A high school job wasn't supposed to be a career. But for Nori Takatani, his first job in America turned out to be his lifelong devotion.
"It wasn't what I wanted to do," remembers Takatani, the owner of Anzen Hardware in Little Tokyo. "I liked to be outside for sports -- I was in track, I was in varsity football." But when he stepped inside the store in September 1954 soon after arriving in Los Angeles, he was in it for the long haul. "I've worked here ever since," Takatani says.
These days Takatani can be found keeping shop at Anzen, located on East First Street in the Little Tokyo Historic District. Filled with everything from plastic kitchen gadgets to delicate bonsai scissors, the store is difficult to categorize, despite its designation as a hardware store. The longevity of the business owes much to Takatani's singular work ethics -- never one to rely on others, he's carved a path mostly on his own. "When customers come, I believe the quality of my service will become advertisement -- that's my style," he says. "They appreciate my experience and knowledge; I enjoy serving the customers."
Perhaps those were life values he learned as a child in Hiroshima. He is a survivor -- he lived through the atomic bomb, and later lost his mother at a young age. "So my aunt -- she raised me," Takatani says. "She lost her husband from the bomb ... I was a lucky one, I survived."
Takatani came to the United States partly to relieve his aunt from financial burden, partly to escape the rigors of a Japanese education.
"My uncle lived in Morgan Hills, near San Jose, where he was doing strawberry farming," Takatani remembers. "So I wrote a letter saying that I'd like to come to the U.S. as a student. I don't know if I was lucky or unlucky, but I got a student visa. That's the main reason [I came to the U.S.] -- I didn't want my aunt to suffer financially. Besides, I didn't like to study that much."
It wasn't easy sailing for a Japanese student arriving in America, still fresh from the effects of WWII. "Maybe I shouldn't say, but right after the war I hated Americans," Takatani says, remembering that even as a young boy it angered him to see American Occupation troops arrogantly walking around town, with Japanese girlfriends in their arms.
He came close to returning home without ever setting foot in America. At the time immigration officers weren't exactly the most welcoming to the Japanese. "They asked me," he remembers, "are you a communist? No. Are you against the U.S. because of the bomb? No. I think I told them, in a certain way, that I appreciate that they dropped the bomb because it quit the war sooner."
The interrogation continued for more than 2.5 hours. "I almost said, 'send me back,'" Takatani remembers, "but if I did that I'd have felt so ashamed -- my friends already said good luck, and sent me off. So I had to gamanshite (hold my anger)."
Soon after arriving at his uncle's farm in San Jose, Takatani entered the local high school. He quit after one class -- an English class. For a student who barely understood the language, things didn't exactly go his way. After a stint as farmhand for the summer season, he headed for Los Angeles to attend classes that could help his language skills.
At Belmont High School near Echo Park, he entered a special program for non-English speakers. It wasn't long before he found a home away from home in Little Tokyo, where he soon took the job that would become a six-decade career.
Inside Anzen Hardware, once you get past the clutter of the shop's narrow aisles filled with ordinary supplies, you begin to notice things. Hand-crafted bonsai scissors, traditional tabi work socks. Many of the products are imported from Japan. In fact, Anzen currently has one of the best selections of Japanese chef's knives in the region. "We have things that only we carry," Takatani says. "We get customers from even out of state."
Amid the cacophony of colorful tools and supplies, the 74 year-old Takatani can usually be seen standing behind the counter, where a pair of vintage boxing gloves hangs. With a weathered face that resembles Takeshi Kitano in a number of Japanese tough-guy films, it's easy to sense that there's more to him than just a gentle hardware store owner.
"I love fights," he says with a smile. "There was a famous gym called Main Street Gym, between Third and Fourth -- I used to go there to watch the boxers. I was always outside the ring, I didn't fight myself. I had friends in Japan who were into boxing -- ones from Hiroshima. They would come to America wanting to do a match. So I wanted to help and arrange them. That's how I started, and then went too far, too deep."
What began as a favor turned into a winning side-career as a manager. Takatani says, proudly, "I've been lucky when it comes to boxing. Three of the boxers I've managed have become world champions."
Nori Takatani is one of the elder statesmen of the community. For the older residents, Anzen is a place of familiarity and comfort, with the reliable presence of Takatani. "Many of the elders, they can go to Home Depot now," he says, "but even if they did they wouldn't be able to find a single washer, for instance, having to ask in English, 'where can I find this washer?' For that reason, we have to keep the business for those people, for the community."
But instead of taking an active role in the community, he prefers to take a step back and offer help from outside the ring, so to speak, as the community fights to retain its legacy while it continues to evolve. He brings up the word meiyoshoku -- which roughly translates to "honorary title" -- to describe what community organizing precisely should not be.
"It shouldn't be about wanting to attain meiyoshoku," says Takatani, "but about getting everyone on board and making things better."
So why doesn't he do it himself? "I've never been one who wants to be at the top," he says. "I prefer to give support from the bottom. So if by luck there's someone at the top doing a great job, I will always be there supporting them with all of my strengths."
Takatani continues, "When we were all poor and could only speak Japanese, we started a baseball team. It's still around -- it's called the L.A. Pirates. Our team was the only one started by people from Japan. Now we've all become old and can't play anymore. But little by little we donate money to the team, and now our grand kids are playing in the same team. That's the kind of work I like to do"
His five children have showed no interest in taking over their father's business. How does Takatani feel about this? "I'm ok with it... If they decide they want to do it, by all means. I just don't want to have to keep the Anzen name going by selling the business; I'd rather donate it to the community."
But he shouldn't have to worry, as Takatani isn't ready to quit anytime soon -- he's in it for the long haul. "As long as I'm in nihonjinmachi (Japantown) I'd like to do my best for nihonjinmachi," he says. "And as long as I'm healthy, I'll be here at Anzen."
Photos by Yosuke Kitazawa.
Parts of the interview were translated from Japanese by the author.