Stories

Stories from Little Tokyo: The Woman in the Picture

A chance encounter in the Japanese American National Museum’s store led to a surprising discovery.

Penny Akemi Sakoda was visiting the Museum with relatives and friends, when her daughter noticed a picture on the cover of a music CD, Festival Time in Japan.

Astonished, Sakoda’s daughter turned to her and said, “Mom, this is you!”

The image was a photograph, taken 47 years earlier, when Sakoda was crowned as Los Angeles’ 1960 Nisei Week Queen.

Festival Time in Japan, an album featuring music from the 1950s and 1960s, was originally an LP record, Sakoda says. “I knew my picture had been used on the cover many years ago and was very flattered that they had used it. But I didn’t realize that they had re-released it on CD. It amazed me to learn that they’re selling records after all these years.”

For Sakoda, who lived in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district from 1945 to 1962, the image brings back a flood of memories. Little Tokyo’s hotels, she notes, functioned like community arts and cultural centers.

“We lived in hotels, first in the building above Fugetsu-Do [a legendary local confectionery], and what was then the Sato Hotel at 327-1/2 East First Street, and they were unique places in those days,” Sakoda recalls.

“Music teachers would have classes in their rooms,” says Sakoda. “One room would be sleeping quarters and others would serve as a space for lessons. There were also odori dance teachers, and the hotels on Weller Street had larger facilities for teaching. You would always hear the sounds of the shamisen, koto, and shakuhachi—as well as singing. The streetcar went by every five minutes and rang a bell. The sounds were so comforting.”

“I grew up at the height of Little Tokyo’s time,” Sakoda says, “It was like a Japanese version of Happy Days for me. You could walk down the street at 12 o’clock at night and you wouldn’t have to worry. Police were walking a beat and it was very lively.”

Sakoda’s parents operated the Kyodo Grill, a small restaurant that later became the Mitsuru Cafe, a well-known local institution that continues to serve the neighborhood.

“Dad made champon [a well-loved noodle dish], and his hamburgers were also really popular,” Sakoda says. “They were all handmade fresh—no pre-made patties. After judo tournaments, the neighborhood boys would come in and order three to five burgers per person! I helped serve customers and got to know them so well that I didn't have to ask them what they wanted to order.”

In such a closely knit community, being named its “queen” for a year was an honor that Sakoda still cherishes, nearly half a century later.

“I was 18 years old, and the coronation was a huge event held at the Beverly Hilton hotel—the photo was taken by Archie Miyatake,” Sakoda says. “They didn’t have judging for the public to see back then. It was done in a home, and George and Sakaye Aratani’s home was used that year. The judges interviewed us individually and as a group.”

“The Nisei Week Queens had a lot of involvement in the cultural aspects of Little Tokyo,” Sakoda says. “We participated in tea ceremonies, did flower arrangements, and visited local merchants and banks to thank them for their support, and in doing so I think we gained a lot from knowing the tight-knit community. They wanted to preserve the cultural aspects of their lives. They displayed calligraphy and supported martial arts, like karate and kendo.”

“I hope younger Japanese American people consider opening businesses in Little Tokyo,” Sakoda says. “Their presence could initiate a greater cultural awareness.”

Visitors to Little Tokyo will also find quotes from Sakoda and her mother, Fumiko Tani, engraved in a historic section of sidewalk along First Street that commemorates the district’s cultural heritage. But for Sakoda, the memories are more than just a wistful yearning for the past.

“I have friends from Japan who think I’m so old-fashioned because I like traditional Japanese music,” says Sakoda. “They’re now into mainstream pop, and say, ‘You like that music?’ They can’t believe I like enka. But I grew up learning the abacus, calligraphy, haiku, and it made learning so much more interesting. Culture encourages learning.”

January 2008

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