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Is California The Otaku Promised Land?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

I've noticed that the state of California has a lot of Anime Stores and other shops (like Little Tokyo) for Anime. Would California be the ideal place to live in and have access to acquiring physical Anime, Manga, and other related merchandise?

Well, the IDEAL place to acquire anime, manga and merchandise would be Japan. But you knew that.

If moving to another country to sate your anime and manga addiction is not an option, California is probably the best place to get anything Japanese -- specifically, either the greater Los Angeles area or the San Francisco Bay area. (Outside of major metropolitan areas, you might as well be in Nebraska.) The state has more Japanese Americans than any other place in North America, and by far the most Asian Americans in general. This is important because members of the Japanese American community often play an essential role in doing business with Japan, and Asian Americans have always made up a disproportionate number of the otaku of North America.

There are quite a few little anime shops that dot the US, in places as diverse as North Texas, Orlando, NYC and elsewhere. Most major cities have at least one, although whether they'll have anything more than a few wall scrolls and a Totoro plush is a bit of a crap shoot. Frankly, I think Los Angeles has all of the other areas beat in terms of the sheer number of stores, the breadth of selection, and number of fans.

As a result of early immigration from Japan (and the racism they faced at the time), both Los Angeles and San Francisco ended up with dedicated Japanese districts: Little Tokyo in LA, and Japan Town in SF. Both areas have gone through a lot of changes over the years (and in fact, many of the businesses in Little Tokyo are now Korean-owned), but those areas have become natural places for Japanese pop culture nerds to congregate and browse. San Francisco's Japan Town veered in more of a cultural gifts-and-food direction, but somehow LA ended up with both a good selection of food AND nerd junk.

Little Tokyo in LA has some incredible stores for otaku. The biggest and most obvious is Anime Jungle, a wide-ranging otaku goods store that now spans four storefronts in Little Tokyo Mall. Jungle started as an Osaka-based retailer, and expanded to Los Angeles in 2001. Visiting the place feels like going to the dealer room at a convention: the place carries a wide assortment of current-release DVD and Blu-ray, costumes, figures, manga, wall scrolls and all sorts of imported toys and merchandise. While most of it is new, their collection of vintage merchandise is very impressive. It's simply as good of a selection as you're going to get in North America. Also in Little Tokyo is a Japanese souvenir store called Bunkado, which has a mysterious second floor filled with 90s import CDs and anime Laserdiscs.

Little Tokyo has become something of a de-facto gathering place for young LA-area otaku, and many Saturdays I've seen small gatherings of cosplayers hanging around the area (although I have no idea if that was an organized thing that still takes place.) There's also a Kinokuniya here. The largest Japanese bookstore chain worldwide, Books Kinokuniya have stores in several US cities, but they maintain two in the Bay area and three in LA. Used media store Book-Off, an essential place for many otaku to find old and hidden treasures, has a store in New York City and two in Hawaii, but SIX in the greater Los Angeles area. (None of them are in Little Tokyo, mind you.)

Outside of Little Tokyo, there are hip little stores with high-end artsy figurines and some imported Japanese toys in many neighborhoods, such as Giant Robot in Little Osaka (Sawtelle) and Pop Monster in Torrance. Out in the suburbs of San Gabriel Valley are Desu-Nation (which specializes in trading cards, but has other otaku stuff) and Japan Video Games (which stocks a lot of figures).

Los Angeles also has some of the best Japanese food in North America, including several legendary tsukemen/ramen shops, loads of great sushi for every price range, quite a few izakaya (tapas bars) and little specialty shops, like those specializing in Japanese-style crepes, taiyaki (those little red bean paste-filled fish-shaped cakes) and other esoteric treats. Lots of private-room karaoke joints, a weird Mazinger Z-themed Korean izakaya, several outposts of cheap Japanese housewares chain DAISO, and six of the nine Mitsuwa Japanese Grocery/Food court/mini-mall locations are also in Southern California. Many area malls even have stores with Japanese toys, plushies and wall scrolls (although some carry bootleg DVDs still). There's just so much here that I'm almost certainly missing something!

San Francisco and New York City are also great cities for Japanophiles, but between the stores, the food, and the significant portion of the US anime industry, it really does feel like Los Angeles is the center of the otaku world in North America. Sure, you can get almost everything online these days, but when you don't know specifically what it is you're looking for, the ability to browse through a big shop of stuff is invaluable.

Full disclosure: I live here.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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