Silent Hollywood’s Japanese Enclave

The great silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd filmed more frequently on the 1600 block of Cahuenga south of Hollywood Boulevard than at any other street in town. Keaton alone filmed scenes for eight different movies on this block. Popular with the studios as a filming location, I’ve

View south – the 1500 block of Cahuenga from Selma to Sunset, where Cahuenga once ended. More about this view further below – LAPL

identified over 40 different silent movies staged here so far. Since most silent films are now lost, it’s likely many other productions were filmed here as well. You can read more about this historic Hollywood street HERE and HERE.

But the 1500 block of Cahuenga, between Selma and Sunset one block further south, tells another compelling story. While this street has also appeared in many silent movies, the block provides mute testimony to Japanese-American history in Los Angeles preceding World War II.

It all began with Buster Keaton’s 1921 comedy short The Goat. While fleeing the police Buster runs past a cop beside a grocery store awning that reads “JAPANESE RICE AND TEA.” One of my earliest discoveries, I found this simply by noticing the confusing and once ubiquitous “MJB Coffee – Why?” advertisement appearing in this matching vintage photo looking south down Cahuenga towards Selma. The photo reveals the grocer’s name “Toribuchi,” confirmed by vintage phone books as the Toribuchi Grocery at 1546 Cahuenga.

Originally a small church, the Toribuchi Grocery building previously served as Hollywood’s first fire station, Hose Co. No. 7. The building was converted to a grocery when the new joint fire/police station opened up the street at 1625-1629 Cahuenga in 1913. I noticed the Japanese rice and tea sign with interest, but didn’t give it much thought until I recently discovered the store also appears in Colleen Moore’s Her Bridal Nightmare (1920)(above right), filmed extensively on Cahuenga.

Click to enlarge – looking west in 1919 at the 1500 block of Cahuenga between Sunset (left, where the street once ended) and Selma (right), showing some of the Japanese establishments once located there. The map below identifies several small “Japanese Lodgings” near the word “Lodging” above.

Then, while searching through the 1919 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the 1500 block of Cahuenga, I noticed something unexpected. The map identified a Japanese boarding house, a Japanese laundry, and even a Japanese school on this then sparsely developed street. I already knew the Toribuchi Grocery was located here, and with a little digging it became apparent the 1500 block of Cahuenga between Selma and Sunset was at one time a Japanese enclave, a single-block Hollywood version of Japantown.

Here below is a roster of Japanese-associated names for this single block, keyed to their address and the year such entry appeared in the LA city directories. Mr. Toribuchi relocated his grocery sometime between 1920 and 1927. Click to enlarge each map.

CAHUENGA – from Selma to Sunset
1546       E. H. Toribuchi grocer (1920)
1533       Kitro Suietoni (1920)
1531       S. Tatsukawa (1917)
1529       G. Yoshihashi laundry (1920)
1527       Toribuchi Grocery (1927)
1525       Y. Hisatowi (1927)
1519       Joe Nishigima (1927)
1518       Hollywood Japanese Day Work, M. Suzuki (1917); Eto Boarding House (1920)
1517½   Japanese School
1517       K. Ashina baths (1918) S. Dohara (1920)
1516       Sunrise General Merchandise J.M. Hachiya mgr (1920)
1515       Senzo Imai grocer (1920)

SELMA – from East to West crossing Cahuenga
6374       Japanese Church of Hollywood (1923)
6378       Frank Aiso (1927)
6410       Geo. Yaguchi gardener (1916)
6442       G.J. Matsumoto (1920)

Imagine – at a time when few Japanese resided anywhere in LA, and Hollywood was still sparsely settled, there was once a small enclave on the 1500 block of Cahuenga, directly south from where dozens of silent movies were filmed. Yet there appears to be no record of this history aside from these maps and their related entries in the city directories. How did this enclave form? How did they find each other? (The 1600 block also has some Japanese listings, but no references on the maps.)

While the development of Japanese communities such as Little Tokyo in downtown and in Boyle Heights is well documented, perhaps someday this story will be fully revealed. There are many resources to learn more about Japanese history in Los Angeles, including Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Brian Niiya, Content Director for Densho, shared this oral history of James Ito, born in 1914, recalling his family’s fruit and vegetable store on this block of Cahuenga.

UPDATE: Just steps east from the 1500 block, Colleen’s 1920 movie staged scenes at 6400 Sunset, the SW corner of what is now Ivar, identified on a 1913 map as a Japanese “tenement,” and listed in the city directories from 1914-1923 as a Japanese employment agency. The obscured “SUNSET BLVD” street sign appears onscreen upper left. Both views above look SW at the corner. It’s complicated, but Cahuenga originally ran in misaligned sections, so at the time this corner was also Cahuenga.

The corner appears in three other early films, at left the 1919 Billie Rhodes comedy A Two-Cylinder Courtship, upper right in the Douglas Fairbanks comedy Flirting with Fate (1916), and lower right in Gale Henry’s comedy The Detectress (1919). Before clues from other films provided the solution this wooden corner building had eluded detection because it was relocated in 1923 and replaced with a brick building.

Above left, a closer view of the previous photo south down Cahuenga towards the misaligned corner, with the “Sunset Japanese Day Work” building highlighted yellow, and the Keaton Studio in pink further back. Above right, at view west at the corner replacement brick building. This misaligned Cahuenga corner would later become aligned with Ivar instead. The “modern” corner brick building was demolished in 1999.

Above, two closing views looking south at Cahuenga addresses, with Colleen Moore in Her Bridal Nightmare and Mr. Hachiya’s Sunrise store at 1516 (left), and Mr. Imai’s one story grocery at 1515 (center of center), with a modern view of 1515 (right), now a cannabis shop.

Looking south down Cahuenga towards Sunset, where Cahuenga originally ended, continuing south along Ivar instead.

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9 Responses to Silent Hollywood’s Japanese Enclave

  1. Bob Borgen says:

    Hi John

    I’m on my way out – to visit my mom — and tomorrow we’re heading up to Monterey for a week.

    But tonight I’ll take a long slow look at this and show it to Minako

    It looks fascinating!

    Thanks — and let’s get caught up soon




  2. 4StarFilmFan says:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this information. I watched The Goat before but was not observant enough to notice this detail. My dad’s parents grew up in Gardena and near the old Wrigley Field respectively, but I hadn’t heard about this enclave. It makes me want to look into the history more.


  3. Javi Mulero says:

    Great stuff, John. As I told you, I emailed this blog to the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles) today. Just in case. I bet they’d love to see this.


  4. Pingback: Buster Keaton’s Scarecrow Adobe | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  5. Junko Iio says:

    What a great find!! I never thought there had been a little Japanese community at the historic place I visited. Thank you for the discovery! My partner and I are going back to L.A. in February. We will definitely visit there again!


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