By MARIKO LOCHRIDGE, Rafu Contributor
A one-page memo was posted in the staff room of Kouraku over the weekend. The thoughtful document, translated into English from Japanese, officially announces the change in leadership at the Little Tokyo legacy small business.
“I would like to announce that I have decided to entrust Kouraku to the hands of Mamoru Tokuda… As you all know he had supported us during the hard times when Hiroshi fell sick and through the COVID years as well… He has set up the POS system… and his unceasing support has guided Kouraku to the new age… At this newly improved Kouraku I am excited to work together with you for a better, brighter future.”
Written by Mihoko Yamauchi, the wife of the late Hiroshi Yamauchi, the letter goes on to detail how this change in ownership was the wish of her late husband and that after working side by side with Mamoru, she too agrees with his decision.
Posted only to inform the loyal employees of this small change to operations, the no-frills announcement is very on-brand for a Little Tokyo legacy small business.
Meanwhile, the small business consultant in me that spent three years learning and documenting their history for dozens of small business grant applications wants to recognize the milestone of a successful ownership change with a party, ribbon-cutting or commemorative plaque, but the reality is the change has been persistently taking place for decades.
Not just Kouraku, these mostly unannounced “new” owners of our legacy businesses such as Little Tokyo Florist, Suehiro Cafe, Mr Ramen, and half a dozen others are in fact not new at all. Some have been dishwashers or short-order cooks since they were kids, others are long-time members of the community as local residents, employees and volunteers.
And as it becomes increasingly more difficult for these family-owned businesses to find a family member interested to take over, our small business owners have identified on their own an heir to their legacy from within the community that they serve. For the outsider it may feel like a new face has taken over our favorite local space, but we can trust that a legacy business owner has observed and interacted with potential candidates for many years ahead of coming to a decision.
Current owner of Little Tokyo Florist Yuka Mizusawa jokes that as early as 2017 the previous owner, Mary Onoue, would ask her, “When are you ready to take over my business?” Yuka had been in Mary’s sights for a long time. As a regular customer, Yuka had been working as a manager at a restaurant on the third floor of the same building where Kuragami Florist a.k.a. Little Tokyo Florist is located. Stopping to chat with Mary on a nearly daily basis they developed a strong relationship. And while Mary had observed many younger customers and local employees passionate about the neighborhood, she intentionally chose to patiently and consistently pursue Yuka as her next in line.
And thank goodness that she did because the number of florists capable of preparing the intricate Japanese-style arrangements for our local temples, shrines and cultural events has dwindled down to just a handful in the entirety of Southern California.
Yuka and her partner Malina officially took over in early 2021 and have been continuing operations without a single disruption to service and hours ever since. This is especially admirable considering the restrictions placed on them as a non-essential business during the pandemic.
A common theme that I have observed with these new business owners is that while they may not have the same skill set as the previous owner, they share the same values. Everything else can be learned. And for this reason they’ve been curated by the legacy business owners because of the clear devotion and care for the community that they serve. Not only do they care about the ethnic enclave that our Little Tokyo legacy businesses represent, but they also respect the long-time employees that work in these businesses, and the culture that the businesses derive from as members of the Japanese diaspora.
When the business is finally ready to hand over and the original owners move on (whether it be voluntarily or suddenly), they’ve already been preparing the next generation of ownership for years. When Junko Suzuki, the late owner of Suehiro Cafe, finally passed the business on to her son Kenji in 2001, her only advice was “Don’t mess up.” And that’s all he needed to hear because she had already shown by example the way that a successful business could and should be run in a historic neighborhood.
Our newest legacy business owner, Mamoru Tokuda, is not only a local resident of Little Tokyo, but a long-time employee working at Fu-Ga for nearly a decade. He has also worked as a restaurant consultant with many of our local small businesses both before and during the pandemic.
Called upon by the late Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 2020, Mamoru quickly adapted to his hands-on role during the pandemic, doing everything from washing dishes to packing bentos to applying for small business grant applications. But his greatest contribution was supporting the late owner Hiroshi and his family through a very challenging transition of ownership from husband to wife as the diner struggled to stay open in a world not meant for the long-time cash-only, no-WiFi, late-night hot spot.
Thoughtfully managing the space and providing space for the family to focus on their personal affairs, I’d like to believe that Hiroshi passed peacefully, knowing that his legacy of Kouraku would continue on.
Whether it’s the family that we choose, or the family that is chosen for us, a legacy small business from an ethnic enclave cannot complete their estate planning with the same methods of a corporation or a Melrose boutique. The responsibility is beyond profits, and heavy is the crown that serves Little Tokyo, but it’s exciting to see such a great group of community-minded entrepreneurs step up at one of the worst times in history to take over a small business.
In such time of great economic distress and political turmoil, I always think it is only the truly insane that could possibly wish to take on small business ownership.
And yet when I observe how small business has survived and thrived in this neighborhood compared to many others across California, I’m also reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
And so I can conclude that it is only because of the great love from this community for our legacy businesses that this next generation of owners could possibly have the strength, courage and hope to take on such a daunting challenge.
Thank you all for the continued support of our small businesses.
Mariko Lochridge is a bilingual consultant passionate about trains, dinosaurs and small business. You can find her online @LittleTokyoisOpen on Instagram or at Kouraku’s bar counter eating mapo tofu don.
Photos by MARIKO LOCHRIDGE