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Little Tokyo Remembers Nisei Pioneer Tsutomu Maehara

Tsutomu Maehara was recognized with a Pioneer Award at the 50th anniversary Nisei Week Festival in August 1990. He is joined by (from left) wife Kinuko Maehara, Nisei Week Queen Sandra Posey and Frances Hashimoto.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

For seven decades, Tsutomu Maehara has been a familiar figure in Little Tokyo. On June 5, the gentle man with the engaging smile passed away at the age of 98.

The Oregon-born, Japan-educated Nisei was often seen walking from one part of the district to another, his gait slowing in recent years due to his advancing age. Today, few are fortunate to be aware of his early life as an enterprising businessman who was among the leaders who helped rebuild Little Tokyo after World War II.

Maehara was born in a suburb of Portland in 1919 and moved with his family to Hiroshima, Japan in 1923. He graduated from Matsumoto Commercial High School in 1937 and in the same year returned to Portland to join Teikoku Shokai, an import firm where he worked until the war broke out.

He was interned at Tule Lake in 1942 and in September of the same year was freed to farm with his sister’s family in Ontario, Ore.

Tsutomu Maehara

In 1945, Japanese American families returning from concentration camps needed jobs and housing. Many became managers and owners of small hotels in Little Tokyo as well as the predominantly African American section of downtown L.A.’s Skid Row, where they could live while also earning income from room rentals. Eventually, there were an estimated 400 such hotels.

Maehara hit upon the idea of providing them with linen service and cleaning supplies. In 1946, at the age of 26, he established Anzen Hotel Supply and subsequently opened Anzen Hardware on East First Street in Little Tokyo.

His contemporaries included pioneering JAs like photographer Toyo Miyatake, land developer and former L.A. Harbor Commissioner Taul Watanabe, clothier Joseph Ito, civil rights attorney Tetsujiro “Tex” Nakamura, Fish King’s Masashi Kawaguchi, and others who established businesses to serve the needs of those returning to Los Angeles after the war.

In 1990, Nisei Week honored Maehara with its Pioneer Award, noting that his vision for the downtown neighborhood led to a successful campaign in 1961 to change the zoning law in Little Tokyo from manufacturing to commercial and light manufacturing mixed use.

As the younger generation began to come of age, Maehara and community leader Takeo Taiyoshi mentored the new, emerging entrepreneurs. Together, Maehara and Taiyoshi also sacrificed their time and money to ensure that Little Tokyo was recognized politically. Taiyoshi passed away in 1989.

“Maehara-san, since I was young, was always a mentor (to me) and other young business owners,” recalls Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-do, a 115-year-old family business in Little Tokyo.

When Kito formed the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, Maehara was quick to lend his support and, in 1993, became a member of the board of directors. He also was a member of the Hiroshima Kenjinkai, Little Tokyo Business Association and Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California and Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

Irene Tsukada Simonian, owner of Little Tokyo’s Bunkado gift shop, fondly remembers Maehara for both his wisdom laced with humor:

“When I came back to the LT community after a long absence to help my mother run Bunkado, Mr. Maehara welcomed me back very warmly. But, he said he had to think about my title. Was I President, ‘Shacho-san,’ and my mom now the Chairman, ‘Kaicho-san?’*

“After months, he smilingly said he came to a decision.  He said he’ll call me Princess, ‘Hime-sama.’”

After that, Maehara would always greet Simonian by saying, “Hime-sama, are you working hard?”

“I miss those days!” she adds.

The hardware store he founded, a throwback that predates big-box retailers like Home Depot and Orchard Hardware Supply, is still standing at 309 E. First St. Now run by Nori Takatani, the shop is noted for carrying hard-to-find items like tools for bonsai care and Japanese kitchen utensils. Mostly, Anzen Hardware stands in silent tribute to a young entrepreneur who meant so much to his community.

Funeral service will be held on Saturday, June 30, at 3 p.m. at Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St., Los Angeles. He is survived by his sons Dr. Norman (Mardy) and Dr. Nolan (Sandy Sakamoto) Maehara; daughters, Rosanne (Ron) Takahashi and JoAnn (Akira) Hirose; 10 grandchildren; sister, Yukie Fujita of Japan; and many other relatives. He is predeceased by his wife Kinuko, who passed away in 2009 at age 88.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Hirose

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