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Little Tokyo market, a onetime rising sun, is poised to set

Tokyo (Japan)MarketingMinority GroupsLifestyle and LeisureRestaurant and Catering Industry

Alice Uchi slowly pushed a near-empty shopping cart down the near-empty aisles flanked by near-empty shelves in what had been the first and largest modern Japanese supermarket in Little Tokyo.

"I feel lost. Sad," the retired Los Angeles registered nurse said glumly.

Uchi was catching the tail end of Mitsuwa Marketplace's 50% fire sale before it prepares Sunday to shut its doors, marking an emotional transition for many in Little Tokyo. Last year, a group of six ethnic Korean investors purchased the property, part of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center at 3rd and Alameda streets, for $35 million. The group plans to recast the market with more Korean, Chinese and American products in addition to Japanese ones.

The change reflects the rapidly diversifying demographics in Little Tokyo -- most prominently, the growing Korean influx into the historic heart of Southern California's Japanese American community. Ethnic Koreans have moved into the neighborhood as shopkeepers, running frozen yogurt stores, pharmacies and sushi restaurants, and as residents in both the new condos and historic senior housing complexes such as Little Tokyo Towers. As a mark of the shift, Korean-language newspaper stands are now scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Many see the change as inevitable -- but not without pangs of nostalgia and regret.

"There is some regret in seeing Japanese businesses change and others come in, because it is Little Tokyo," said Chris Aihara, who heads the Little Tokyo Community Council. "But the change is something we have to embrace, use to build a strong community and move forward."

Young S. Cho, a 48-year-old Los Angeles garment manufacturer and one of the market's new co-owners, said his group would respect the area's historic ethnic traditions and retain, even enhance, the center's Japanese design elements. But he said the neighborhood's growing diversity offered an opportunity for a supermarket with a broader focus.

"This is America," said Cho, a Seoul native who immigrated to the United States at age 10. "Now everyone lives in Little Tokyo -- Koreans, Americans, Japanese, Chinese -- and they don't have a lot of places to go shopping."

For much of its 24 years, the supermarket stood as a symbol of Little Tokyo's boom times, when the Japanese were flush with cash and invested millions in the neighborhood. One of their first joint projects was the three-floor, 300,000-square-foot shopping center and its flagship supermarket. The mall was built by Japanese American developer Albert Taira in partnership with the U.S. real estate arm of Obayashi Fudosan of Japan. The supermarket was operated first by Japan-based Yaohan and then Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Long before tofu and sushi became common items in California supermarkets, the Little Tokyo market was the biggest game in town for Japanese shoppers. They flocked to the market for bean paste and burdock root, Japanese-brand rice cookers and Japanese-language rental videos. On the second floor, the market sold Japanese furniture, clothing, electronics and other goods, offering shoppers a chance to see the latest products from the motherland.

Friends ran into friends at the market, sharing the latest swatch of gossip or a bowl of noodles at the Sakura restaurant inside the establishment. The market reconnected the Japanese with their traditional celebrations, selling herring roe and black beans for New Year's, displaying pink and green rice snacks for Girls' Day, featuring festivals celebrating the food of different regions in Japan.

At one time, the mall included a bowling alley, Japanese bookstore and movie theater, providing gathering spots for people such as Nobuaki and Koko Kimoto of Temple City. The couple, shopping for Mitsuwa bargains Wednesday, said they used to come to the mall two or three times a week to rent Japanese-language videos; pick up ramen, curry and miso; go bowling; and browse through the latest books and magazines from Japan.

Not only Japanese Americans lamented Mitsuwa's closure. Yi Li Sung, a 35-year-old Chinese American court interpreter, said she came to shop at least once a month for Japanese-brand coffee and "little girlie things" like eyebrow shapers. She and her family also buy Japanese when looking for rice cookers, water heaters and other electronics, she said.

"A lot of my Chinese friends shopped here because of the variety of products and their freshness," Sung said as she looked through a picked-over pile of light bulbs, cat food, bath salts and brownie mix. "The prices are not always the cheapest. But we feel the Japanese stand by their quality."

To Uchi, the retired nurse, Mitsuwa's closure marks more than the loss of a supermarket -- after all, she said, Little Tokyo still has two other Japanese markets, Marukai in Weller Court and Nijiya in the Japanese Village Plaza. Rather, it stirred in her a deep sadness to see the community's abandonment of such a major project of the Issei and Nisei, the first- and second-generation pioneers.

"The market was built with the sweat and dedication of the Issei and Nisei," she said. "If they were alive to see what has happened today, they would cry."

Cho said the Mitsuwa owners chose to leave, despite having four to five years remaining on their lease. A spokesman for Mitsuwa's Torrance headquarters could not be reached for comment, but the Little Tokyo store's manager, Masaaki Yoshimoto, said he was surprised by news of the closure. Yoshimoto said that business had picked up in recent years because of the influx of new residents in the area and that two-thirds of the store's patrons were now non-Japanese.

Cho said that his group had initially negotiated with two different Korean market owners to take Mitsuwa's place but that the deals failed to work out.

Instead, the group decided to hire someone to run the market for them. The new store, to be called the Little Tokyo Galleria Market, will primarily feature Korean and Japanese products but also include Chinese, American and even Mexican items, such as marinated carne asada, Cho said. It will reopen Feb. 15 with 90% of its stock on the shelves but hold its grand opening in May.

Cho, a business graduate from Cal Poly Pomona and a U.S. Army veteran, said his group hoped to bring new business to the area with the revamped market and plans for what he billed as the largest Korean-style spa outside New York.

The 50,000-square-foot space on the mall's third floor would offer body scrubs, massages, saunas, exercise equipment, resting stations, a nail and hair salon and several eateries, including a coffee shop and ice cream parlor. Once launched in 18 to 24 months, he said, the spa would be open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. and possibly 24 hours a day on weekends, drawing potentially 1,000 people to Little Tokyo daily.

But Cho said his group is also mindful of the community's sensitivities about keeping the mall's Japanese flavor. Most of the Japanese tenants, he said, seem ready to stay. And the group's architectural plans for a face-lift to the mall, an aging structure often likened to a fortress, feature Japanese motifs such as cherry blossoms, exterior panels patterned after shoji screens and a modern Zen garden.

"We're going to try our hardest to keep this a Japanese-theme mall, with an international flair, because this is Little Tokyo," Cho said.

To Japanese Americans such as Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, the changes are simply a sign of the times.

"I think Little Tokyo will become part Korean and that's a fact, because there are just more of them," Watanabe said.

He added: "Shoganai" -- it can't be helped.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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