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Hog Wild : Roaring Into Conservative Little Tokyo, a Japanese Businessman's Harley-Davidson Shop Is Turning Heads

September 25, 1994|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suenori Takayama was born to be wild.

The "Easy Rider" movie buff and motorcycle enthusiast from Kyoto, Japan, gave Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo an offbeat look with the recent opening of a Harley-Davidson shop.

Takayama, who owns two Harleys and a dealership in Kyoto, said he decided to expand his business to Little Tokyo in hopes of drawing not only Japanese tourists, but the Downtown business crowd as well.

"I want to have more Japanese people in Japan ride Harleys," the 39-year-old businessman said through an interpreter by phone from Japan.

Takayama also sees his shop, Gem USA, as a way to develop friendships with and welcome American bikers or motorcycle hobbyists.

Surrounded by clothing stores, sushi restaurants and a bakery, the dealership stands out in the plaza like a Harley on the freeway.

Neon lights with the company name and an "Easyriders" logo decorate the front window of the store. Harley cruisers are on display inside, and leather jackets line the side walls.

Gem USA also sells motorcycle parts and accessories and biker souvenirs, such as T-shirts and stickers. A permit to sell Harleys is pending approval from the Department of Motor Vehicles, employees said.

The shop's unusual location at 335 E.

2nd St., in the heart of Little Tokyo, has caught the eyes of some customers.

"It seemed strange, but interesting," Howard Gantman, press deputy to Councilwoman Rita Walters, said about his first visit there. "I guess it fits in that whole theme of selling Americana items to tourists who come in from Japan."

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Chinatown resident and ex-Harley rider Don Toy dropped by after some of his biker friends told him about Gem USA.

"It's kind of weird," Toy said. "Normally, shops like that would not be in Little Tokyo's Japanese Village Plaza."

That's true, said Tom Kurai, spokesman for the plaza.

Plaza managers had debated whether to take the unprecedented step of renting out available space to a Harley-Davidson shop in Little Tokyo, Kurai said.

"We had visions of Hell's Angels coming down here," he said. "In Little Tokyo, being a conservative community, we have your old guard, second-generation (Japanese) who've been here 30 to 40 years. What would they think if we opened such a shop?"

Takayama's carefree, biker image didn't help, either.

"When Mr. Takayama first approached us, he looked like a typical biker--long hair, jeans and T-shirt," Kurai said. "We were kind of like wondering what his background was, if he was credible."

In the end, plaza managers reviewed the businessman's financial statements, saw pictures of his two-story Harley dealership in Kyoto and concluded that Gem USA could attract higher-income customers from Downtown to the plaza, he said. Gem USA then took over space that had been vacated by Magic Radio, which moved across the street.

Since its Aug. 7 opening, the shop has attracted an average of 50 customers a day, said sales assistant Willi Chiao. Most have been Japanese tourists, some from other parts of Downtown and only a few bikers, Chiao said. And despite initial fears among plaza managers, there have been no problems with idle bikers loitering around the shop.

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Harley-Davidson products and biker garb have increasingly grown in popularity among the Japanese, said Gem's owner, Little Tokyo merchants and residents and motorcycle experts.

But, they said, Japanese society doesn't perceive bikers and their Harleys the same way Americans have stereotyped them--as hoodlums and rebels. In fact, a Harley-Davidson is considered a status symbol among some in Japan.

"It represents more of the Western culture to them, whereas to us it represents a certain element of our Western culture," said Keith R. Ball, editor of Easyriders magazine.

The San Fernando Valley-based publication's Easyriders motorcycle clothing and tattoo shop on Melrose Avenue has also drawn a large number of Japanese tourists seeking Western memorabilia, Ball said.

Some in the motorcycle industry in Japan consider the Harley "king of the motorcycles," said Brian Kito, who owns a pastry shop in Little Tokyo.

"They've seen Charles Bronson reruns . . . so the Harley always has that image of being cool," Kito said.

Though the motorcycle business may be slow, Takayama said he plans to ride it out for six months before reviewing whether to continue with his U.S. investment.

"This is beyond business," he said through an interpreter. "It's building a better image of American bikers."

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