As contemporary influences flourish nearby, Mitsuwa Marketplace offers Westsiders a more traditional taste of Japanese-American culture
By Michael Aushenker
Over the past decade, Little Osaka — the Westside Japanese-American district centered around Sawtelle and Olympic boulevards — has seen an explosion of hip fusion restaurants, trendy dessert shops and contemporary boutiques serving a predominantly young clientele.
Mitsuwa Marketplace in Mar Vista stands as an island apart.
At the nondescript intersection of Centinela Avenue and Venice Boulevard, about three miles from Little Osaka, Mitsuwa has quietly maintained a more traditional take on Japanese-American culture for 21 years.
The Japanese supermarket, bolstered by a restaurant-style food court and kiosks selling books, beauty products and other wares, has become a Westside cultural institution for being, in a way, ordinary.
“It’s an everyday destination, which makes it kind of an integral part of the community,” said Gary Oba, senior pastor at West Los Angeles United Methodist Church in the heart of Little Osaka.
Where a newcomer may see bright fluorescent lights illuminating row after endless rainbow-colored row of cheerfully packaged imported snacks and beverages, Oba said he and much of his flock see “a very reliable and convenient place for the Japanese-American community to shop for preparing Japanese cooking,” with a deli that fills orders for church parties.
“It’s where my mom did her shopping,” said Perry Miyake, co-author of “The 100-Plus Year History of the Japanese American Community of Venice,” a book published by the Venice Japanese Community Center. Nearly two years ago, the Mar Vista resident took a job behind the deli counter.
But Mitsuwa is no quiet corner store. During peak hours, finding a seat at Mitsuwa’s food court to enjoy dishes from a handful of eateries specializing in ramen, udon and tempura becomes a challenge — so much so that takeout was banned after restaurants were routinely overwhelmed and lines of hungry customers bottlenecked in the courtyard.
Mitsuwa’s food court houses branches of Santouka and the Japanese-owned Sandoki Sandou. Hinoske, a tempura spot, has been there for two years. There’s also Hamadaya bakery.
“Our food court beats everyone’s. It’s authentic Japanese,” said Bruce Bailey, president of the Mitsuwa chain.
Bailey began working as a lawyer for then-Mitsuwa parent company Yaohan in 1982. Taking over a dormant Safeway, the chain opened its Mar Vista location, referred to internally as its Santa Monica branch, in late 1992. Three years later, Yaohan filed for what was the largest bankruptcy in Japanese history. Bailey teamed with Yoshi Watanabe and Masa Nozue to buy the chain and renamed it Mitsuwa, which means “three in harmony.”
Mitsuwa also operates stores in Torrance, Costa Mesa, San Gabriel, Irvine, San Diego, San Jose, Chicago and New Jersey.
“It’s been interesting to run what is in effect a Japanese company,” said Bailey, explaining that many Japan-based vendors won’t just sell their products to anybody. “They don’t want to deal with people who don’t really know their stuff. They want to know it is going to be presented in a quality manner.”
Mitsuwa has also built a broad appeal for customers who have little connection to Asia. At the Mar Vista store, about two in five customers are non-Asian, Bailey said.
Perhaps due in part to its crossover appeal, Mitsuwa is a lonely cultural outpost in an area that once housed a large Japanese-American population and a number of Japanese-American businesses.
When Mitsuwa first opened its doors in Mar Vista, a family-operated store called Aloha was located about a mile away near Short Avenue and Centinela. Aloha and the restaurant Marina Mago, located across the street where Café Sanchez is today, both opened in the 1960s but closed in the 1990s, Miyake said.
“The sanseis [American-born grandchildren of Japanese immigrants] all moved out because of housing prices,” Miyake said.
With his church located in the heart of bustling Little Osaka, Oba is a daily witness to the success of that area, whose popularity reignited in the early 2000s with the opening of Eric Nakamura’s popular Giant Robot novelty store and art gallery.
Before the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II, “it was a very blue collar area — many Japanese merchants and small, mom-and-pop fish markets,” Oba said.
Those businesses lost to time, Mitsuwa has filled their critical cultural role: “The market is more important to me than the food court — just to have a local market that carries everything you need as far as cooking Japanese cuisine at home,” Oba said.
The twenty- and thirty-something customers who dominate businesses in Little Osaka today don’t make up a large presence in Oba’s flock, but Mitsuwa has a cross-generational following.
Jennifer Yamamoto, who grew up on the Westside and cofounded the Venice Japanese Community Center’s Young Adults Club, said Mitsuwa offers both cultural connection and nostalgia.
“Mitsuwa was one of my mom’s go-to stores for Japanese food. It helped a lot since we didn’t make too many trips to downtown’s Little Tokyo anymore,” she said. “There was also a bookstore there, where I would sometimes get to buy the thick Japanese ‘only-for-girls’ manga magazines. The one I used to buy was called ‘Ribon.’ That’s where I started picking up all of my manga knowledge, so I was always up to par with my cousins in Japan.”
As her comics era faded and Yamamoto advanced into her teens, she began buying CDs and mini-singles by J-Pop groups at the same book store: Amuro, Tube, and especially Dreams Come True.
“It’s just funny pulling them out and realizing how much time I spent at that store.”