EAST WIND: Favorite Foods — Made in Little Tokyo

Miya Iwataki

“The Senbei Route was the bread and butter of Umeya.” — Tak Hamano, Chairman of Umeya, on pre-WWII Umeya Rice Cracker Co.

The first new organization I joined after I retired was the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS). My good friend Bill Watanabe recruited me, but I didn’t need much convincing.

I became a community activist and cut my teeth on building programs in Little Tokyo during the 1970s; working out of the JACS-AI Office (Japanese American Community Services–Asian Involvement) on the third floor of the Sun Building located on Weller Street. It was a heady era of social change: new ideas, taking on provocative issues, experimentation, the freedom to dream. Many new and needed social service and political programs that still exist today were born during that time.

We practically lived, worked and ate there seven days a week. And I never got tired of the food. I still vividly remember looking forward to every Friday at Tokyo Gardens for their chashu/shu mai special.

So I looked forward to “coming home” decades later. But what a different Little Tokyo greeted me. LTHS, in a way, helped acclimatize me to the many new changes. Working with the group also showed me that, although I was a daily presence there for so many years, I was so focused on the work we were doing that I didn’t fully appreciate the historical specialness of Little Tokyo (LT). This really hit me as I worked on the calendar that LTHS produces each year.

It was a joy and a revelation working on the 2017 calendar. None of us on the committee realized how much food history was tucked into the Nikkei nooks and crannies of Little Tokyo. As our committee struggled to parse out our food theme, we discovered that Little Tokyo housed a treasure trove of significant “food firsts” that ultimately defined the design and tone of the calendar.

In fact, our calendar