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2021 Village Awardee: Bon Yagi

It’s that time of year again…time for Village Preservation’s Annual Meeting and Village Awards! The Village Awards recognize and honor some of the businesses, organizations, and institutions that make our neighborhoods such special places, while our Annual Meeting also includes a review of Village Preservation’s activities and accomplishments over the past year. This year’s event will be held on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 at 6:00pm — reserve your spot by registering HERE.

Bon Yagi

Bon Yagi’s story is one of hard work, drive, ingenuity, and immigrant achievement. It’s also a story about how a dream came true in the East Village for someone who loves the neighborhood as much as we do. Bon Yagi was raised in Japan by his widowed mother. Born shortly after the end of World War II, Bon grew up watching American TV, and experienced the help of American GIs in building a new Japan following the destruction wrought by the war. Bon felt that America was where he wanted to be. 

His life story, like many people’s, is a series of “accidents.” In this case, he was ten minutes late for his university entrance exam in Tokyo. That meant he couldn’t take it. This error forever changed the course of his life. Instead of getting a degree, he decided to take the next ship to America. The next ship from Yokohama was six months or more away, so he got a job at an American military base. At the base, he began to learn English and worked in supplies. While there he became friends with some GIs who told him to “look up” their parents in the U.S., if he ever got there. When the ship finally arrived, he left Japan armed with their addresses. He took the long journey across the pacific to California and then continued his journey across the country by bus.

Bon Yagi, 1975, in Choshi, Chiba

His destination was the home of one of the GIs who was from Philadelphia. Bon Yagi told us that despite the fact that his friend was Black, he thought everyone would be German in Germantown. It was a tough neighborhood but he loved the blended community and felt comfortable there. He stayed with this welcoming family for two and a half years, improving his English and working as a dishwasher. Bon says that he learned to love ivory soap and soul food. 

From there, Yagi ultimately made his way to the East Village, and said he instantly felt at home. He reasoned that this was because many other immigrant groups had made it here before him, and of course, Japan was in the East, so there was ample precedent for his inclusion here.

His first job was driving his truck in a loop every day from the East Village to the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, and then back to the East Village. Every day he picked up fresh produce and supplied it to stores and restaurants. He didn’t have a warehouse, so he used the stairwell in the building he lived in for storage. When he had enough money he rented a space and opened 2nd Avenue Fruits and Vegetables. 

Yagi with his friend Kazuo Wakayama

With the contacts he had made and the knowledge he had gained, Bon opened an American diner called 103. It was open 24 hours and became a gathering spot for artists. He says that Keith Haring was his first customer, and that he regularly cleaned off drawings that Haring left behind on the walls! Other clientele included John Belushi and Madonna. 

When Yagi’s 103 attained “a measure of success,” he realized that he really wanted to introduce Americans to traditional Japanese food. He found that the Japanese food in New York City was very expensive, and had been altered for the American consumer. Bon wanted to introduce Americans to the variety and and delight of Japanese Sake, cooking techniques and tools; this goal became his mission. In 1984 he opened his first Japanese restaurant, Hasaki. It was named after his father’s hometown, as Yagi’s work has always been rooted family. His wife Tomoko and his children Sakura and Daihachi are all involved. Sakura is now the COO of Yagi’s business group, T.I.C. (“It stands for Total Information Center, but I like to think it stands for Tokyo in Change,” Sakura says)

The Yagi family at the awards ceremony for the Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business, June 2015. Bon Yagi was a recipient. L-R: Son Daihachi, wife Tomoko, Yagi, and daughter Sakura.

In 1993, Yagi opened Decibel, putting Sake on the map in this country. Yagi’s early restaurants became the first in an incredible, varied, and seriously delicious portfolio of restaurants all over the city. Bon Yagi’s vision was enormously influential as he created new markets for food most Americans didn’t even know existed. Ultimately he helped create what is now known as the “Little Tokyo” in the East Village — the concentration of Japanese food establishments on and just north of St. Mark’s Place. 

Yagi teaching Martha Stewart about Sake on her show, following the success of Decibel

According to the New York Times

Many [of Yagi’s restaurants] are clustered around East Ninth and Tenth Streets. Soba-Ya, which specializes in noodles, is a few steps from Robataya, where meat and vegetables are theatrically grilled and presented to customers on long wooden oars.
Across the street, you’ll find Cha-An, a hushed teahouse that serves jewel-like sweets, and Otafuku, where young cooks fry up cabbage pancakes and takoyaki — gooey, mayonnaise-splattered spheres of octopus and batter — in a sweltering space that often seems as loud as a disco and as cramped as a food truck. In a stroke of inspired urban planning, Otafuku waits there for the drinkers who wobble up the stairs from Decibel, a crepuscular, lantern-lighted sake bar where the wallpaper is a riot of hand-scrawled graffiti and old sake labels.
Shoot west, toward Third Avenue, and you’ll find sushi, sashimi and tempura-battered gingko nuts at Hasaki, which is named after the coastal town where Mr. Yagi grew up. Wander east, to 10th Street between First and Second Avenues, and there are hot bowls of ramen sloshing atop the counter at Rai Rai Ken, and Berkshire pork cutlets quilted in comforting spiced gravy at Curry-Ya, and crimson slivers of beef simmering away their fat in hot pots at Shabu-Tatsu…
Mr. Yagi has dedicated himself to building just such a culinary and cultural vortex, casting himself as its mustachioed Buddhist godfather, reverently known as Yagi-san.

Yagi’s Rai Rai Ken on East 10th Street

In addition to his business success, Bon Yagi is strongly committed to helping others here and abroad. He’s raised money for the communities in Japan that were decimated by the earthquake/tsunami, kept his restaurants open during hurricane Sandy to provide food and share his generator, and helping many a young restauranteur or entrepreneur launch their careers. He personally sponsored seven parades in the East Village, and created a scholarship for American chefs to study Japanese cooking techniques and to learn about Japan. 

A donation box for Dine Out for Japan Relief on the counter at Otafuku.
Photo by Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Bon Yagi is successful yet modest, with impressive energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a palpable generosity. He has been a one-man cross-cultural pollinator. He’s not slowing down, but at this point on his life he appears to be most focused on giving back.

Tom Birchard, the owner of Veselka and a longtime friend of Yagi (and a Village Preservation Board member) said: “a very successful entrepreneur I know told me that in life we should seek to go from success to significance. Bon Yagi has achieved this goal.” 

So please join us in celebrating this cornerstone of East Village culinary and cultural life on Wednesday, June 16th! To learn about other 2021 Village Awardees and to register for the event, click HERE

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