Cultural managements

Approval of the status of historical and cultural monument of the restaurant Otomisan

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

On Jan. 12, the Los Angeles City Council approved the Historic-Cultural Landmarks listing for the Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.

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

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

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

On November 5, 2020, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission voted to consider the nomination of Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant.

On August 5, 2021, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to recommend the designation of the property.

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

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

“Thank you to co-nominee Boyle Heights Community Partners and everyone who supported this nomination,” said the Los Angeles Conservancy. “We encourage you to help us celebrate by visiting Japanese restaurant Otomisan!”

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 the 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 during the height of Boyle Heights’ early period. development.

Nishiyama was one of at least four landowners 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. would have been Masao Sato. From 1926 to 1929, the Sato family operated a grocery store there.

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. In the early 1950s, the commercial building housed a neighborhood grocery store and hair salon.

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

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 dramatically changed the lives of Japanese and Japanese Americans in Boyle Heights, including the Nishiyama family. On February 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 from 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 unclear whether the family leased all buildings on the property in question for the entire duration of the war.

An original sign for the restaurant.

The Nishiyama family was incarcerated at Gila River Concentration Camp in Arizona from July 1942 to October 1943. Following the loyalty questionnaire that was administered in 1943 to the incarcerated, the Nishiyamas were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in the county of Modoc in Northern California with others incarcerated. who have been unfairly labeled as disloyal. From November 1945 to March 1946, the Nishiyamas were liberated from Tule Lake.

According to the final responsibility lists of evacuees at relocation centers, the Nishiyamas returned to Los Angeles after their incarceration. In December 1946, The Rafu Shimpo reported that 25,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans resettled in Los Angeles and faced a severe housing shortage. Some returned to find their properties vandalized or burnt down, while others who had sold their properties before the war had nothing left to return. Hostels and other shelters were set up by local churches and civic organizations to provide returnees with a place to live as they began to rebuild their lives.

The Nishiyamas were fortunate to have retained the property in question during the war. After their release, the family returned to the Boyle Heights residence and lived there until the late 1960s. Over time, they made improvements to the property, including the creation of a third storefront in 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 into a dining 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 from Otemo Sushi Cafe at 2520 E. Third St., remembers her family used to walk to the restaurant to buy sushi. omiyage (gifts) to bring to relatives at Riverside. Meanwhile, the restaurant prepared hundreds of bento boxes for kenjinkai (prefectural association) meetings of local Japanese people held on weekends in local parks such as Griffith Park and Elysian Park.

“It used to be quite busy. So you would see people sitting inside or standing outside waiting to get in,” said Reverend Alfred Tsuyuki, a former customer.

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-sided projecting sign in front of the restaurant reading Otomisan Japanese Restaurant in 1979. Otomisan remains largely unchanged from the days of Otemo Sushi Cafe, according to longtime residents.