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Borders & Heritage

The Uwajimaya Story: Overcoming Internment and Building an Iconic Family Business

March 17, 2017

Throughout its history, the United States has been a home to immigrants from across the globe who have come here for the promise of freedom and opportunity. Young entrepreneur Fujimatsu Moriguchi arrived in Tacoma in the 1920s, excited about the prospects this new land might offer and the wealth he hoped to bring back to his hometown of Uwajima, Japan.

He had no idea that he would soon be starting what would become one of the leading family-owned retail chains in the Northwest — Uwajimaya — or that he and his family would endure more than three years of forced internment at the hands of the U.S. government.

In 1928, Mr. Moriguchi banked that his homemade fish cakes would be his ticket to success in the burgeoning Tacoma logging and fishing camps, which had plenty of homesick, Japanese laborers. He and his wife, Sadako, baked the cakes every evening, and then drove them around the camps throughout the day.

Tomio Moriguchi, his second oldest son — now 80 — remembers accompanying his father on his rounds.

“My mother would stay at home and watch the store while my father would put products plus two or three kids in the back of the pickup truck,” says Tomio. “So, my memory was sleeping on the rice in the back of the panel truck during the day.”

The fish cakes were indeed a hit and Uwajimaya, meaning “The Store of Uwajima,” was born. Both the business and the family steadily grew. Then in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, everything began to change. Troubling rumors circulated throughout the camps and the small store near downtown Tacoma.

On Feb. 19, 1942, after much deliberation, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the Secretary of War to deem areas throughout the West Coast as military zones, clearing the way for more than 120,000 Japanese immigrants — including some 12,800 from Washington State — to be moved to internment camps throughout the west. Uwajimaya shut its doors. In June of 1942, the family was taken to a disbursement center in Puyallup and then south via railcar.

The Moriguchis in 1940 outside their store. Tomio Moriguchi (first row, second from left) remembers driving with his dad to pick up products.

“We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Tomio. “We were put into a boxcar. I remember the seats were hard wood and the shades were pulled so we got to peek out a little bit. It was an exciting experience. Our parents were with us, so we didn’t feel unsafe. In retrospect we probably should have. We were with friends, neighbors. Later on, the rumor was we were headed for northern California.”

The family was taken to a makeshift assembly center where Sadako — who was 8-and-a-half months pregnant when they left — gave birth to one of the first babies born in internment, a daughter named Hisako.

They arrived at Tule Lake, which would soon become the largest of the Internment Camps, later that month. The family, now eight people, was given a 20-by-20 foot room with basic furnishings, which would be their home for the next three years. They soon connected with former customers, friends and extended family, creating a community within the camp that they could rely on.

A photo of Tomio Moriguchi taken at Tule Lake, the camp the Moriguchis were interned at for three years.
The Moriguchis were interned at Tule Lake, which would soon become the largest of the Internment Camps.

Hisako’s earliest memories are of the relentless summer heat at the camp.

“It was really, really hot,” Hisako, now 74, remembers. “And I would just sit there and cry. They would put a bowl of ice in front of me with a fan so I would be comfortable.”

During the winter, temperatures dropped to -20 degrees F or lower. The Moriguchis had to be resourceful.

“I remember blankets were cut and made into jackets and things like that," says Tomio. “Some way they kept us well.”

In 1943 the camp was designated a Maximum Security Segregation Camp that would house those immigrants the government considered the greatest threat to the United States. Dissident prisoners from other camps began arriving in droves and the camp’s population swelled to almost 19,000 people. Many disillusioned Japanese Americans began to protest and challenge their incarceration. The Moriguchis and their close friends tried their best to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

“I was too young to concern myself with democracy or freedom or our constitutional rights and things like that,” recalls Tomio. “People that were older… they dealt with that issue in addition to everything else…. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but as it turns out, that was really galling. It probably, mentally, was more of a stress than the physical hardship.”

Fujimatsu Moriguchi (right) and a few of the friends they made at Tule Lake.
A photo of the Moriguchi children. Taken at Tule Lake in 1945.

The Moriguchi family spent three summers and two winters in the camp, staying past the end of the war for the birth of another daughter, Tomoko, the last of 1,490 babies born at Tule Luke.

“I had such bad eczema that I had not one square inch of skin,” Tomoko, now 71, recalls. “My mother always said that her diet was not good in the camp. So I bled everywhere. They said I looked pathetic. I had no skin, I’m bleeding everywhere. So they would bring me gum. I’m not 3 months old and I had packets and packets of gum — that’s the only thing I remember.” She laughs wryly at the memory.

Through it all, the grit and a tight-knit sense of community helped the Moriguchi family persevere. In late 1945, when they left the camp, Fujimatsu borrowed money from friends and former customers to purchase a new storefront, this time in Seattle. They settled into 422 S. Main St., not far from King Street Station. The entire family began working at the store, making and selling fish cakes and an increasing number of other Japanese and Asian products. The family helped other Japanese Americans returning from internment camps, providing meals, work and advice.

