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https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/5/7/mr-ramen/

Same Place, New Face: 30 Years of Mr. Ramen

Little Tokyo celebrates 140 years this year. As the second-oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles, Little Tokyo has seen it all.

For some, it’s a place where they grew up, for others simply a place to eat, to meet friends, to celebrate Obon, to learn the Japanese language, to learn more about Japanese American history — the list is endless.

Brothers Yudai Sakuma, Eugene Sakuma and Ryusei Yamamoto, owners of the Little Tokyo legacy small business Mr. Ramen.

For Ryusei Yamamoto, Yudai Sakuma, and Eugene Sakuma, the three brothers who own legacy small business Mr. Ramen, it’s all those things. 

Mr. Ramen was founded in 1993 by the brothers’ parents. Their father, Shinobu Sakuma, started as a chef in Japan with formal training. Ryusei remembers his father had wanted to open a French restaurant, but in the ’90s, his father didn’t think a French restaurant run by a Japanese chef would be able to succeed.

So instead, he fell back on the formal training he had gained in Japan and brought his secret recipes to Little Tokyo, where he opened one of two ramen restaurants in the neighborhood at the time. Like many immigrant family businesses, the brothers grew up working in the family restaurant. Ryusei fondly remembers Yudai starting as the cleaning staff and slowly moving up to his current position as the head chef.

During the pandemic, their father suddenly and tragically passed away and the brothers were forced into an impossible situation. While grieving the death of their father, they all made the difficult decision to continue the family business together.

Ryusei making ramen.

Ryusei had to work between two jobs to provide for his family at home as well as support their father’s legacy. Yudai had to step up to become the next face of Mr. Ramen, and perfect his father’s trade. Eugene was “hired” for his first job. 

It was important to them to remain in the neighborhood they had grown up in and continue the legacy of Nikkei business ownership in Little Tokyo. Beyond that, they wanted to ensure that Little Tokyo continued to be the Little Tokyo of their childhood.

For three kids that grew up in the neighborhood, Little Tokyo was where the businesses, patrons, temples, museums, historic sites, and visitors were in community with each other.

Ryusei fondly remembers, “When we were growing up here, neighboring businesses were always sharing with each other. This business next door needs some rice, ‘No problem, I got you.’ It doesn’t matter if you had to help the other because it all comes back to you. I was told by my parents, be humble because when you go up the mountain, the people you meet, you’re going to meet them on the way down. So that’s a lesson I learned growing up in Little Tokyo.”

Ryusei Yamamoto (left) with Darin Maki of CRFT. The First Street North neighbors are collaborating on a special T-shirt to celebrate Mr. Ramen’s 30th anniversary.

Now he shares that same mentality with his next-door neighbor Darin Maki, founder of CRFT by Maki, with whom he’s struck a deep friendship. CRFT by Maki moved in next door to Mr. Ramen two months before the pandemic lockdowns hit. Since then, they’ve been able to celebrate their wins together and tough it out through the hardships.

They both grew up in the community, going to Japanese school in the neighborhood, attending boy scouts, and participating in other activities like karate and judo. Darin shares that they treat each other like family. When Mr. Ramen opens their shop before he does, they’ll sweep his side of the sidewalk too. 

Darin, Yudai, Ryusei, and Eugene represent a cohort of newer business owners (but long-time community members) in Little Tokyo, ready to take on the roles and responsibilities that come with living up to the legacies of the owners that came before them. And they do this as many long-time neighborhood businesses shutter their doors for the last time or are being displaced out of Little Tokyo.

Even 20 years ago there were hundreds of Japanese American-owned small businesses in the area, and now these two neighbors are some of the last small businesses left in the community.

Darin, Yudai, Ryusei, and many of the staff members at Mr. Ramen often ride through the streets of Little Tokyo on their motorcycles after work. Riding bikes is a hobby the Mr. Ramen boys inherited from their late mom, and that Darin is now a part of as a member of their extended family. 

