Rafu Bussan: A showcase of Japanese Culture and History
by Vinh Nguyen
When I told my friend that an American guy often goes to a Japanese store to buy home decors and gifts, she looked at me as if there was nothing special to talk about. When I added that he goes there at least once a month, her eyebrow showed a gesture of curiosity but still she did not say anything. And when I said he has done so for almost 10 years, she wanted to know where it was.
Rafu Bussan triggers the curiosity and desire to explore and take a glimpse into the culture and the beauty of Japan. For those who have not known about the store before, and also for the loyal patrons who have shopped there for many years, like Darrel - the American guy I talked about, Rafu Bussan reminds you of what you have seen, read, or heard about Japan: Ikebana, Ukiyo-e, Samurai, Chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), and many more. Not only is there a collection of traditional artwork, there are also gift items showcased in the store that reflect the latest trends and tastes in Japan.
A Connection to History
Located in the heart of Little Tokyo, Rafu Bussan is attached to a part of the history of the Japanese Americans in Southern California. Yukio Tanaka and Junichi Onishi, the two original owners, started their business in Gardena before the Second World War. The name is a combination of the words "ra" from the old Chinese name for Los Angeles, "Rashogiri" and "fu" meaning prefecture. They added the Japanese word for an emporium, "bussan".
During the Second World War, their business experienced a hiatus when Tanaka was sent to the internment camp. After the internment ended, Tanaka and Onishi resumed their business as merchandisers traveling to Orange County, Long Beach and to the South Bay to serve the Japanese American families who returned from internment camps the daily staples such as rice, tea, Japanese canned goods, rice bowls and chopsticks. In 1958, Kiyoshi "Skip" Kawaratani and his wife, Aiko, bought Onishi's share of Rafu Bussan. Two years later, they bought Tanaka's portion and built the business to what it is today.
Originally situated on East 1st Street, Rafu Bussan, now incorporated, moved to East 2nd Street, into what used to be the Little Tokyo Movie Theater and Oka Grill. It is now a showcase of Japanese fine dinnerware, gourmet kitchenware, and fine distinctive gifts.
Unique Japanese Gifts
Rafu Bussan perpetuates the essence of Japanese culture, which is 'uniquely unique', in its merchandise. Customers come to the shop not only to see the goods being displayed here, they are also shared stories about Japanese history, about a specific geographical area in this Land of the Rising Sun, or about the craftsmanship talents behind the art pieces. Thus, they are not buying just the products, but also the knowledge about the rich history and craftmanship behind what it took to create the items. "I always feel obliged to tell my friends the values of the gifts I give them. And I can only do so when I come to Rafu Bussan. I see the value not in terms of the amount I have to pay, but the knowledge I get. And I appreciate and feel proud of what I am buying." Darrel talked passionately as he showed me around different glass and mirrored shelves lined with Arita-ware from Kyushu, Hakata dolls, Shigaraki vases and Iwachu teapots. I had a feeling that he was the manager of this store, not a customer.
Celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2008, Rafu Bussan today has many things to offer: a variety of home or gift items, a feast for the eyes, knowledge about Japanese culture, a feeling of being home, or having a shopping trip in Japan...come and discover your own reason to return to this distinctive boutique.
Rafu Bussan, Inc. is located at 326 East 2nd Street in Little Tokyo. Store hours: Monday through Friday - 9:30 am to 6:00 pm. Saturday and Sunday - 10:30 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Wednesday. There are four seasonal sales a year offering discounts from 20% to 50% off selected items. A bridal registry service is offered for new couples. Call 213.614.1181 for more information.
Vinh is a summer intern from Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics' Leadership in Action Program. Visit her blog, Little Tokyo: Terra Incognita for her experiences and reflections of Little Tokyo.