You’ve likely wandered through the underground of the Little Tokyo mall and seen the mini anime empire growing store by store over the years.
Tetsu Shiota, the owner behind Anime Jungle and Ficklewish, carefully researches and does surveys with customers and visitors before opening each shop, and it’s paid off. With over 1,000 visitors daily to this Japanese pop culture destination, Tetsu dreams of his own Japanese pop culture-focused shopping mall in the heart of downtown Los Angeles attracting hobbyists from around Los Angeles and Southern California to Little Tokyo.
How did this Osaka native end up in L.A.’s Japantown? Read on to learn more about Tetsu-san in this month’s “Meet Little Tokyo.”
How did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Tetsu Shiota: Our family business started in Osaka in 1996. All we had then was a really, really tiny anime retail store. Three years in we got an order from an online store from a U.S. customer even though our website was only in Japanese. I think they used translation software, so it was some kind of strange Japanese, but we understood how much they wanted our products.
Because of this, we started to become interested in the U.S. market and asked them which place in the U.S. is the most popular for anime. That’s when they told us about the anime convention. At the convention, we did a survey and learned that besides the anime convention, anime clubs at colleges were also a great audience for us.
So I went to visit anime clubs at colleges like UCLA, UCI, USC, in total five or six colleges. Then I did another survey from about 500 anime club students. At that time there were only a few anime stores, but those places carried bootleg merchandise, not licensed or official merchandise. We asked these anime fans, “We are very interested in opening a store here. Which place is good for anime fans?”
From these 500 surveys, almost 27% replied “near my house” but 69% answered that Little Tokyo is the best place. That was in 1999. After that I came here a couple of times to learn about Little Tokyo. At the time, it was not really safe, so I was curious why they choose this neighborhood. Little Tokyo by its name means “small Tokyo,” but to me, it didn’t really feel like small Tokyo.
I went back to the anime clubs again and asked them, “Why did you recommend this place?” They told me that there’s a Kinokuniya here and a Japanese supermarket and ramen shops, so they come here to hang out and it feels like Japan to them. That’s when I understood that this is the neighborhood that we had to have our store.
In addition to Anime Jungle, you also own Ficklewish. Why did you choose to open this store?
TS: For each store, I always research before we decide to open. After our third store, we started having over 1,400 customers a day, so I felt we had enough customers and wanted to research what kind of store people wanted.
At that time in the downtown area, there wasn’t really a trading card shop. We decided to do a buyback from customers so that if they want to buy anime merchandise but they don’t have enough money, they could sell cards to buy things. That’s the reason why we opened a trading card shop.
After this fourth store, I kept thinking, “What else does Little Tokyo need?” This time I did a survey on the street with regular customers and most people said they wanted a Japanese kawaii fashion shop. That is the reason we opened Ficklewish, which is the only store we own here with a different name than Anime Jungle.
During my research with some really big anime fans (otaku), I learned that fashion people and otaku don’t always get along, so we decided to use a different company name, which is Ficklewish. I wanted staff who know about Harajuku fashion and the latest kawaii styles.
When we announced that we were hiring three staff for a shop focused on Harajuku fashion, we received applications from over 60 people. From there I chose the biggest Japanese fashion fans and asked them which merchandise we should carry, and they chose our first inventory. That’s the reason why that store is so good.
If someone had one hour to do something in Little Tokyo, what would you recommend?
TS: My favorite place is Anzen Hardware. When you go to Japan, you can’t find Showa style, old-school merchandise, even in Japan. But Anzen has many items that are Showa style, and that’s very interesting.
Do you know about binchotan, the charcoal from Wakayama? When you add it to water, it purifies it and makes the water very good. California water is hard water, but this changes it to soft water. The taste is totally different. You should try it.
What are your hopes for the future of the neighborhood?
TS: At first my dream is especially for this building, I want it to be a little Akihabara or actually more like a Little Nakano Broadway. I think we need more stores here, so I have to research one more time. When I came here I didn’t know anything about the history of Japanese Americans, but I learned little by little and members of this Japanese American community have really helped me.
I did some movie screenings like “Godzilla” and have introduced Japanese anime companies to the anime community here. When we do an event here for the anime community we can easily get customers because this area is so well-loved by anime fans.
For the neighborhood, I would like to continue to attract anime fans and customers to local businesses. I believe that when we help each other, we can all be successful and help the community and everyone is happier. I really want to continue to connect anime, people, and community. I feel that this is my mission in Little Tokyo.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meet Little Tokyo is brought to you by Go Little Tokyo, a community-led effort by the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) aimed at highlighting the unique cultural programs, community events, and dining and shopping experiences found in Little Tokyo.
Tetsu Shiota, Owner of Anime Jungle and Ficklewish
319 E. Second St., Los Angeles, CA 90012