Bunkado is located on the site of Kame Restaurant, founded by Charles Hama in 1884.

RAFU STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday voted to recognize Kame Restaurant, which opened in 1884, as the first Japanese-owned business in Little Tokyo.

The first Japanese immigrated to L.A. as early as 1869. The restaurant, which is no longer in business, was opened at a time when there were only about 70 people of Japanese descent in Los Angeles, according to Councilmember Kevin de Leon, who introduced the motion.

A cook named Hamanosuke Shigeta, also known as Charles Hama, opened the restaurant at 340 E. First St. after arriving in Los Angeles, marking what is now known to historians as the “Birth of Little Tokyo” in 1884.

The site of the restaurant is now Bunkado, which the motion described as a “treasured gift shop whose name means ‘House of Culture.’” The council said that the shop’s third-generation owner, Irene Tsukada Simonian, is committed to carrying on the “entrepreneurial spirit of Shigeta.”

“Legacy family businesses are vital to the preservation of Little Tokyo, one of the few remaining Japantowns in the United States,” the motion states.

The city will install a sign on a street-light pole in front of the property to mark the location’s history.

Speaking to The Rafu, Simonian said, “What a nice surprise that in 2022, right after our 75th anniversary, we’re getting this recognition.”

Bunkado was founded 1946 by Simonian’s aunt and uncle, Suye and Tokio Ueyama. She recalled that in the 1990s, two staff from the now-defunct CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) came to Bunkado and took measurements of the building.

“I said, ‘Can I help you?’ They said, ‘We’re from the CRA and we found out that this is the site of the first Japanese-owned business in L.A. called Kame Restaurant.’”

She said at the time there were plans to install a plaque on the sidewalk to note the site’s historic importance, but those plans fell through.

However, Simonian was able to share the news with her mom, Kayoko Tsukada.

“The thing she loved the most was it was called Kame (Turtle) Restaurant, a symbol of longevity,” Simonian said. “My mom, who loved symbolism, said that’s a lucky sign.”

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