Desperate for a place to watch the World Series, having walked out of a highly recommended bar in suddenly hip Little Tokyo after waiting 15 minutes without being able to order a beer, I ducked into what looked like a dive bar across the street.
Though this place was busier, the less-than-pint-sized Japanese-American bartender with a big grin took my order and returned promptly with a Sapporo that I swear was almost as big as her head.
I leaned back and took a sip, just then noticing the bar area was full of people speaking Japanese, except for one confused Japanese-American fellow a few stools down. His girlfriend was doing her best to translate the slurred blathering of an inebriated duo from Yokohama, keep the conversation moving and watching the game.
An old Japanese-American man with a well-trimmed silver beard sitting at the other end of the bar – apparently enamored with the crew – shouted to the bartender that he wanted to buy a round of drinks for the four. At least that’s what I gathered from what I understood: “Sapporo. Ichi, ni, san, chi,” the pouring and serving of the drinks, and the resulting “kampais” and “arigatos.”
Alas, there was no free Sapporo for this wayward gaijin.
“Is this seat taken?” a deep voice boomed from above and to the left.
“It’s all yours,” I replied, looking up. The large man’s glasses were missing the temple on the right side. Luckily the nose pad and left temple were tight enough to keep the glasses from falling off his face.
“Do you think they deported the rest of the workers?” he asked, his wide grin revealing as many holes as teeth.
“Huh. I don’t know. It seems there are only three working, but she sure is hustling. He doesn’t seem to be doing much more than pouring beers and watching the game,” I said about an older Japanese-American man, this one with a longer but also perfectly trimmed thin gray beard.
My new friend informed me that the man owned not only the bar but the entire building, which had housed one of the last hostess bars in the city. Not convinced that I understood him, he said the man was “kind of like a pimp” and the third worker in the bar – an older Japanese-American woman wearing an impressive Kimono – had been his favorite hostess.
“Now they’re all being replaced by Asian-fusion restaurants,” he said, pointing without looking in the direction of a building under construction behind us, over-enunciating the final three words, the disdain almost dripping like blood from his mouth.
Though large swaths of the buildings in Little Tokyo are under renovation, or have been already, some old stalwarts like the dive bar remain. A small informational billboard at the edge of the neighborhood includes pictures of Little Tokyo from the past, before parts of this little enclave down the street from LA City Hall, the downtown courts and the huge police headquarters were chipped away to successive waves of urban renewal over the decades.
First settled by Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century, Little Tokyo grew rapidly from a rowdy almost all-male migrant worker center to a thriving community of more than 35,000 before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, after which those of Japanese descent – many U.S. citizens – were removed from the neighborhood and interned in isolated camps throughout the West.
The labor shortages of World War II brought many newcomers to Little Tokyo, including large numbers of black families from the Southeast and Midwest. After the war the Japanese-Americans returned, but in smaller numbers, and many spread out to other parts of the city instead of returning to Little Tokyo.
The old neighborhood shrunk further when the Los Angeles Police Department build their headquarters in the 1950s, but development by Japanese corporations in Los Angeles helped lead to a revival in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, artists – lured by relatively cheap rents and space – moved into the adjacent Arts District, now in the midst a contentious redevelopment of its own as artists are pushed out by construction of new high-rent buildings and renovations of old ones where rent was cheaper, and overall skyrocketing housing costs.
While Little Tokyo is still home to many Japanese-Americans it is also a tourist hotspot, especially for those from Japan, and a rendezvous point for Japanese-Americans from the rest of Los Angeles.
The Japanese Village Plaza part of the neighborhood is a big attraction. The one pedestrian-only street is festooned with Japanese lanterns and lined with Japanese restaurants, bakeries and a market. A sign welcomes visitors to “Japangeles.” Beyond one end lies the historic heart of Little Tokyo. On the other is a mall of Japanese-themed stores selling manga, cosplay items and rare video games.
This bureau chief enjoyed many excellent meals at the restaurants. During one a sushi chef in traditional garb sternly but politely directed this lone diner to sit at the end of his sushi bar, not in the middle, without saying a word, but that is another story for another time.
Back in the dive bar, the drunken pair from Yokohama had moved on to shots of schochu, a Japanese spirit typically distilled from rice. The older one, ostensibly rooting for the hometown Dodgers, kept cheering during replays or when the competitor Houston Astros did something good.
The confused Japanese-American fellow tried to tell his girlfriend to set the old main straight, but she seemed to recognize the hopelessness of the situation and instead continued an animated conversation with his younger companion, now leaning so far back in his barstool I feared he might tip over.
A fellow gaijin approached the little bartender, pointed to a menu and then, I assume, to where he was sitting. As the bartender talked to him and pointed to the bar, and then the seating area of the restaurant, and back to the bar, he appeared to become more confused, nodded uncertainly and walked away.
It took some aggressive waving and pantomiming of my own but I eventually convinced our bartender I wanted not only another beer but gyoza and a California roll – supposedly invented just down the street.
After eating, I convinced her that I didn’t desire a third beer but instead wanted to pay and move on.
The Dodgers were winning and the bartender had just chased a pair down the street for not paying their bill. In their defense they, like me, may have been trying to pay for a while and gave up and walked out.
The man with missing teeth grinned at the screen and nursed his brew, the girl tried again to translate the drunken nonsense for her boyfriend and the older man from Yokohama continued to cheer at all the wrong moments.
My bill for two beers and food came out to $13. I wasn’t about to wait for them to process a credit card. I threw down a $20 and headed into the night, the Japanese banter fading slowly behind me.
Welcome to Japangeles.
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