By MIKE OKAMURA, Little Tokyo Historical Society
Little Tokyo legacy business Anzen Hardware is commemorating its 75th anniversary this year by celebrating its past, evolving in the present and visioning its future.
COVID-19 pandemic years 2020 and 2021 have been Anzen’s most challenging times in its three-quarters of a century operating in Little Tokyo, but with the hard work of countless supporters in the community and some luck, the plucky small legacy business came out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose to reach its milestone 75 years.
Anzen is admired by fervently loyal customers, relied upon by Japanese knife aficionados, respected by fellow Little Tokyo businesses, and is a must-see for curious first-time visitors. Customers come to purchase a specific item in mind or leave with something from Japan that they have never seen before. Some Japanese imported items are so unique to the American market that being able to see and touch them in person is prized.
Upon entering Anzen, your visual senses are overwhelmed as you’re nostalgically transported back to an old-school neighborhood hardware store or you’ve entered a tiny kanamono カナモノhardware shop in rural Japan. There is also the irreplaceable neon sign in the shape of a Japanese handsaw that would befit the sentimental mood if it only functioned.
Occupying a sliver of a space in the nine-decade-old Kawasaki Building in the Little Tokyo Historical National Landmark District at 309 E. 1st St., Anzen literally is filled to the rafters with Japanese culture lovingly accumulated over the decades. The ever-changing community origami display behind the large window also is a wonder that draws in the unexpected shopper.
Owner Norihiko “Nori” Takatani and Betty and Alex cheerfully greet you and offer welcome advice as you peruse the innumerable items imported from Japan: cutlery, scissors, bamboo ware, cutting boards, tabi boots, tatami mat border cloth, sukiyaki iron pots, iron tea pots, gardening tools, straw sandals, binchōtan charcoal, bamboo rakes, shoji screen handles, metal fittings, and seed packets. You can also find bins of screws, duct tape, light bulbs, drill bits and can even have a spare key made.
Founded in 1946, Anzen was very different when Tsutomu Maehara at age 26 started the business. Anzen Hotel Supply was at 106 Weller St. (now Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street) in the same building and space where direct-lineage business Azay is located and is owned and operated by daughter, Jo Ann, and her husband, Chef Akira Hirose.
Tsutomu, the middle child of five, was born in 1919 in Tualatin, Ore., which was home until age six. His father ran a cord wood chopping business on 180 acres of land that employed 15 Japanese laborers. In 1925, the Maehara family left the U.S. for Japan to settle in his father’s ancestral Hiroshima Prefecture, where his father made binchōtan charcoal wood. In 1938, Tsutomu and an older sister and husband who married in Hiroshima returned to Portland, where Tsutomu stayed while the married couple farmed in Ontario in the eastern part of Oregon.
Because Tsutomu was in Portland at the outbreak of World War II, he and the Nikkei community were forcibly removed to Tule Lake War Relocation Center, where he was incarcerated for just three months as he decided to leave to join his sister and brother-in-law to farm in Ontario.
Teikoku Shōten was a pre-World War II business in Portland owned by Umata Matsushima, who considered Tsutomu like a son. After the war, Matsushima-san and Tsutomu reopened the business but changed the name to Anzen Trading Company. As a traveling salesman, Tsutomu went to Japanese enclaves in rural Oregon and Washington to seek new customers and on one business trip to Spokane, Wash., he met Kinuko Shiraga, whom he married in 1949 in her hometown. She was a Spokane-born Kibei Nisei whose family was from Okayama Prefecture.
Tsutomu brought his new bride to Little Tokyo’s Anzen Hotel Supply, and in the earliest post-war days, the business provided linens and supplies to many SRO hotels in and around Little Tokyo that were mostly owned or managed by Japanese. Everyone seemed to know some Japanese in the hotel business. Anzen employees were Tsutomu, Mr. Hasuike and Fred. It was recalled by the Maehara children that the building was a greenish color at one time, but it is now the distinctive pale yellow.
The building has been in the Maehara family since the beginning of Anzen when Tsutomu’s cousin Chisato Morioka invested his funds to purchase it as he felt it had an advantageous location of being on the corner of 1st Street and Weller Street. As a note of interest, Little Tokyo real estate broker Taul Watanabe handled the transaction. Earlier, Morioka-san was manager of a strawberry farm in Morgan Hill near San Jose, and his nephew is Nori Takatani.
Being outgoing, having a friendly manner and being bilingual, Tsutomu was very active with Hiroshima Kenjinkai, Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Nisei Week Japanese Festival, and Little Tokyo Business Association. The Maehara kids remember their dad always wanting to help young, ambitious people from Japan to start a new life in Los Angeles. This even included short-term rent-free living at Oregon Hotel, which is the second floor of the Maehara building. Tsutomu passed away in 2018 and Kinuko died in 2009.
Damage from the Whittier Narrows Earthquake in 1987 forced Tsutomu to renovate the building to meet earthquake standards, so the decision was made to replace the Anzen Hardware space with lucrative rental space. This is when Anzen moved to 353 E. 1st St., which was the site of old Ninomiya Studio in the Far East Café building on 1st Street. In 1994, that building was deemed uninhabitable from the major damage caused by the Northridge Earthquake, so Anzen relocated to its current location at 309 E. 1st St.
Little known was a branch store, Anzen Second Street, at 232 E. 2nd St. adjacent to Suehiro Café’s original location. Tsutomu started the new business at the former Star Garden gardening site in 1978 but son Norman and Kinuko operated it. It’s here that this shop carried cooking implements, knives and other housewares from Japan. The business closed in 1984 as that block was taken over by government eminent domain for new construction.
The Anzen Hardware that we know today is owned and operated by Nori Takatani, who is a distant Maehara relative.
Takatani was born in Hiroshima in 1938 and he and his family suffered terribly during World War II with the atomic bomb obliterating the city on Aug. 6, 1945. As an atomic bomb survivor he left post-war Hiroshima on a student visa to live with his uncle, Morioka-san, in Morgan Hill, where he attended high school. Unhappy as a student with limited English-speaking ability, he left and came to Los Angeles to enroll in a non-English-speakers program at Belmont High School. In 1954, he started working at Anzen and has never left.
Nori was a Japanese boxing promoter and manager (ask him about Barbara Streisand), he’s a good baseball player and dynamic singer. He’s the father of five children and a brood of young grandkids.
Next time you’re in Little Tokyo, drop by Anzen Hardware to congratulate Nori, Betty and Alex on the milestone 75th anniversary, take in the sentimental character of the shop and envision good thoughts on Anzen’s bright yet challenging future in Little Tokyo. We know you’ll be leaving with something and become a happy and lifelong customer.