continued his craft by teaching painting. “He was a very serious artist, and a real intellectual,” Irene recalls. “I was shocked when I came across his writings, just how broad his mind was.” But he suffered a terrible tragedy when a shipment of his paintings to Japan burned in an accidental fire at the docks. “He didn’t want to be an artist anymore. That’s when he wanted to open a gift shop, to still have a little bit of connection.”

Occupying a building that housed the first Japanese business in Los Angeles (Kame Restaurant in the late 1800s), Bunkado began as a place to buy daily necessities like dishes and stationery, “and books. Lots of books and magazines,” according to Irene. “And my uncle sold a lot of art supplies and craft. He used the shop as a place where his artist friends showed their works or sold through him.”

Since its beginning, Bunkado carried records. “They wanted to provide Japanese people with a lot of variety,” Irene says, “and since nobody was selling [Japanese] music at the time, they always sold LPs, 45s, even 78s.”

Little Tokyo at the time was a tight-knit and ethnically concentrated community, with most businesses in the neighborhood being Japanese-owned. When the Ueyamas and the Tsukadas settled there, “[the neighborhood] was so self sufficient—shoe store, clothing store, food—my cousin owned a large appliance store,” remembers Irene. “I think they felt very comfortable here, as opposed to anywhere else in the country, because it was such a community.” At one point five or six of her relatives owned businesses in the area.

In 1970 Irene’s parents, Masao and Kayoko Tsukada, took over the reigns of Bunkado—a period that proved to be a boom time for business. By this time the family had earned a place amongst L.A.’s Japanese music elite, earning VIP invites on the rare occasion when a popular Japanese singer performed in the city. Even they were impressed by Bunka-Do’s selection: “Some of the singers would visit from Japan and find their recordings here and get so excited because they can’t find it in Japan,” remembers Irene. “They say ‘Give me everything you have of mine.’ And they’d sign autographs and things. So it was fun for them.”

During this time Bunkado continued to strengthen its ties to the community. “The scene up here would be hilarious—it would be Name that Tune. It starts downstairs, people come in saying ‘I forgot the name of this song, but it goes like this,’ and start singing, sometimes really loud. Everybody would be helping out, saying oh that’s so and so—it was very fun. We still get people doing that. It’s a very communal thing. It was a gathering space, a familiar place for people.”

Autographs signed to Bunkado by visiting Japanese artists (Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa)

Tucked away in a cabinet behind the counter are folders and books containing decades of Ueyama and Tsukada family memories. A dog-eared scrapbook contains news clippings from the L.A. Times and Rafu Shimpo announcing Tokio’s art exhibits in the 20s and 30s. His intricate and intimate drawings and woodcut prints depict important persons in his life. One drawer contains stacks of signed photos and autographs from visiting Japanese singers, many of whom are considered legends today. Among the photos, one can’t help but notice the powdered face of Mikawa Kenichi, the respected grand dame of male enka singers, dressed impeccably in sparkly sequined dress and looking vaguely like a ‘80s Japanese version of David Bowie in drag.

A big seller during the peak years were laserdiscs of anime. “That was a whole different clientele,” remembers Irene. “They were the young men who would come in religiously and spend a lot of money. White guys, latino guys, black guys—it was almost always men. And they would say, ‘We don’t understand Japanese but we’re learning from the laserdiscs.’ And I’d say ‘But there’s no subtitles!’ And they say ‘We can figure it out!’”

Irene Tsukada-Simonian in front of Tokio Ueyama's self portrait (Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa)

There isn’t much excitement in the eerily quiet music room these days. While the downstairs gift store attracts many curious shoppers, upstairs remains largely hidden to the public, due to no signs indicating that there is an encyclopedic archive of Japanese music stored upstairs. You have to know that it’s there to be there. Like so many other music retailers, Bunkado saw a dramatic decline in sales in the mid-2000s. “Digital music definitely had an effect,” says Irene, somewhat lamentably. “It’s a tough call. I’m tempted sometimes to still open it up for people who really want it because there’s still people who do, and place an order in Japan.” But when they do, Irene regrettably has to turn them away. “We send them to Kinokuniya [large chain bookstore based in Japan],” she says. “They have their direct connection in Japan. Sort of mendoukusai kara [not worth the effort]. At least it’s Little Tokyo, it’s somebody in the community.”

So is there a future for Bunkado as a music store? “No. None. I’m closing it. We have so many cassette tapes. I don’t know if I’m ever going to do it, but I would like to make this a store space. It’s sort of a waste of space.”

Although they’re not participating in RSD, Bunkado, located at 340 East First Street in Little Tokyo, will be continuing their music closeout sale with huge discounts on CDs, cassettes, and laserdiscs.


* This article was originally published on KCET Departures on April 20, 2012

© 2012 Yosuke Kitazawa

Bunkado business little tokyo Los Angeles music store Tokio Ueyama