Japangeles is a recognizable brand name in the Japanese-American community and even here in Southern California. Whether it is your friend wearing a sweatshirt, sporting the iconic bag or sticker, or passing by the store in the Little Tokyo Village Plaza, Japangeles has become an integral part of being a young Japanese-American through unique cultural blends of both Japan and Los Angeles. The various products– t-shirts to hats to hoodies– make a statement about who you are and connect one another.
In this two part article series, stories of Japangeles, from business to community, will be shared about the well-known company we have grown to know. This first part will highlight the background and business of the company and how pursuing passions and dreams can take one on a whole new journey.
I had the opportunity to sit down for a Q&A session with Roy Kuroyanagi, the Sansei founder and owner of Japangeles, about the business and his own personal experiences starting and growing brand.
Roy recalls his earliest memories of Little Tokyo with his grandfather. While babysat by his grandfather, the two would spend time volunteering at the Keiro home. “After, we would go to Little Tokyo and have lunch and grab the Japanese newspaper, go pick up produce, grab fresh tofu, go to the jewelry store and the bank.” Roy explained that Little Tokyo was a routine visit with his grandfather. These special memories of Little Tokyo have connected Roy to the place. “I've been going to Little Tokyo for a very long time so I've definitely seen through the decades the changes.” Roy’s deep connection to Little Tokyo has brought together the essence in the brand, stemming from the earliest experiences and leading to the creation of a Southern California identity.
Japangeles is a unique brand because it combines two cultures: Japanese and Los Angeles. Roy had always wanted to have a clothing brand and Japangeles was the third try. Inspiration for the designs was seen through the merge of these two backgrounds. Roy told me, “I wanted to express more of my culture and my city. During that time, I felt like there wasn't really any kind of cool clothing that you can wear on the streets that kind of represents who you are, who I was and what I loved.” Through the idea of streetwear and reflecting his identity, the name came naturally by combining the two and the creation of one of the most iconic Japangeles designs, the “Nihon LA” which is the Nihon in kanji(日本) with the LA overlay.
The growth from Japangeles has been a long journey for Roy. If you didn’t know, Japangeles first started with a kiosk in the Japanese Village Plaza for 5 years. During that time, the name was not widely recognized and so Roy and the team had to prove themselves through their creative and unique graphics showcasing Japanese culture with an LA twist. Starting off selling shirts at various events and fairs and bearing through the hot, rain, and cold of the kiosk, they were eventually able to move to the current store when the business started growing exponentially. When reflecting back upon where they are now, Roy said “we're at the point now where we're collaborating with global brands like Lexus, Kirin and Sanrio so we’ve been literally doubling every year. We're so blessed and honored to have been part of that experience.” Since its humble beginnings, Japangeles has definitely what many might say “made it,” persevering through challenges and maturing and pivoting as a brand.
Known for only having an in-person store in Little Tokyo Japanese Village Plaza and no website to shop for their products, Japangeles has intrigued many. While this might seem to be an uncommon business model in the modern age of technology and digital interactions, Roy’s vision for Japangeles and significance of their products reflects the special sacrifice they have made and the mark they wish to make on the Little Tokyo community. “We don't have an online store and the reason for that is, we want to bring people to the community of Little Tokyo. We know you can get anything online. In this day and age, you can be on the other side of the world and get something online. We kind of wanted to go against the trend, and we want to just stick to our roots and stick to giving our customers a more traditional brick and mortar experience ” explained Roy. To Japangeles, each time you visit the store and leave with a product, there are other memories that are associated with your visit to Japangeles. Whether you stop by for a imagawayaki after or visit Fugetsu-do, the Japangeles product you got will always remind you of your trip. In a way, Roy compared it to concert merchandise or omiyage, making it more than just a t-shirt or hat and rather a way to remember Little Tokyo. “Really, we felt that there needs to be more meaning attached to every garment that you wear. It needs to be uniquely you, it needs to express who you are and it needs to have special memories with getting it. Then you’ll have more of an attachment to it” and Japangeles does exactly that. By wearing Japangeles, those who recognize the dual identities and the product becomes more meaningful. Although a different concept, the lack of an online store has impacted the Little Tokyo community and those who visit by providing them with memories. “I think it really makes sense. I think we have become known for that, going against the grain and being different and it has become a part of our story, so I think it really worked for us.”
For those looking to become an entrepreneur of their own brand, Roy offered some insightful advice into overcoming challenges and finding confidence. “I talked to a lot of people that they're starting clothing brands every day and I just tell them to do things from the heart. That, I know, sounds cliche but just do what makes you happy. Design what you like, don't do it because a brand is hot.” Often when entrepreneurs start off, it is easy to get discouraged. However, he emphasized how there are many resources and friends and family to support you, even when you face the biggest challenge: finding customers beyond.
In addition to persevering through possible challenges, there is more to the business than just the brand, according to Roy. “It's more of the story of the brand. It's more of the person behind it. If they like you, they like your story and they like your vision, they're gonna support.” I think Japangeles is one of the best examples of this. As a brand that is smaller, and more niche, many identify with the brand, even if they are not Japanese. This shared identity and story behind the clothing makes the vision, goals, and success of Japangeles even more meaningful to the customer.
If you look on the Japangeles instagram, you will notice that there are lots of famous celebrities, with their Japangeles merch, taking a picture in the store. You can find Simu Liu from Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Olympic athletes like Sakura Kokumai, and many others. As someone who recognizes these celebrities that come to the store, I asked Roy how he feels and what those customers mean to him, recognizing the reach of his brand. “It's an honor to have people of that kind of magnitude come to the store because you know there's a lot of people that like to give celebrities a lot of free stuff but, having the actual celebrity come to you is something else.” The power of Japangeles to attract these celebrities to the store and support the Little Tokyo community is incredible and recognizes the significance of the brand beyond the Japanese-American community.
If you are excited for some new Japangeles merchandise, Roy let me know that we can expect the spring/summer drop, a 24 hour online shop, very soon.
The story, drive, and passion for Japangeles has formulated the brand we see today. Japangeles has become more than just a name or piece of clothing. It represents specific memories, a connected story to Little Tokyo, and the community. Roy left me with some final words of advice that are applicable to anything in life. “Just never give up on your dreams and your passion. Just do what you love and people will come to you. Your customers are going to guide you through your journey.”