By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Hiroshi Yamauchi was a 23-year-old student when he immigrated to the United States from Tokyo in 1976. He took a job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Santa Monica, and 10 years and several jobs later, he started Little Tokyo’s first ramen restaurant, Kouraku.
On Monday, Yamauchi, 67, passed away after a long illness. Few people knew he was ill, so the news of his death has sent a ripple of sadness throughout the Japanese American community.
Born in Fussa, a district of Tokyo, he grew up during the post-war American occupation. The area was renamed Yokota Army Airfield, where Yamauchi and his family lived among American GIs.
After arriving in Los Angeles, he enrolled at UCLA Extension to improve his English.
In addition to its menu of homestyle favorites like curry rice and beef yasai, one of the restaurant’s key attractions is its extended hours. Until the pandemic hit, Kouraku was open seven days a week until 3 a.m., a godsend for bar patrons looking for comfort food in the wee hours of the morning. Yamauchi was also known to drive a friend home if he felt the friend hadn’t sobered up enough.
The restaurant has had a history of catering to a wide range of customers, from celebrities to police officers to athletes. His favorite story involved Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, who would come in together whenever the two teams were in town. Yamauchi swore that when Suzuki hit a homerun in Dodger Stadium, it was because he had eaten lunch earlier at Kouraku.
Dodger fans, too, would often head for Yamauchi’s place for a post-game meal and find him working at full steam even though it was past midnight.
With the Little Tokyo restaurant doing well, Yamauchi decided to open similar establishments in Primm (Nevada), Sherman Oaks, and Torrance with varying degrees of success. But it is the Little Tokyo location that keeps the loyal customers coming.
There’s no denying that COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the restaurant business in general. When the city and county banned indoor dining, Yamauchi shifted to take-out and delivery, but he was worried about his more than 20 employees.
Still, he was convinced that there was more he could do. He turned to Mariko Lochridge, business counselor for the Little Tokyo Service Center, who introduced him to the world of social media and livened up his website. Suddenly, Yamauchi was a frequent flyer on Facebook and Instagram with attractive photos of his popular dishes.
He recently broke a 34-year tradition when he finally allowed the eatery to shift from cash-only to accepting credit cards.
“I am grateful he trusted me to help and also grateful that he allowed some of his observations about the future of Little Tokyo to be made public,” Lochridge said.
In his first post on Facebook, Yamauchi said, “In these dark times in Little Tokyo, young people are coming to me and saying, ‘We are here for you in this time, let’s fight through this together.’
“And thanks to their help Facebook, UberEats, new promotional photos all of this has been set up for Kouraku … I urge all of you to support Little Tokyo at this time. Not just for the Kouraku of right now but for these young people’s future.”
His determination made him the perfect advocate for his fellow merchants, especially those with limited English ability.
As an advocate for other Little Tokyo merchants, Yamauchi was relentless. Whenever he saw an injustice or a problem that might negatively affect Little Tokyo’s small businesses, he would not hesitate to demand action from city officials. He championed causes for everyone, not just his own business.
His compassion and his role as an agent of change became evident during the early days of Metro’s Regional Connector construction when he was able to explain to Japanese-speaking community members what was happening.
The Regional Connector light rail subway and Little Tokyo/Arts District Station are scheduled for completion in 2022. “How I wish I could share that inaugural ride with him,” laments Masao Mike Okamoto, a family friend and president of the Little Tokyo Business Association.
Yamauchi had earned that ride.