LA’s last Japanese guest house is safe for now

For nearly a century, Japanese immigrants have lived in the East Hollywood boarding house.

In the heyday of the house, about 30 men left every day for jobs as gardeners or labourers, returning for communal meals where they could converse in their native language.

Now only seven remain, renting spartan rooms furnished with a single bed and small desk while worrying about their future under new ownership in a gentrifying neighborhood, with Sqirl and other hipster eateries a few blocks away.

Nobuharu Hamakawa is an East Hollywood tenant that has served as a boarding house and employment agency for Japanese immigrants.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

This month, the Los Angeles City Council approved the home at 564 N. Virgil Ave. designated as a historical-cultural monument, which would prevent, but not exclude, the possibility of demolition.

The owner is renovating the house, which is permitted under the new destination. He says he has offered rooms to the tenants in a neighboring building for the $400 to $500 a month they pay.

But the men – mostly older singles without children – are still afraid of being forced to relocate. They would have a hard time finding the deal they have now as old rent-controlled tenants.

“I have nowhere else to go,” said Sho Yoneha, 83, a retired dishwasher and gardener who has lived in the house for three decades, while having lunch with his roommates last year. “Every day I am filled with fear and frustration with the reality that I have nothing.”

The two-story clapboard house with peeling cream paint has a recessed front porch and a rectangular facade that wouldn’t look out of place in an old western.

With 23 rooms and a handful of tenants, a lot is empty. According to Lindsay Mulcahy, a member of the LA Tenants Union and a former Hollywood Heritage consultant, it is the last Japanese boarding house still operating in the city.

Four other former guest houses still stand but are no longer inhabited by Japanese immigrants, says Mulcahy, who represents the tenants.

James Niimi stands in a doorway in a dark building

Born in Hawaii and brought to the mainland in 1957, James Niimi has lived at the guest house since the early 1980s. He is one of the few tenants who speaks fluent English.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Developer Matt Mehdizadeh purchased the Virgil Avenue guest house in February 2021. The home was advertised as “an excellent development opportunity for investors seeking strong rental rates in booming demand.”

Mehdizadeh said he offered up to $20,000 to anyone who agreed to move.

“I offered them what they wanted,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s what the tenants wanted that made sense.”

Mehdizadeh has removed most of the historic windows as part of a renovation that will allow him to rent each room for about $800 a month. This will provide more affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood, he said.

He characterized his offer to provide rooms to the old tenants in a renovated building next door, for the rent they are now paying, as generous.

“No landlord in LA history has offered to move tenants… into a brand new unit without raising their rent, so who’s the good guy here, who’s the bad guy, I don’t know,” he said.

Nobuharu Hamakawa in his room in the guest house.

Nobuharu Hamakawa in his room in the guest house.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

But the tenants are skeptical about the offer.

“Matt never explains the greater meaning,” says Hidetoshi Shibao, 77, who came to California in the early 1970s and worked as a gardener and bus driver. “What is his intention with this place?”

James Niimi, who has lived in the house since the early 1980s, has a hard time trusting Mehdizadeh.

Born in Hawaii, Niimi is one of the few tenants who is fluent in English.

He came to the mainland in 1957 after graduating from high school, where he earned a living doing all kinds of odd jobs: selling magazine subscriptions, sending junk mail, cutting meat.

When Niimi first moved in, he paid $90 a month. Now, as the longest-standing tenant, his rent is about $400.

“It’s a safe place to live for the elderly,” said Niimi, 83, who is retired. Mehdizadeh “offered money to many people. I said to him: ‘You need to talk to my lawyer’… I don’t want to be left with the short straw.”

The men didn’t come to California with much. All these decades later, they still don’t have much. Many are retired and live on social security.

Hideo Suetake arrived in the US at the age of 26, intending to study for a year and go home. In the end, he stayed, cycling through various jobs, including cooking at a sushi and tempura bar.

He eventually lost contact with his family in Japan. Now in his 70s, he works as a hotel clerk in Little Tokyo.

His room on the first floor contains everything he owns – drawers full of clothes, a fan, cups and mugs piled on a small desk.

    Hideo Suetake drinks soup

Hideo Suetake arrived in the US at the age of 26, intending to study for a year and go home. Now in his 70s, he works as a hotel clerk in Little Tokyo.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

In the 1910s and 1920s, East Hollywood was a center of Japanese life.

Sukesaka and Tsuya Ozawa had a farm and lived on Virgil. In 1924 they built the guest house next to their house.

The Ozawas—mainly daughters-in-law Shizuka and Doris—cooked three meals a day for the whole house. They hosted community festivals and made the tenants, many of whom had no relatives in the US, feel at home, said Susan Ozawa, the great-granddaughter of Sukesaka and Tsuya.

The guest house also served as an employment agency, as discrimination prevented many Japanese from working independently.

During World War II, the Ozawas were among more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were forced into detention camps by the United States government.

After two years at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, the Ozawas returned to Virgil Avenue. They had entrusted their property to a Presbyterian minister, who paid the tax for them. Unlike many Japanese Americans, they were able to rebuild their old lives.

In the post-war years, the guest house was a reunion site and an anchor for the community.

It was a “will to survive,” to “work hard and take care of each other,” Susan Ozawa said.

The Ozawas were active in the wider Japanese community, with Sukesaka Ozawa funding what is now known as the Hollywood Japanese Cultural Institute and supporting the Hollywood Judo Dojo program.

After the family sold the property in 1980, Japanese men continued to live there.

For a while, the next owners were Japanese-American. A member of the Ozawa family taught them how to prepare Japanese dishes, Mulcahy said.

Nobuharu Hamakawa and Hideo Suetake wash the dishes after a meal

Nobuharu Hamakawa, front, and Hideo Suetake clean up after a meal at the guest house.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Now the time when the landlord put hot meals on the table is long gone.

Most other Japanese left East Hollywood a long time ago. Even in Little Tokyo, Gardena and Sawtelle, there are fewer immigrants whose first language is Japanese.

Every Saturday, Shibao heads to the Islamic Center of Southern California to pick up free fresh produce, fish and meat, and canned goods.

The housemates often eat together. They share a few communal bathrooms, as well as a kitchen with metal shelving stocked with soy sauce, cane sugar, canned ground pork, chicken noodle soup, and copies of the Japan Times.

Hidetoshi Shibao, one of the current tenants of a building in East Hollywood.

Hidetoshi Shibao, 77, came to California in the early 1970s, where he worked as a gardener and bus driver. He is skeptical of the owner’s officer moving the lodgers to an adjacent building for the same rent.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

This winter the tenants were without heating. They kept warm with blankets and jackets brought in by the LA Tenants Union. Last month the stove broke and members of the community brought them food.

Mehdizadeh said he repaired the heater shortly after being informed of the problem and plans to replace the heater.

Meanwhile, with the help of community organizations that found pro bono advocates and held narrative events to raise awareness, the historical-cultural designation application made its way through city agencies.

The approval of the designation by the city council on June 10 will allow city officials to postpone demolition for up to a year as they look for ways to preserve the building – amounting to a temporary reprieve.

Despite the grueling, precarious lives they led, the men say this country has treated them well.

“Some people have bad mouths America, but in reality it is a good country,” said Yoneha, who came to the US on a whim from Okinawa 50 years ago. “When it comes to community service, America is number 1.”

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