I know that for many, Little Tokyo is more than just a tourist spot. It’s a safe space for Japanese people to gather and participate in community activities and building. If a Japantown is supposed to be a safe space for Japanese people, then Japanese markets are my Japantown.

Growing up, I was never immersed in Japanese culture. My mom and grandma did their best to teach me what they knew about what it meant to be part of the Japanese American community, but I was never surrounded by other Japanese kids.

I grew up in Orange County, just on the outskirts of LA County, and now live in Berkeley, which is in the perfectly close proximity of both San Francisco and San Jose. This means that for my entire life, I have never been more than 2 hours away from any one of the three remaining Japantowns in the United States. Now that I’m up North, I try to go to SF Japantown at least once a month, and I’ve participated in events like Day of Remembrance and the Cherry Blossom Festival. However, for the first seventeen years of my life when I lived in OC, I could probably count the amount of times I visited Little Tokyo on my hands.

The reason my family rarely goes to Little Tokyo isn’t because we don’t like it. In fact, I would argue that we love it. The main reason is that my mom despises LA traffic and avoids its chaotic yet completely unmoving nature at all costs. So when I say I can count the times I visited Little Tokyo on my hands, I really mean that I can probably count the amount of times I visited LA on my hands, too.

Onigiri section in Costa Mesa Tokyo Central (Alicia Tan).

We don’t go to Little Tokyo for community or to meet other Japanese people. Whenever we go to Little Tokyo, I feel like a tourist, stepping into a deeply enriched culture that I’ve never truly been a part of. We admire the decorations and architecture, drool over the mouth-watering Japanese food, and shop till we practically drop dead. But I know that’s not what Japantowns are supposed to mean for Japanese Americans. 

I know that for many, Little Tokyo is more than just a tourist spot. It’s a safe space for Japanese people to gather and participate in community activities and building. They are vessels for family owned restaurants and homemade shops pioneered by Japanese hands to thrive and grow.

I never felt like part of that community whenever I visited Little Tokyo, simply because I was rarely there. However, as I said before, my mom still taught me to love being Japanese American. Instead of making the treacherous journey to Little Tokyo more than once a year, she opted to take me to one of my favorite places on the planet: Japanese markets.

If a Japantown is supposed to be a safe space for Japanese people, then Japanese markets are my Japantown. Every time I walk through the sliding doors of a Mitsuwa or Nijiya, I feel at home. It sounds a little silly to say that a grocery store helped me feel comfortable with and confident about my cultural identity, but it’s true. For as long as I can remember, my mom has been taking my brother and I to Japanese markets, letting us pick out fresh sushi and snacks for school, showing us her favorite Japanese foods and toys, and buying fresh ingredients for a delicious Japanese dinner. Even though there were no more than 5 other Japanese kids in my grade throughout elementary school, I felt like I could tell people “I’m Japanese” without feeling like a fraud. Going to the Japanese market cured any form of imposter syndrome I ever could have experienced because I am Japanese, and I love being able to say that.

Mom, brother, and I after going to Tokyo Central during my Spring Break (Alicia Tan)

This one goes out to the Japanese grocery stores that were the object of all my childhood whimsy and affections. To that little potato man on the Sapporo Potato Tsubutsubu bag who’s always wagging his finger back and forth at me. To the mentaiko onigiri that filled my belly and gave me a constant hankering for fish eggs. To the Mitsuwa food courts that showed me a food court could have so much more than a mediocre Panda Express or Burger King. To the toys and household gadgets that have uses for things I didn’t even think I needed. To the aisles upon aisles of culture that made me feel wholly Japanese. To my mom who despite her hatred for all things traffic based, wanted me to love who I am. And most of all, this goes out to all my other Japanese Americans who never felt like they were truly a part of the Japanese community. Sometimes you can find love for your culture in the crossroads of your suburban neighborhood, tucked between the freezer and rice aisle of your favorite grocery store.

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