Volunteers join Los Angeles firefighters at a salute to first responders at the Koban in Little Tokyo on July 1.

A bright red L.A. Fire Department fire engine stopped on First Street last Wednesday, but it was no emergency call. Little Tokyo restaurants, organizations and volunteers pitched in to give a big “Arigato” to firefighters who have defended the neighborhood through harrowing times during recent months.

A chef at Sushi Gen prepares California rolls to serve to firefighters.

Firefighters from Companies 3, 4 and 9, as well as the Central Dispatch Center, were treated to bento meals of California rolls and grilled red snapper. Participating restaurants were Ebisu Japanese Tavern, Oomasa Sushi Restaurant, Sushi Gen, TOT Teishokuya of Tokyo and Sake Dojo.

California roll was selected because of its origins in Little Tokyo. The sushi roll was invented in the late 1960s by Chef Ichiro Mashita of Tokyo Kaikan Restaurant using avocado instead of toro, which was in short supply then.

In total, 300 meals were served over three shifts July 1-3 for the firefighters. The event was a way to show appreciation to the downtown fire companies. On May 16, LAFD responded to a fiery explosion at a vape store on Boyd Street and 11 firefighters were injured.

Spearheading the efforts were Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, Japanese Restaurant Association, Mutual Trading Co. Inc. and Hilo Fish Company, which donated the red snapper.

Jason Lee and Capt. Gayle Sonoda.

Kentaro Masuda owner of TOT and president of the Japanese Restaurant Association, helped recruit local restaurants. Brian Kito and David Yamahata of LTPSA contacted the fire stations.

The funds for the feast were donated by Jason Lee, who raised $2,000 through an online concert by his music collective, Hashi Co. The online concert on May 31 featured 13 artists from Japan and the U.S. “Hashi Co” is a play on the Japanese term for “bridge” (hashiko) and represents their collective’s vision to bridge the gap between artists in Asia and the United States by increasing their visibility across markets.

Lee grew up hearing stories of Shonien Japanese Orphange from his mom, Joy Kusumoto, and the generosity of his great-grandfather Rokuichi Kusumoto, who opened the home for children in 1914.

Lee recalled seeing the black smoke from the Boyd fire and when he heard that 11 firefighters were hurt in the blaze, knew that he wanted to help.

Volunteers Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do, and Atsuko Kanai of Mutual Trading Co. speak to firefighters.

“Little Tokyo is a special place to a lot of Japanese and Japanese American artists, so we decided to use our platform to raise money and give back what we could,” Lee said.

“The event was streamed on May 31 for a total of nine hours and featured 13 artists. Our initial goal of $1,000 in donations had already been met halfway through the livestream and by the end, our wonderful audience had donated over $2,000 in total for the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association to provide some relief for the healthcare workers and firefighters affected by the explosion.”

Firefighters stopped by the Koban to get a tour of the facility and also to thank Little Tokyo for their support. Among the crew was Capt. Gayle Sonoda, who in October 2019 became the first Asian American promoted to the rank of captain in LAFD history.

Atsuko Kanai of Mutual Trading said she hopes that the event brings some good news during such a dark time and she praised the Little Tokyo restaurants for their efforts, despite being severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Retired Deputy Fire Chief David Yamahata presents bentos to firefighter Graciano at Sake Dojo.

“We want to shine a light on the goodness they’ve brought onto the day in the life of the LAFD firefighters, who place their lives on the line protecting the Little Tokyo area,” Kanai said.

Lee said the experience made him think of his great-grandparents and their devotion to take care of young Japanese children who were orphaned.

“My own great-grandfather and grandmother would house and feed those children. None of that would have been possible without generous donations from people in Little Tokyo and it’s surreal that I was able to give back to that same community who helped my ancestors. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you to everyone who donated, watched the stream, and especially to the artists who performed,” Lee said.

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