Between 1905 and the 1920s, numerous
Japanese art goods, import-export, and housewares businesses clustered on the southern border of today’s Upper East Side in Midtown East. The shops included the importer S. Kuwayama at 114 E 59th St., the Japan Art Shop at 34 E 59th St., and the Nippon China Company and Katagiri Brothers at 224 E 59th St.
Katagiri became the first Japanese goods firm to set up shop in the district and may have followed the Japanese Christian Institute, which purchased a building at 330 E 57th Street after the turn of the century. The Institute drew Japanese Christians to the area; many young men also boarded there while studying at Columbia and Union Theological Seminary.
Other factors made the neighborhood a good choice for business. The 59th Street Bridge (also known as the Queensboro, and today the Edward I. Koch Bridge), opened in 1909. It brought customers by car, tram, and elevated train from Queens, while elevated trains that ran along Second and Third Avenues drew residents of other parts of Manhattan.
Still, many of the shops catered less to visitors than to the growing Japanese American population of the neighborhood. By the 1920s, more than one hundred Japanese Americans lived in the compact area near the off-ramp of the Queensboro. Other Japanese residential districts featured in this blog, such as the Lincoln Square area or downtown Brooklyn, housed a largely working-class population. Midtown East, on the other hand, tended to draw white collar and professional people, including the proprietors of the Japanese art stores in the district and their sales clerks. The area was also a favorite with Japanese American artists and photographers, most likely because of its proximity to the 57th Street galleries and the Art Students’ League. The district’s Japanese residents, who generally found homes in walk-up tenement boarding houses run by other Japanese, shared the neighborhood with large numbers of Irish, Hungarian, and German Americans (the area formed the southern border of heavily German and central European Yorkville). Like their Japanese American neighbors, such people tended to be white collar workers, although hardly wealthy: most were clerks, stenographers, and small businesspeople.
These residents almost certainly shopped at Bloomingdales, whose forerunner, the “East Side Bazaar,” dated to the mid-19th century. Having finally managed to buy every plot on the block between 59th, 60th, Lexington, and 3rd, Bloomingdales opened its huge new store in 1929. In addition to Bloomies, the galleries, bookshops, and antique stores of the area drew welcome foot traffic to the Japanese businesses, especially those who sold art and porcelain. But the Depression forced a number of them to close. By the mid-1930s, most of the Japanese American residents had also begun to migrate to other neighborhoods, particularly the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights.
When Japanese Americans from the West Coast resettled in wartime New York, they found Katagiri and the Japanese Christian Institute still open in Midtown East but almost no other trace of the old community there. For a few years, the Institute became a social center for the “resettlers,” but after the war it merged with another Japanese American Christian organization and sold its 57th Street property to a real estate developer. A postwar boom in interest in Japanese housewares and art goods drew a few new businesses and the famous S. Yamanaka gallery to the district in the late 1950s, but they didn’t last. Today, the area is known for its design and decorator showrooms. Only the venerable food and housewares dealer Katagiri remains as a reminder of the former Japanese American presence in the neighborhood.
Sources for this post include the New York Times, the New York Tribune, the New York Japanese Address Book (1921), Katagiri.com, and the U.S. Census for 1920, 1930, and 1940.