In the latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from World War II, we recount the history of a store that has survived since its Japanese-American owners were released from incarceration.
Tokio and Suye Ueyama returned to their home on Folsom Street in the summer of 1945, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, bringing with them only what they could carry. They had left more than three years earlier, first confined to a California horse track, then to a government-run prison camp in the sandy prairie land of eastern Colorado. When they walked up to the house they were greeted by their landlady, an Irish woman known in family lore only as Mrs. Wilson.
While the Ueyamas spent 40 months imprisoned, Wilson waited. She boarded up the house, fended off prospective tenants and batted away government officials. She didn’t collect rent, and when the Ueyamas announced their return, she filled the refrigerator with her own meager wartime rations. As the couple walked inside, she greeted them.
“Welcome home,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The Ueyamas’ homecoming planted a seed that still bears fruit today in the Japanese-American community of Los Angeles.
In the spring of 1942, as the United States government rounded up and removed 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the country’s West Coast, many sold their homes, farms and businesses for pennies on the dollar. All who returned did so to a life eternally changed, both personally and financially. Some lived in trailer parks managed by some of the same government officials who had jailed them just months earlier. Others piled onto bunk beds at churches and Buddhist temples. With a roof over their heads, the Ueyamas set their sights on the city’s Little Tokyo, the locus of Japanese life in America.
There they opened Bunkado, a gift shop whose name means “house of culture.” They lined the shelves with Japanese records and books, stationery and magazines. The location was kismet. Situated on East First Street, Bunkado was in the same lot as Kame Restaurant, opened in 1885 and widely recognized as the first Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles. Tokio filled drawers with art supplies, a decision driven more by personal taste than business acumen. He was an accomplished painter; a collaborator of Diego Rivera, he and another incarceree, Koichi Nomiyama, oversaw the art department at Granada Relocation Center while incarcerated.
His most striking work is called “The Evacuee.” In it, Suye’s legs are crossed, her white sandals strapped across black socks. The scene is serene: a woman, her hair braided loosely to one side, crocheting in a low chair. The shadows of the room blanket her face, her eyes nearly closed in concentration. As the viewer’s focus moves from the woman to her surroundings, the setting snaps into focus. One, two, three, four barracks, their tar-paper exteriors supported by freshly lumbered wood. Flat, dirt streets. A clothesline, and a lone tree. He painted Suye at Santa Anita Assembly Center, the couple’s home for the spring of 1942 before they were sent to Colorado.
Now, 74 years after it opened, the store is owned and operated by Tokio and Suye’s niece, Irene Tsukada Simonian. The merchandise is just as eclectic as it was on opening day — and, indeed, is often called upon by Hollywood designers. Ikebana (flower arrangement) and calligraphy supplies sit near Buddhist altars and talismanic maneki-neko figurines, the felines’ left paws facing skyward. The shelves are stocked in a pleasantly claustrophobic way with gongs, teapots and retro-style toys. Overhead, crepe-paper lanterns dangle. Upstairs is a time capsule of Japanese records, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs. In the basement, a labyrinthine storeroom, you’ll find the wicker baskets Tsukada Simonian’s aunt and uncle used as luggage on their journey across the Pacific.
“I don’t know if it sounds spooky or too spiritual, but it sort of has a life of its own here,” said Tsukada Simonian, who is 63. “It feels like all those generations, all those days, thousands of days of work done by my parents and my aunt and uncle. It sort of enfolds me and I feel really special when I come here.”
[Sign up for the At War newsletter for more stories about World War II.]
Tokio died in 1954, and a year after Suye’s death in 1969, his brother- and sister-in-law, Tsukada Simonian’s parents, combined their own gift shop, Tsukada Gift Co., with Bunkado. When she was young, Tsukada Simonian was simply known as “Bunkado girl” along East First Street, where she and her sister would bounce between more than a half-dozen family businesses: gift shops, mercantiles and sporting goods stores. Every year, as the Nisei Week Parade crept past the store, she would put her hair up, don a kimono and sit with her sister on the curb out front. In 1975, she moved to New York to study ballet at the Juilliard School. Seventeen years later, though, she returned to help her mother run the shop. “I never understood the significance of it as a kid,” she said. “I didn’t really want to spend time here.” Yet she was drawn back.
Now, she’s the last vestige of her family’s history in Little Tokyo. Brian Kito, a Little Toyko Community Council board member and the third-generation owner of Fugetsu-do, a mochi shop down the block, said his business and Bunkado shared a common customer base.
“There’s a very good likelihood that the first time someone came to our stores they came with grandma, grandpa, or, for sure, their mom or dad,” he said. A common refrain, he added: “‘You know, I came to this store when I was a kid’.”
Tsukada Simonian is even more direct: “I kind of keep it open because I just enjoy people coming in and saying, ‘This place is still open?’”
Despite the years it took to reclaim their piece of the American dream after the war, the Japanese-American community’s success was ultimately its downfall, said Dan Kwong, a performance artist whose show “Tales of Little Tokyo” tells the history of the neighborhood through 30 stories from locals.
“The original intention of a Little Tokyo, the necessity of it, is gone,” he said. “Where can we come and be together where we won’t be discriminated against. As time passes and people do assimilate, they don’t need that anymore. The success of the Japanese-American community leads to the dissipation of Little Tokyo.”
Crime waves in the ’80s and ’90s threatened its survival, and redevelopment has pinched in the neighborhood’s boundaries year after year as more non-Japanese businesses have moved in. Stores throughout Little Tokyo are just waking up again after months of coronavirus closures and unrest in the neighborhood. Tsukada Simonian paid her employees during the pandemic, reopening her doors on June 11. The neighborhood is also supporting itself with Community Feeding Community, which purchases meals from Little Tokyo restaurants and distributes them to local workers impacted by the pandemic.
“A lot of communities have come and gone, and somehow Little Tokyo has survived,” said Kwong, the performance artist. “There’s a certain kind of fierce determination: ‘We’re not going away, we’re going to hang onto this.’”
Every other week during the store’s closure, Tsukada Simonian or her husband would drive into Little Tokyo to check on the shop. They’d pass under the store’s original sign and slip the key into the front door. In the back left corner, above a wall covered in gongs, is a self-portrait of Tokio, his brown eyes glinting. Until the store reopened, he stood watch.
Bradford Pearson is the author of the forthcoming book “The Eagles of Heart Mountain,” about football and resistance in a Japanese-American internment camp.