Even as the Moriguchi children endured lingering discrimination in school, Fujimatsu reached out to his connections in the white Seattle business community, participating in trade fairs throughout the region and playing a major role at the 1962 World’s Fair.

As more immigrants arrived in the community around the store, the Moriguchis supported them, too. They were soon a fixture in the growing neighborhood.

“Naturally, the reputation became ‘If you go to Uwajimaya, they will help you,”’ explains Tomio.

Fujimatsu Moriguchi standing outside the first Uwajimaya.
Uwajamaya's Seattle location is in the heart of the International District.

Their hard work and community building were a recipe for success, allowing them to open ever-bigger stores, eventually expanding to Bellevue, Renton and Beaverton, Oregon. Both Tomio and Tomoko have served past terms as CEO of the company and continue to be involved with the business. Through it all, they have stuck to the principles and values that kept them together during those trying years at Tule Lake.

“I remember my father saying they did what they had to do — just moved on,” Says Hisako. “‘Look forward, don’t look back’ — I always remember that. Do what you have to do. Make the best of it.”

Today, 75 years after the Executive Order that sent the family to the camp, Uwajimaya continues to be a retail icon in the region, employing some 480 people and preparing to start a new line of smaller retail market locations, the first of which is set to open in South Lake Union this summer. The family has also chosen this year to complete the long-awaited transition of leadership to the third generation.

Denise Moriguchi, only 40 but already an accomplished businesswoman and marketer also grew up working in the Uwajimaya store and retains some of the same values that made her grandfather and her aunts and uncles successful, even in hard times.

“Growing up I didn’t really hear much about the internment from my parents or grandparents,” She explains. “[But] I think having that history does explain my parents’ work ethic.”

“They may not have talked about it but those friendships and relationships… is really how they got through. They were able to persevere and move on with their life and their business.”

The lessons for the present and future are not lost on Denise or the family. “I think especially in today’s environment it’s just really important to remember events like the executive order and the internment of Japanese, just so people are aware that it did happen and that hopefully it will never happen again.”

Denise Moriguchi walks down the aisles of Uwajamaya.

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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In the 1960s, I was a science teacher employed by Seattle Schools and assigned to Asa Mercer Jr. High on Beacon Hill. I had the distinct honor of knowing and serving as a teadher for the three Tsutikawa children, George, Mayumi and Deems as well as meeting their parents. To find that they, the parents, were introduced during a visit at the Internment Camp in Northern California adds to the "Air of Grace" that seemed to surround the family. As an 85 year old retiree, I am now extremely pleased to read this outstanding article about their extended family and its accomplishments.   

Dear James,Thanks for the fascinating personal background and the kind words regarding the story. What an incredible pair of families.I'd love to chat further about your experiences if you have time. I'm at you again!Nils

A more politically correct, Internment, than a concentration camp.  My dad was born and raised in Tacoma, WA.  He did go back to Japan to get his High School diploma.  Japan had the highest rated school system in the World.  He came back home as a US Citizen and not too long after that was the Executive order, made by President Rossevelt.  They rounded up people sometimes at night and were asked to only bring what could carry.  Some of those were Business owners, they had to liquidate assets.  My parents saw Chinese being hung for being mistaken as Japanese.  My parents were glad to go into Internment to be safe.  My dad was a block head.  My sister and I used to laugh about it.  He did a good job keeping people organized, forming various clubs, and that's how he learned how to play the harmonica.  And you all know about the 442 which was the Japanese Americans who enlisted into the Army.  The military decided not to put the 442 into Asia so that they wouldn't be consider the enemy.  They served in Europe and was one of the most decorated units honored.  My ex-Father in law was one of the Machine gun operators.  One guy carryed the ammo and some parts of the machine gun.  My Father in law carried the heavy Browning Automatic Rifle.  He was rushing up the hill to take out the German bunkers and he was shot thru the ear and is handicapped because he is deaf in one ear.Eventually the interned were released after the war ended.  My Father and his Brother moved to the Big Apple and were good employees.  My father moved to san francisco and my Uncle moved down to LA where his parents owned a small motel.  I remember when I was young, there were so many crickets that they would drive me crazy.  I caught one in a Mason jar and started my insect collection.  They also had fireflies that I never ever seen in San Francisco where I was born and raised.  Our best time was going to Disneyland which opened when I was a teenager.When I was a little older, I went to a meeting in Japantown with the survivors of Hiroshima nuclear bomb.  Some died with all kinds of radiation illness like leukemia, cancer and physical deformance.  It was sad hearing about the experiences they shared.  A lot of them were laying in the streets dying, walls of buildings with human profile etched into the walls, and radiation sickness.  A lot of them were regular Citizens and not military. (innocent Civilants)  Shortly, Japan's Royal Families and High ranking Military  conceded that the United States would end the Asian conflicts.  The Italians, were the first to surrender their arms, but Hitler was the only one to continue his inability to concede the war was over.  The allies marched ahead to invade Germany and took out Hitler.  To date, they think that Hitler is still alive somewhere in Brazil.  Russia was our partners during the War and ironically is our greatest enemy today.Dennis Tajiri