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

Otomisan Japanese Restaurant

Otomisan Japanese Restaurant located 2506½ East First Street is housed in a rare 1920s streetcar commercial building along East First Street in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. 

Built by Ryohei Nishiyama, the single-story 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 and initially housed a confectionary and later a Japanese restaurant.

 

 

 

 

Ryohei Nishiyama was born in Shizuoka, Japan in 1887. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1906. In 1914, he married Koto Ishikawa who would join him in America later that year. The couple had three sons: Miki born in 1915, Hideki born in 1919, and Takeo born in 1924.

In 1924, J. Taniguchi was contracted to build a one-story commercial building in front of the Nishiyama residence. Within a few months, the residence, which had originally fronted East First Street, was moved to the rear (south) property line. 

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. In the same year, Masunaga added a small sleeping room behind his barbershop. Through the early 1950s, the commercial building housed a neighborhood grocery store and barbershop.

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 their property during the war. In time, they continued to develop it in the 1940s and 1950s, creating a third storefront to the commercial building at 2504-2506½ East First Street, which housed 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 ½ East First Street in 1956. The restaurant has had three owners: the Seto Family (1956 to early 1970s), the Seino Family (early 1970s to 2005), and Yayoi Watanabe (2005 to present). 

Otemo Sushi Cafe’s original owners, Toshiro and Yetsuko Seto, were born in Northern California; Toshiro in San Francisco in 1915 and Yetsuko in Ukiah in 1914. In the 1950s, Patsy Duncan, who grew up two blocks away from Otemo Sushi Cafe at 2520 East Third Street (1895), 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 sold the business to Akira and Tomi Seino, who changed the name to Otomisan. Shortly after the death of Ryohei Nishiyama's eldest son Miki in 2000, the Nishiyama Family sold the property to the Seino Family. When Akira Seino passed away, Otomisan closed for six months. Yayoi Watanabe, a Boyle Heights resident and owner of a nearby dry cleaning business on 4th and Fresno streets, convinced Tomi Seino to sell the restaurant to her. Watanabe did not want Otomisan to suffer the same fate as Fuji Cafe, another longstanding Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights that disappeared after one of its owners died.

Otomisan remains largely unchanged since the days of Otemo Sushi Cafe, according to longtime residents. The cozy interior includes three red button tufted booths and a short counter with five stools. Built-in wood cabinets and the cash register could be found behind the counter. A doorway beyond the counter leads to a small kitchen where traditional Japanese homestyle meals are cooked for eager customers. 

 
 

Otomisan Japanese Restaurant represents 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 commercial building has been in use since the 1920s, housing a number of neighborhood-serving businesses, which historically catered to the local Japanese community and in more recent decades to the Latinx and broader community. Open since 1956, Otomisan Japanese Restaurant (formerly Otemo Sushi Cafe) is the last remaining Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood and believed to be one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. 

Photo by M. Rosalind Sagara/L.A. Conservancy

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