Alice Uchi slowly pushed a near-empty shopping cart down the near-empty aisles flanked by near-empty shelves in what had been the first and largest modern Japanese supermarket in Little Tokyo.
"I feel lost. Sad," the retired Los Angeles registered nurse said glumly.
Uchi was catching the tail end of Mitsuwa Marketplace's 50% fire sale before it prepares Sunday to shut its doors, marking an emotional transition for many in Little Tokyo. Last year, a group of six ethnic Korean investors purchased the property, part of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center at 3rd and Alameda streets, for $35 million. The group plans to recast the market with more Korean, Chinese and American products in addition to Japanese ones.
The change reflects the rapidly diversifying demographics in Little Tokyo -- most prominently, the growing Korean influx into the historic heart of Southern California's Japanese American community. Ethnic Koreans have moved into the neighborhood as shopkeepers, running frozen yogurt stores, pharmacies and sushi restaurants, and as residents in both the new condos and historic senior housing complexes such as Little Tokyo Towers. As a mark of the shift, Korean-language newspaper stands are now scattered throughout the neighborhood.
Many see the change as inevitable -- but not without pangs of nostalgia and regret.
"There is some regret in seeing Japanese businesses change and others come in, because it is Little Tokyo," said Chris Aihara, who heads the Little Tokyo Community Council. "But the change is something we have to embrace, use to build a strong community and move forward."
Young S. Cho, a 48-year-old Los Angeles garment manufacturer and one of the market's new co-owners, said his group would respect the area's historic ethnic traditions and retain, even enhance, the center's Japanese design elements. But he said the neighborhood's growing diversity offered an opportunity for a supermarket with a broader focus.
"This is America," said Cho, a Seoul native who immigrated to the United States at age 10. "Now everyone lives in Little Tokyo -- Koreans, Americans, Japanese, Chinese -- and they don't have a lot of places to go shopping."
For much of its 24 years, the supermarket stood as a symbol of Little Tokyo's boom times, when the Japanese were flush with cash and invested millions in the neighborhood. One of their first joint projects was the three-floor, 300,000-square-foot shopping center and its flagship supermarket. The mall was built by Japanese American developer Albert Taira in partnership with the U.S. real estate arm of Obayashi Fudosan of Japan. The supermarket was operated first by Japan-based Yaohan and then Mitsuwa Marketplace.
Long before tofu and sushi became common items in California supermarkets, the Little Tokyo market was the biggest game in town for Japanese shoppers. They flocked to the market for bean paste and burdock root, Japanese-brand rice cookers and Japanese-language rental videos. On the second floor, the market sold Japanese furniture, clothing, electronics and other goods, offering shoppers a chance to see the latest products from the motherland.
Friends ran into friends at the market, sharing the latest swatch of gossip or a bowl of noodles at the Sakura restaurant inside the establishment. The market reconnected the Japanese with their traditional celebrations, selling herring roe and black beans for New Year's, displaying pink and green rice snacks for Girls' Day, featuring festivals celebrating the food of different regions in Japan.
At one time, the mall included a bowling alley, Japanese bookstore and movie theater, providing gathering spots for people such as Nobuaki and Koko Kimoto of Temple City. The couple, shopping for Mitsuwa bargains Wednesday, said they used to come to the mall two or three times a week to rent Japanese-language videos; pick up ramen, curry and miso; go bowling; and browse through the latest books and magazines from Japan.
Not only Japanese Americans lamented Mitsuwa's closure. Yi Li Sung, a 35-year-old Chinese American court interpreter, said she came to shop at least once a month for Japanese-brand coffee and "little girlie things" like eyebrow shapers. She and her family also buy Japanese when looking for rice cookers, water heaters and other electronics, she said.
"A lot of my Chinese friends shopped here because of the variety of products and their freshness," Sung said as she looked through a picked-over pile of light bulbs, cat food, bath salts and brownie mix. "The prices are not always the cheapest. But we feel the Japanese stand by their quality."
To Uchi, the retired nurse, Mitsuwa's closure marks more than the loss of a supermarket -- after all, she said, Little Tokyo still has two other Japanese markets, Marukai in Weller Court and Nijiya in the Japanese Village Plaza. Rather, it stirred in her a deep sadness to see the community's abandonment of such a major project of the Issei and Nisei, the first- and second-generation pioneers.