Many of Los Angeles’ Japanese immigrants love TV shows from back home so much that they can’t wait for them to be aired here on TV or cable. They go instead where they can find them faster: at their local gray-market video store.
The widespread practice of renting and selling taped TV shows from Japan is accepted by a community hungry for the latest episodes. Older customers and middle-aged women head straight for the Japanese soap operas. Middle-aged men like drama or ninja-type movies. And the younger crowd goes for suspense, quiz and action shows, according to one video store operator. Customers don’t seem to be bothered by lack of proper licensing--or even by low-quality duplication.
A Little Tokyo video store owner whose shelves were stuffed with Japanese TV shows taped off the air--and who didn’t want himself or his shop identified--said his customers include many homesick for their native country, college exchange students here for three months and Japanese women married to Caucasian men for 15-20 years who still don’t understand English well enough to feel comfortable here.
The owner has a contact in Japan who tapes TV shows off the air and sends the “master” to a tape-duplicating service in Los Angeles. Customers can see the programs within two weeks of broadcast in Japan--a much shorter delay for viewers who would otherwise have to wait as long as six months to see those same shows here on only a few channels and in limited time periods.
Scott Toyomitsu, manager of the Cinema Club-L.A. video store in Gardena, however, refuses to go along with this practice. He claims that his is the only store in the mainland United States that doesn’t rent taped Japanese TV shows. He rents and sells only Japanese and Japanese-subtitled movies--all authentic copies from the manufacturer.
Why not handle TV shows, which would unquestionably boost profits? “For one thing,” he says with a laugh, “it is illegal. Everybody knows that it is.” Toyomitsu, 33, who immigrated to the United States when he was 11, opened his shop late last year and now carries about 3,000 tapes, including many films from Europe.
When he first started his business here, he didn’t know what kinds of tapes would be popular. “So we took what was popular in Japan and just brought (the equivalent of a typical Japanese video) store into the United States.” But Toyomitsu soon found that tastes here are a little different.
In Japan, for instance, he estimates that American movie titles out-rent Japanese ones, 8-to-1. Here, it’s about 50-50. Gore titles, popular in Japan, didn’t do well here, and they are now among many of his red-tag specials. He researches which titles are popular in Japan and tries to bring them here within a month after their release in Japan.
Most of his customers keep abreast of new releases through return trips to Japan and imported Japanese magazines.
“They’re asking for it before I even have it in the store,” Toyomitsu said. “By word of mouth, they find out what movies are really hot in Japan right now. But most of the time, they’re asking for the American movies like ‘The Last Emperor.’ ”
Cinema Club’s 1,200 members (mainly Japanese businessmen and their families who have come for a temporary stay of two to three years) pay $4 to rent each title for one day. Toyomitsu said he only sells about one or two tapes per month (the average cost is about $80).
He also said he copies Japanese movies but doesn’t dare rent pirated copies of American ones--his customers know the quality of his tapes won’t be as good as the originals, but “they don’t mind. The customer understands. The customer just wants to see the (movie).”
Cinema Club L.A., 15468 S. Western Ave., Gardena; (213) 719-1722.