L.A.'s Sawtelle Neighborhood Has a New Name, and It's Not Little Osaka

The community known as Sawtelle, or West L.A. proper, has a new name. And it's not the moniker Little Osaka, which newbies have ascribed to the area that's rife with Asian eats. 

It's Sawtelle Japantown.

The Los Angeles City Council recently unanimously approved a community petition to name the area Sawtelle Japantown. It's also traditionally known as Sawtelle, West Los Angeles and, to some, Little Osaka.

Ted Tanaka of the Sawtelle Japantown Association, which has been campaigning for the name since last year, says the change is about recognizing the area's history as a hub for Japanese-Americans.

"It's a broad-based, historical commemoration of our ancestors settling Sawtelle 100 years ago," said the 76-year-old Tanaka, who told us he was born and raised in the community. "It's in recognition of the fact that they were some of the first settlers to Sawtelle Boulevard. My dad was one of those who came to Fourth Street, or Sawtelle Boulevard, when it was a dirt road."

Sawtelle (named for developer W.E. Sawtelle) was established as a city in 1899 and was home to the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, established for veterans of the Civil War. In 1922 the town was annexed by the City of L.A.

Today's official boundaries include Santa Monica Boulevard to the north (it could be argued that Ohio Avenue or even Wilshire Boulevard would be more apropos, given the historic community structures north of Santa Monica, including University High School and the Veterans Affairs' West Los Angeles Medical Center), Pico Boulevard to the south, Centinela Avenue to the west and the 405 freeway to the east.

At the turn of the century, Japanese immigrants settled there because other communities, including Westwood, Bel-Air and Brentwood, excluded minorities. A letter written by local City Councilman Mike Bonin supports the name change and notes the following:

Japanese-Americans began arriving in Los Angeles in the 1890s, with many fleeing anti-Asian persecution in San Francisco. ... In the 1920s, cultural, community and religious organizations like the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple and United Methodist Church formed to support this vital community.

Japanese businesses, including nurseries (there are still about four left), eateries and even lawnmower repair shops, some of them now just empty storefronts, established Sawtelle Boulevard as the community's main drag.

Tanaka says Latino families settled in the neighborhood early on, too. "We shared the flatlands with Mexican-Americans," he said.

The local gang, Sotel, a name that is a cognate of Sawtelle, has been around since at least the 1950s.

Foodies have flocked to the area in the last decade or so, thanks to dazzling, Jonathan Gold–approved sushi and an infusion of outside Asian culinary influences, often Korean and Vietnamese.

But the name that newcomers brought to the community, Little Osaka, was kind of a joke to locals. Tanaka says he knew of two businesses, both relatively new to Sawtelle, that used the term in their advertising. One of them is now closed, he said.

"It was a marketing name," he said. "The community had nothing to do with people from Osaka. Somebody just pulled that name out of their rear pocket."

Thankfully, Little Osaka is officially in the past.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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