In 2023, Mr. Ramen began the celebration of its 30th anniversary. 2023 was also Yudai’s 30th birthday and the brothers hope this is just the beginning of many many more milestones in Little Tokyo.

As a Little Tokyo Ambassador assigned to Mr. Ramen through the Little Tokyo Service Center legacy business community engagement program, I had the unique opportunity to learn the behind-the-scenes of Mr. Ramen. There are many reasons why Mr. Ramen’s story has stayed with me.

When I was in my teens, I don’t think I was fully able to grasp what Little Tokyo and the Japanese American community meant to me. Now that I’m an adult and am able to start appreciating it for all of its history and culture, I realize how special it is to me.

And at the same time it feels like it’s slipping through my fingers. Little Tokyo has seen so many shops come and go, it’s seen so many families come and go too. And despite everything, for 30 years Mr. Ramen has made its mark. Now in 2024, flanked by Japanese restaurant groups, they continue to thrive as the last family-owned and operated ramen shop on historic First Street.

Change feels like a constant in Los Angeles. The city seems to always shift and expand and retract and reinvent and restore and just change. Even though Little Tokyo has remained a staple of the changing Los Angeles landscape, it’s seen more change in the past few years than one community should have to bear.

In the past three months alone, half a dozen legacy businesses have been permanently closed or been displaced, including Shabu Shabu House, Anzen Hardware, Suehiro Cafe, Little Tokyo Arts & Gifts, and Shop Ashiya. These small businesses alone have a combined history of over 300 years.

Our community has grieved a lot this year. There has been so much loss in the past few years. COVID has taken a lot from the community but so has gentrification. 

“I think it’s my mission now to give the next generation the exposure to the culture and the love of that culture that I was given. It’s my turn to turn it over to those who need it,” says Ryusei.

For the Mr. Ramen brothers, the ownership transition was a challenging four years, but handing over the family business or shuttering their doors permanently was never an option. 

Community doesn’t just exist; it’s not something that happens overnight. It exists because people like the Mr. Ramen brothers give hours and hours of their personal time, pouring their hearts out into this special place. It’s a constant fight for Little Tokyo’s right to exist but that’s the Japanese American spirit, that’s our gaman to sustain Little Tokyo.

As someone who was born and raised here, I’m still navigating my place in Little Tokyo as the community faces so much adversity, but standing on the sidelines is not an option for me.

When you imagine Little Tokyo 30 years from now, what does it look like? 

When I imagine the Little Tokyo of the future, it’s somewhere I take my kids to eat at Mr. Ramen and say hi to Ryusei and Yudai after their basketball game at Terasaki Budokan. It’s where I get my Christmas presents for friends and family at CRFT by Maki, Rafu Bussan, and Bunkado. It’s where I will still be volunteering with small businesses for their marketing efforts. And it’s where I celebrate Obon, dancing and eating through the summer with friends and family at Nishi and Higashi. 

I vehemently reject further displacement of our community and I’ve made it my mission to keep Little Tokyo as a place for our community to exist, grow, and thrive. I hope for our sake and for the sake of Little Tokyo that we’re all able to figure out our place in helping it to continue. 

 

*This article was originally published in The Rafu Shimpo on February 22, 2024.

 

© 2024 Megan Yasuda

business California communities economics families food gentrification Japanese food Little Tokyo Los Angeles management Mr. Ramen (restaurant) noodles ramen restaurants small business United States urban renewal
About the Author

Megan Yasuda is a 3rd generation Japanese and Chinese American, born and raised in Los Angeles. She’s currently a volunteer for the Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Program where she’s able to lend her experience as a marketing professional to supporting legacy businesses and a community she cares deeply for. In her free time you can find her shopping at Bunkado where her great grandmother used to work, eating at Azay and studying Ikebana at Zenshuji.

Updated May 2024

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