Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant | Los Angeles Conservancy
Otomisan Japanese Restaurant. Photo by Sue Hwang.

Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant

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

In 1925, Ryohei Nishiyama moved the residence to the rear of the lot and constructed a one-story commercial building facing East First Street. By doing so, he created economic mobility for Japanese and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles during a time when their opportunities were restricted due to land ownership, housing, and job discrimination.

 

A 1924 building permit is the earliest known record identifying Ryohei Nishiyama as the owner of the residence at 2508 East First Street. The residence is believed to have been built for Mrs. Anna E. Littleboy, at the height of Boyle Heights’ early period of development.

Nishiyama was one of at least four property owners 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 East First Street is believed to have been Masao Sato. Beginning in 1926 through 1929, the Sato family operated a grocery store from this location. In 1929, partitions were added to the interior of the one room commercial building, providing space for an additional tenant at 2504 East First Street, barber Tanezo Masunaga. Through the early 1950s, the commercial building housed a neighborhood grocery store and barbershop.

In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. T. Aoki ran an advertisement in the Rafu Shimpo urging readers, “Don’t Be Handicapped. The mastering of practical Japanese language and etiquette is a necessity in social life and business.” The Aokis offered night classes twice a week for $2.00 monthly fee at Yoshin Gakuen at the Nishiyama Residence.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 dramatically altered life for Japanese and Japanese Americans in Boyle Heights, including the Nishiyama family. By February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese and Japanese Americans into temporary assembly centers before being transported to one of ten incarceration camps. City directories of 1941 and 1942 indicate that the grocery store owned by the Nishiyamas at 2506 East First Street was leased to Max Gordon, but it is not known if the family leased all of the buildings at the subject property through the duration of war.

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 incarcerees, the Nishiyamas were sent to Tule Lake Concentration Camp in Siskiyou County in California with other incarcerees who were unjustly labeled as disloyal. Beginning in November 1945 through March 1946, the Nishiyamas were released from Tule Lake Concentration Camp.

According to the Final Accountability Rosters of Evacuees at Relocation Centers, the Nishiyamas returned to Los Angeles following incarceration during WW2. In December 1946, the Rafu Shimpo reported that 25,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans resettled in Los Angeles to an acute housing shortage. Some Japanese returned to find their properties vandalized or burned, while others who had sold their properties before the war had nothing to go back to. Hostels and other shelters were set up by local church and civic organizations to provide returnees a place to live as they began to rebuild their lives.

The Nishiyamas were fortunate to have retained the subject property during the war. After their release, the family returned to the Boyle Heights residence and lived there until the late 1960s. In time, they made improvements to the property, including the creation of a third storefront to the commercial building at 2504-2506½ East First Street, 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 to a food establishment, making way for a restaurant tenant. Otemo Sushi Cafe (now Otomisan Japanese Restaurant) opened at 2506 1⁄2 East First Street in 1956. 

In the 1950s, Patsy Duncan, who grew up two blocks away from Otemo Sushi Cafe at 2520 East Third Street, remembers her family used to walk to the restaurant to buy sushi as omiyage (gift) to bring to relatives in Riverside. During this time, the restaurant made hundreds of bento box lunches for kenjinkai (prefectural) meetings of local Japanese that were held on the weekends at local parks such as Griffith Park and Elysian Park. “In the old days, it was pretty busy. So you’d see people sitting inside or standing outside waiting to get in,” said Reverend Alfred Tsuyuki, a former patron.

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-faced projecting sign in front of the restaurant that read Otomisan Japanese Restaurant in 1979. Otomisan remains largely unchanged since the days of Otemo Sushi Cafe, according to longtime residents. 

 

The property narrates the story of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles with rare representation in the built environment. The commercial building originally housed a Japanese-operated grocery store, and later included a Japanese-operated florist shop and barber shop. In the 1950s, the grocery store was converted to a food establishment. In 1956, Otemo Sushi Café (now called Otomisan Japanese Restaurant) opened in the easternmost storefront of the commercial building. Otomisan is the last remaining Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood and believed to be one of the oldest continuously-operating Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. The buildings and signage at 2504-2508 East First Street represent multiple layers of historical and cultural significance, including early residential development in Boyle Heights, streetcar commercial development, and Japanese American commercial development in Boyle Heights. The property also represents the entrepreneurial and enduring spirit of the Nishiyama Family. Their contributions and legacy were multiplied by the Japanese business owners that were associated with the property before and after World War II.

In 2008, the CRA/LA Intensive Historic Resources Survey Adelante Eastside Redevelopment Area identified the residence (2508 East First Street) as an eligible historic resource for its association with the Queen Anne style and culture of late 19th/early 20th century residential architecture. In addition, SurveyLA's Los Angeles Citywide Historic Context Statement: Japanese Americans in Los Angeles identified the commercial building (2504-2506 1/2 East First Street) as an eligible historic resource for being the longterm location of a business important to the commercial identify of Boyle Heights.

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

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