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Little Tokyo Community Profiles

A Pillar of Little Tokyo: Uyeda Department Store

Little Tokyo is a community in constant flux, as Korean merchants move into the area and as new projects, like metro rails, cut through it. One of its constants, however, is the Uyeda Department Store, a small store that sells Japanese ethnic goods like kimonos, paper umbrellas, paper fans, and geta. It is located at 230 East 1st Street in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Founded in 1945 by the father of its current owner, the store, otherwise known as S.K. Uyeda, has been in the same place for almost its whole existence, except for a move from a few stores down the street to its present location years ago. The store was originally created as a part of a move by the U.S. government to encourage Japanese people detained in the internment camps during World War II to move back into their former homes. The elder Mr. Uyeda and a few other families were let out of the camps early to go to places like Little Tokyo to set up shop, and the Uyeda Department Store was the result. The U.S. government even provided Mr. Uyeda with assistance in finding some rare goods to help him get started. At the time, it was still called “Bronzeville,” as, during the war, African-Americans and Native Americans had moved into the area when the Japanese were interned.

In the store’s early days, it was a true department store, with sections for hardware, kitchenware, stationery, all kinds of clothing, toys, and tons of ethnic goods. However, as time went on and more specialized stores like ToysRUs moved into the area, they had to close many of the sections since they could not keep up. Now, the bottom floor of the current store, which once housed many different products and dressing rooms, is a storage area and office space. The store was also a gathering place for Japanese people living in the United States and Japanese Americans all around California. They would travel into Little Tokyo from places like San Diego and Fresno to buy ethnic goods and chat with friends and fellow Japanese Americans. In those days, Mr. Uyeda normally only took one day off a month, a Sunday. As time went on, he started to take more days off, eventually having every Sunday off to spend time with his family.

The current owner is Mr. Satoru “Sats” Uyeda. He was born in the internment camp in Manzanar during the war, and with his family, he left the camps early so that his father could establish the store. As such, he has seen the store and been a part of the store its entire existence. Even as a child, Satoru helped the store by helping his father pick the best and most popular toys for the toy department. Satoru is a true child of Southern California, or even Los Angeles more specifically, having lived in Boyle Heights and gone only to local schools. During the Vietnam War, Satoru joined the air force and applied to go fight in Vietnam. However, his division never got any further than Okinawa. Many of his friends and fellow Japanese Americans in the service would comment that it was dangerous for Asians in American uniforms since they would end up being shot at by both sides.

After he left the military, he finished college at the University of Southern California. Afterwards, in the late 1970s, his father needed help running the business since Satoru’s sisters were off working on their own. He has worked there ever since. In his later years, the elder Mr. Uyeda took more time off and would travel to Japan to buy items to sell in the store. When he passed away in 1992, Satoru took over the business. As a conscientious member of the community, he, along with a few other local business owners, reorganized the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association to combat influxes of homeless people and panhandlers into the area. Over the course of ten years, he, his associates, and many volunteers helped revitalize the neighborhood. Last year, he was recognized for his achievements with a Volunteer of the Year Award from the Central City Police Boosters.

Today, Uyeda Department Store, like much of the country and the world, is feeling the effects of the planet-wide economic downturn. It remains a place to get all sorts of ethnic goods, and it still has that Japanese feel as you walk into the store and hear the employees shouting to each other in Japanese. Satoru continues to work as a member of the community, despite no longer being such an active participant in the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association. He still helps organize volunteers to go assist with the local police, and he makes himself heard when he believes that something is an important issue for Little Tokyo. There are currently plans to have a new metro rail built through the midst of Little Tokyo, but he feels that this would cut the two parts off from each other and would ultimately be bad for all the business. He plans to lobby against the metro rail, even though it would not directly affect his business, because he feels it is important to do something for the neighborhood as a whole. As long as Uyeda Department Store has such giving owners as Satoru Uyeda, it will likely stay a constant sight in Little Tokyo for many more years to come.

Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the Spring 2009 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 Album collections and articles.

View the Nikkei Album collection: Uyeda Department Store

© 2009 Alexander Kaplan-Reyes

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Sobre esta série

Discover Nikkei partnered with Professor Morgan Pitelka of Occidental College and his students taking the Spring 2009 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 Album collections and articles.