Hiro and Friends Rescue an Empty Lot: A Japanese Immigrant Starts a Flea Market

Hiro and Friends Rescue an Empty Lot: A Japanese Immigrant Starts a Flea Market

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Hiro Takesaki, one of the owners of Akichi Flea Market

On a gravel lot in the middle of Bed-Stuy, the gates of Akichi Flea Market open up to a hipster’s dream: Locals peruse the vintage jean jackets hung upon the racks of Airstream trailers, fiddle with handmade jewelry and sit by the BBQ to drink a beer while a DJ spins reggae music. In Japanese, Akichi means “empty space” and that once vacant lot invokes a sense of creative freedom in the neighborhood.

Last April, Hiro Takesaki, 41, and his five Japanese friends bought the abandoned space on Fulton Street and Spencer Place to create Akichi. Hiro is a waiter at a Japanese restaurant in the West Village, but during his free time he loves to make leather belts or wallets and ride motorcycles with his crew.

Hiro has lived in Brooklyn for 16 years. He fell in love with America when he left Japan at the age of 20 and traveled all over the country on a Greyhound bus. One day he landed in New York City and was convinced he needed to live in America. But since moving, he has always felt the need to create a vibrant community while satisfying his need to stay connected to home. Last Sunday, I sat down with Hiro to talk about his journey and how Akichi came to be.

 

Why did you fall in love with New York City?

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Hiro chats with his friends at the flea market.

I was born in Tokyo. It’s very similar to New York, but New York’s a little different because there are a lot of people from different countries living together. It’s totally different than other places in the U.S. It’s like the Country of New York.

What do you miss about Japan?

I miss my family everyday. My mother lives in Tokyo so I miss her.

Do you go back?

Once a year I go back for the festival. Every May there’s a big festival, called the Sanja Matsuri.

[Sanja Matsuri is a large celebration to honor the founders of the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo]

I was born in Asakusa district in Tokyo. That area is famous for it’s ancient temples. When I was five years old, I had to move because my father passed away. After ten years, I didn’t go there much. My friends still lived in Asakusa and they carried the shrines [or mikosi] during the festival. One year when I was visiting I asked, “Can I get in?” They said, “Of course because you were born here!” It’s difficult to get in because really only the local people can carry the mikosi. After that I decided every May I had to return.

How did you become a leather craftsman?

My father was a handbag designer and my grandfather sewed leather. I grew up around it. [When I started,] I realized I had it in my blood because I never actually learned how to make it. Now I want to have fun and meet people who ask me to make them stuff.

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Families bring their children to play at the flea market.

Do you think there is a strong Japanese community in NYC?

I think so. I spent 16 years in Brooklyn and in Williamsburg there are a lot of Japanese people. My friends opened up shops, hair salons and restaurants … Actually, I don’t know if it’s a close community. That’s why we started this flea market. We wanted to start something different.

You wanted to create a different culture?

Not a different culture but something that wasn’t common. Flea markets started a long time ago, but we are trying to be more connected with the people—not just Japanese people, anybody. I talk with people using the Internet, but I want to meet people, hang out, talk, have arguments. I want to go back to the basics.

Do you feel welcome in Bed-Stuy?

We rented this lot last October and it was full of garbage. We brought tons of gravel, fixed the gates and cleaned up the trash. We were really nervous doing this project because we are foreigners. But people have told us, “Thank you for cleaning this spot. You guys are doing well.” So it’s good for now.

I’ve talked to some Japanese people who lived in America for a bit and didn’t feel like they belonged in Japan anymore. Will that happen to you?

I don’t want to be like that. I like Japan and I like New York City. But if I move back, I cannot be a waiter anymore because I’m an old guy. Here it’s not that big of a deal. In Japan, when you are in your 30s you have families. I’d be worried about getting a job over there. I’d have to do things by myself.

You’d have to start your own business?

I think so. When people go back to Japan, they don’t have many skills or experience to start their own business. They have to be employees, but they don’t really want to be. Maybe that’s why they no longer feel comfortable with the Japanese lifestyle.

Here you can start a business, start a flea market, be a waiter…

Right. I’m still trying to improve my life here. Someday I may have to go back to Japan. That’s why I am learning these skills now.

Do you still feel like a foreigner after you’ve been here for 16 years?

I don’t feel like I’ve been here 16 years. I still feel like I’m visiting. I don’t know why. I have two minds. I have a motorcycle, I have a car, I live in Brooklyn. I’m like a local. But I still feel like I’m just visiting. I think that’s good because it keeps me fresh.

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