Descendants of Toshiro and Yetsuko Seto, original owners of Otomisan, gather outside the restaurant on First Street in Boyle Heights. The sign advertises udon, sukiyaki, sushi and tempura. (Photo courtesy of Linda Kaneko)

The Los Angeles City Council on Jan. 12 approved the Historic-Cultural Monument listing of the Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The property located at 2504-2508 E. First St. consists of a 1½-story Queen Anne style residence and a one-story vernacular commercial building, significant for its association with early Japanese American settlement patterns in Boyle Heights and for its association with commercial development along the East First Street streetcar line in the 1920s.

Otomisan, now owned by Yayoi Watanabe, is believed to be the city’s oldest continuously operating Japanese restaurant. Lisa Ling recently posted about it on social media in conjunction with her new HBO Max show about Asian American-owned restaurants, “Take Out with Lisa Ling.”

In May 2020, the conservancy, in partnership with the Boyle Heights Community Partners, submitted a Historic-Cultural Monument nomination for the property.

On Nov. 5, 2020, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission voted to take the nomination of the Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant under consideration.

On Aug. 5, 2021, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to recommend the property be designated.

The nomination was to be heard at the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee on Oct. 19, 2021, but due to lack of a quorum, the meeting was cancelled.

On Dec. 7, 2021, the PLUM Committee recommended the nomination for final approval by the City Council.

“Thank you co-applicant Boyle Heights Community Partners and all who have supported this nomination,” said the Los Angeles Conservancy. “We encourage you to help us celebrate by patronizing Otomisan Japanese Restaurant!”

Lisa Ling, host of HBO Max’s “Take Out with Lisa Ling,” with Otomisan owner Yayoi Watanabe (right). Behind them are Nao Hayashi (Watanabe’s daughter) and Roland Cruz.

History of Property

A 1924 building permit is the earliest known record identifying Ryohei Nishiyama as the owner of the residence at 2508 E. First St. The residence is believed to have been built for Mrs. Anna E. Littleboy at the height of Boyle Heights’ early period of development.

Nishiyama was one of at least four property owners along East First Street between Mathews and Fickett who added a commercial component to their property in the 1920s. The first tenant to occupy the commercial building with the new address of 2506 E. First St. is believed to have been Masao Sato. Beginning in 1926 through 1929, the Sato family operated a grocery store from this location.

In 1929, partitions were added to the interior of the one-room commercial building, providing space for an additional tenant at 2504 E. First St., barber Tanezo Masunaga. Through the early 1950s, the commercial building housed a neighborhood grocery store and barbershop.

In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. T. Aoki ran an advertisement in The Rafu Shimpo urging readers, “Don’t Be Handicapped. The mastering of practical Japanese language and etiquette is a necessity in social life and business.” The Aokis offered night classes twice a week for a $2 monthly fee at Yoshin Gakuen at the Nishiyama Residence.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 dramatically altered life for Japanese and Japanese Americans in Boyle Heights, including the Nishiyama family. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced people of Japanese ancestry into temporary assembly centers before being transported to one of ten incarceration camps run by the War Relocation Authority.

City directories of 1941 and 1942 indicate that the grocery store owned by the Nishiyamas at 2506 E. First St. was leased to Max Gordon, but it is not known if the family leased all of the buildings at the subject property through the duration of the war.

An original sign for the restaurant.

The Nishiyama family was incarcerated at the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona from July 1942 to October 1943. Following the loyalty questionnaire that was administered in 1943 to incarcerees, the Nishiyamas were sent to Tule Lake Segregation Center in Modoc County in Northern California with other incarcerees who were unjustly labeled as disloyal. Beginning in November 1945 through March 1946, the Nishiyamas were released from Tule Lake.

According to the Final Accountability Rosters of Evacuees at Relocation Centers, the Nishiyamas returned to Los Angeles following incarceration. In December 1946, The Rafu Shimpo reported that 25,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans resettled in Los Angeles and faced an acute housing shortage. Some returned to find their properties vandalized or burned, while others who had sold their properties before the war had nothing to go back to. Hostels and other shelters were set up by local church and civic organizations to provide returnees a place to live as they began to rebuild their lives.

The Nishiyamas were fortunate to have retained the subject property during the war. After their release, the family returned to the Boyle Heights residence and lived there until the late 1960s. In time, they made improvements to the property, including the creation of a third storefront to the commercial building at 2504-2506½ E. First St., which would house Masunaga’s barber shop, Kenzo “Kai” Akahoshi’s Boyle Heights Florist, and Inaba Grocery.

Interior renovations in the early 1950s converted the easternmost storefront to a food establishment, making way for a restaurant tenant. Otemo Sushi Cafe (now Otomisan Japanese Restaurant) opened at 2506½ E. First St. in 1956.

In the 1950s, Patsy Duncan, who grew up two blocks away from Otemo Sushi Cafe at 2520 E. Third St., remembers her family used to walk to the restaurant to buy sushi as omiyage (gifts) to take to relatives in Riverside. During this time, the restaurant made hundreds of bento box lunches for kenjinkai (prefectural association) meetings of local Japanese that were held on the weekends at local parks such as Griffith Park and Elysian Park.

“In the old days, it was pretty busy. So you’d see people sitting inside or standing outside waiting to get in,” said Rev. Alfred Tsuyuki, a former patron.

In the early 1970s, the Setos (original owners) sold the business to Akira and Tomi Seino, who changed the name to Otomisan. The Seinos installed a double-faced projecting sign in front of the restaurant that read Otomisan Japanese Restaurant in 1979. Otomisan remains largely unchanged since the days of Otemo Sushi Cafe, according to longtime residents.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.