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Little Tokyo Community Profiles - 2010

Rafu Bussan Inc: A Long-Lasting Gift for Little Tokyo

One of the most historical landmarks in Little Tokyo is Rafu Bussan Inc., a large, beautifully arranged store that stocks fine, embellished merchandise including grand vases, decorated kitchenware, traditional dolls, delicate hashi (chopsticks), and many other items that exemplify Japanese gifts. Located on 2nd Street in the district, the store has a rich history that displays the dedication and passion for serving the Little Tokyo community. Starting from peddler roots over 50 years ago, Yukio Tanaka and Junichi Onishi as the original owners worked adamantly to deliver basic foods such as rice and tea to surrounding encampments. The Japanese after the Second World War had everything taken away, and to sustain the afflicted families, Tanaka and Onishi used their business to provide for their needs.

Skip (right) and Aiko (left) Kawaratani in original location of Rafu Bussan on 1st street in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.

Kiyoshi “Skip” Kawaratani, one of the present owners, was born in San Juan Capistrano as a second generation Japanese American. Under an American trading company, he traveled to Japan to receive basic business training. While in Japan he met his current wife, Aiko from Osaka, and after marrying in Japan, the two returned to America. In 1958, Skip bought Onishi’s share of Rafu Bussan Inc. and became owning partners with Tanaka for the ensuing eight years. Later in 1966, Skip and Aiko purchased full ownership of the store when they were able to expand their merchandise selections with extraordinary imports directly from Japan.

As the economy flourished in Little Tokyo during the 1970s, Rafu Bussan began to establish a well-known presence, selling to Japanese corporations and banks in the area, as well as earning the loyalty of families that would travel from across town just to shop for their unique selection. This atmosphere of an abundant amount of money transactions flowing nourished the business to a point where the couple needed fifteen extra pairs of helping hands. However, as the businesses that pumped the community began to leave the area or ownership changed, sales for the store began to decline and made it harder for the imported gift shop to thrive in this shifting time. It was never quite the same without the original Japanese owners sustaining the relationship between corporation and Rafu Bussan.

Later in 1982, Skip and Aiko celebrated 25 years of marriage, the same year they were able to mark the 20th anniversary of owning Rafu Bussan. By then the store had outgrown its old location with a larger collection available to customers and they had to open up a second store. The new location was renovated from the old Sho Tokyo Movie Theater and Oka Grill on Second Street to institute a store known for its visually clean and captivating arrangement. The store relocation allowed a larger space to display the wider selection of high-end goods they acquired. This transformation and expansion demonstrate the store’s progression towards their goal of becoming a business that provided a connection to Japanese culture through the imported gifts straight from Japan. Despite the suffering from economic hardship, Rafu Bussan maintained a strong relationship with the families in the community, attracting attention from people outside of the Japanese community in the greater Los Angeles area to even those from outside of the country.

Skip and Aiko (center) Kawaratani with fifteen female employees in 1983 when Little Tokyo experienced an economic boom.

As the fourth and fifth generations extend from the initial Issei who came and established the Japanese community in Los Angeles, the importance of learning about the cultural roots of their Japanese heritage is not as high a priority, and the appreciation of the culture has gradually decreased. Along with this, the desire to enjoy the imported gifts that Rafu Bussan offers has slowly diminished, causing a reduction in sales. Now the store focuses on trying to reignite that curiosity and interest in all of their diverse customers, wanting to share part of their history and enliven the Japanese community again.

Just two years ago in 2008, Rafu Bussan celebrated fifty years on March 1st of Skip and Aiko working hard together and persevering through downturns and times of boom to keep the store viable. The gift shop is seen as a vital part of the community that has lasted through the years and will continue to endure through the coming generations. Already the store has survived the past of unpredictable changes so the current transitions in Little Tokyo can only give Skip and Aiko optimism, especially since the new metro system brings more foot traffic into their store during peak rush hours. Ready to invest and show any willing customer the vast amount of authentic imported goods, Rafu Bussan can only hope to remain a founding structure in the ever-changing community, sharing with each and every individual the touch of authentic Japanese culture.

** Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the Spring 2010 seminar “Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism” on a meaningful community-based documentation project. The students interviewed owners of five long-time Little Tokyo businesses to create Nikkei Albums and articles.

View the Nikkei Album: Rafu Bussan Inc. Little Tokyo

© 2010 Janelle Curtis

business little tokyo oxy-littletokyo Rafu Bussan

Sobre esta serie

In the Spring of 2010, Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the seminar “Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism” on a meaningful community-based documentation project. The students interviewed owners of five long-time Little Tokyo businesses to write ten articles and create five albums in the Nikkei Album. Articles will be posted one each week on successive Mondays.

This project is a follow-up to the 2009 Little Tokyo Community Profiles series.