January 18th, 2021

At home in downtown

By Lethbridge Herald on July 5, 2020.

Herald photo by Greg Bobinec Ken Nakagama shares the stories of his shop, Nakagama's Japanese Food & Giftware, which was origionally started by his father in 1947, as well as the growth of downtown Lethbridge over the decades. @GBobiencHerald

Greg Bobinec
Lethbridge Herald
Through the decades of development that Lethbridge underwent to become the city it is today, a local shop has remained in its spot to support the community with niche-market Japanese items for 73 years.
Nakagama’s Japanese Foods and Giftware — one of the oldest businesses in the city — was started by Ryutaro Nakagama in 1947, after he was relocated to the area from British Columbia during the Second World War and still had a passion to have his own retail store. To this day, his son Ken Nakagama and his wife run the store.
“The store started in 1947 here in Lethbridge, but my dad’s story of when he came to Canada is where it really started, and he had a store in B.C. in 1927,” says Ken Nakagama.
“Because of the war and the relocation, they had to come here in 1942, and Japanese people who were relocated here had to work on a farm, but my father was never a farmer and wanted to get back into retail, so when the war ended he decided to stay in this area. He gathered some money, a truck, and started to collect products that would be available and would appeal to the Japanese community here.”
During the time of trying to acquire their business licence, it was very difficult for families of Asian descent to move freely. They even needed permission and an escort to go into the city. Through perseverance, they were able to get a business licence that would start a life-long legacy in Lethbridge.
“It was very difficult for Japanese to move freely and independently throughout the city, it was almost by law that they had to be escorted because they couldn’t be by themselves,” says Nakagama.
“He applied for a licence in early 1947 and he was told to come back later and see, but he didn’t get the licence until September 1947, so it took him a few months to get it, but once he did, he started the store on First Avenue, and we were one of the first independent Japanese families to live in Lethbridge. Up until then there was none living by themselves. He established his business and came to this location in 1955 and we have been here ever since.”
Being an established business owner in the mid 1900s was difficult enough, never mind being a repressed minority, but Nakagama pushed through and found the niche market that worked, as well as being the first to bring in unique Japanese foods and items.
“In ’55 one of the key things that made him establish well … we were able to introduce calrose rice into Canada, he was the first one,” says Nakagama.
“Up until that time the rice in this area was not really conducive to a Japanese diet, it was a long-grained rice, but he was able to connect with a farm in San Francisco and was the first one to introduce it and that really established him in the Japanese community and as a store.”
Ken Nakagama grew up in the back of the shop, before moving on to higher education. Reflecting on his time downtown, he says that the old Chinatown was a vibrant and consistently active community.
“The downtown core was basically my playground; I have seen a lot of changes of the core over that time,” says Nakagama.
“There used to be quite a bit of activity centred around this block, there was a lot of Chinese restaurants in this area and there was always a celebration. I always remember New Year’s at midnight, it was one of my favourite days, because at midnight the street would come alive with people, firecrackers, fireworks, streamers, really colourful and loud displays for the new year.”
Over the decades, the Chinatown district started to diminish as generations of families began to spread out. Although the downtown core has changed a lot, Nakagama says he is proud that the City of Lethbridge continues to improve the core.
“I never had a fear of not being able to survive here. Other areas of the downtown seemed to develop and change and investments seem to go there, but our corner was not as well recognized. But a few fundamental changes occurred such as the Fire Hall, the Court House,” says Nakagama.
“But investment came this way, over the last 10 years we have seen more businesses in this area come in and develop, as well as some residents. I am really happy primarily that the City of Lethbridge chose to focus so much effort on the downtown core. They really wanted to make the downtown core attractive to investment and to people in general.”
Although social media allows communities to share issues and problems seen throughout the city, downtown in particular, Nakagama says that every city has an edge and downtown Lethbridge has always had one, and although the edge is more clearly seen now, he says downtown Lethbridge is vibrant and inviting.
“Every downtown core has an edge, and I remember a definite edge in this area when I was young,” says Nakagama.
“But a lot of good things are happening down here, and as a result the downtown is safe, clean and is attractive to a lot of people. Like anything, they could have ignored it, but I never felt unsafe here. You have never been able to walk safely through Galt Gardens at night, even back then, but the City chose to focus on the downtown and make it vibrant and bright and they have done a good job which allows businesses like mine to thrive.”
Since 1947, Nakagama Japanese Foods and Giftware has grown and adapted to every change the city has made, while remaining true to who they are and what they offer.
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