By JOHN BRINSLEY
As the third generation of his family to operate the Fugetsu-Do confectionery in Little Tokyo, Brian Kito is intensely aware of the responsibility in running a family business that first opened in 1903 and which has survived the Depression, redevelopment and forced relocation.
He also takes pride in being a shokunin a craftsman who in this case has the ability to artistically shape dozens of traditional Japanese sweets called manju (a confection of flour, sugar and water) and mochi (made from rice, water and sometimes a little flour).
“One thing I’ve caught it sounds like a disease I’ve caught the heart of Little Tokyo, the Japanese village feeling of belonging within a community,” said the 42-year-old Kito.
The sweets, along with some packaged Japanese hard candies, lie on wooden counters behind glass in the front of the 2,500-square-foot shop. In the back, four or five people work at mixing the rice, flour and sugar, and coloring and cooking the confections that Kito shapes.
The handmade items, which sell for around 80 cents each, range from those eaten every day with tea to those made for special occasions like New Year’s, weddings and funerals.
Tetsuro Iwase, a Japanese account executive, often comes in to buy manju and mochi for his colleagues.
“They are delicious,” he said, “just like in Japan.”
But Kito isn’t sure how much longer he will continue. Recently engaged, he has no children yet to pass on the specialized craft. He is committed to keeping Fugetsu-Do going until its 100-year anniversary in 2003, and then will reevaluate his plans.
“When I took over the business, it was like taking over a child,” he said. “It is very hard. After we get to 100 years, it will be a hard call. When you’re working with your hands, artists can choose when to work and wait for inspiration to do their art. Shokunin don’t have that luxury.”
While Little Tokyo has become a repository of Japanese and Japanese-American culture, it was little more than a ghetto in 1902 when Brian’s grandfather, Seiichi Kito, arrived from Japan. He had trained as a confectioner in Tokyo with a business called Fugetsu-Do, and opened a shop with the same name the next year on First Street, not far from the store’s current location at 315 E. First St.
There he prospered, becoming one of the first Japanese Americans to own a car (a Dodge). He and his wife Tei had 12 children, some of whom didn’t survive infancy.
Tei died shortly after giving birth to Brian’s father, Roy, in 1919. Later that same year, patriarch Seiichi took three or four of his children back to Japan, and left them to live with relatives. Roy was one of them, and he didn’t return to the United States until 1935. When he did, it was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Roy set about helping in his father’s business.
“My grandfather would go on the road, selling manju,” Brian said. “He’d take the Red Car line out to Terminal Island and Boyle Heights, where a lot of Japanese lived, to sell. I’d say most Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) in L.A. were born in Boyle Heights, and they all knew my grandfather.”
In the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the U.S. entry into World War II, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were labeled security threats, stripped of their citizenship, evicted from their homes and businesses, and relocated into concentration camps. Seiichi and his family were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyo., where Roy met and married his wife, Kazuko. At the end of the war, the family returned to Los Angeles, living in the basement of the Koyasan Buddhist Temple on First Street, which still exists across the street from Fugetsu-Do.
In 1946, while Roy worked as a waiter, Seiichi managed to scrape together enough money to open a small grocery where the confectionery now operates. Roy then took over the delivery route his father had run before the war, with Terminal Island the last stop.
“If Dad didn’t show up (at Terminal Island) at the end of the day, it meant he’d had a really good sale day, and didn’t have anything left,” Brian said.
Over the next couple of years, Seiichi moved back into the manju business, before his death in 1951. When the building at 315 E. First St. was torn down and rebuilt in the mid-1950s, the business temporarily relocated to Second Street, and Roy kept that store as a warehouse when Fugetsu-Do moved back into the new building in 1956.
The next year, Brian was born. As the youngest of four children, he wasn’t expected to work in the family business the same way his older brother was. His mother actually discouraged him from going to the shop. But a problem arose.
“My brother couldn’t make manju,” Kito said, pointing out that he was clumsy in shaping the rice and other ingredients. “He tried and tried, and in a way, he’s still ashamed that he couldn’t do it. He hated the business. Actually, to tell the truth, we all hated it growing up. We didn’t think about the economic benefit. For us, it just meant Dad was away from home, at his business, working seven days a week.”
As Brian was considering what to do after he graduated from Cal State L.A. in 1980, events overtook him.
Little Tokyo had been the subject of redevelopment plans since the late 1960s. Roy Kito had started a bakery at the family’s old warehouse on Second Street, but the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency targeted the area for revitalization, using its eminent domain powers to claim all the buildings.
Brian helped lead the fight against the CRA, but lost, and the bakery business closed. The experience led Kito to become more active in the community, which influenced his decision to continue the family’s tradition.
He led the fight against redevelopers seeking to buy out the mom-and-pop stores on First Street in the mid-’80s. He remains a driving force behind the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, which patrols the area with walkie-talkies and has helped reduce neighborhood crime.
Kito formally took over the business from his father in 1986, although it was a while before Roy stopped telling his son how to run things.
“In a family-owned business, there is a transition of responsibility and authority, and the transition of responsibility comes first, without the same authority,” Kito said. His 80-year-old father has stayed in the background since 1993, but still helps during the New Year’s rush, making mochi.
Kito works at least six days a week, overseeing a staff of 16. Freshness is important: Most manju and mochi must be eaten within two days.
The sweets are delivered five days a week to the many Japanese-American communities throughout Southern California, as well as to San Jose and Salinas. Kito used to ship Fugetsu-Do’s confections to Chicago and New York, but was priced out of the market by Japanese companies shipping frozen products. As a result, the company’s revenues, about $600,000 last year and on pace to equal that amount in 1999, are about 25 percent less than a decade ago.
With New Year’s the traditional time of celebration in the Japanese community, Fugetsu-Do does about one-quarter of its total annual business in December most of that in the last two weeks of the year. Then Kito works 16 to 20 hours a day, getting very little sleep.
“To get through the New Year’s rush is so physically and mentally demanding, it’s like hell every year,” he said. “Our business is working 24 hours a day then. You can’t hire part-time shokunin, so if everything goes smoothly, I’ll sleep two hours a night.”
Core Business: Traditional Japanese confections
Employees in 1903: 3
Employees in 1999: 16
Revenue in 1989: $800,000
Revenue in 1998: $600,000
Goal: To provide traditional sweets to the Japanese-American community
Driving Force: Local Japanese Americans’ longing for authentic, handmade sweets like those sold in Japan