- Janet Pelz
For Seattlites, Uwajimaya is not just the destination for home-made sushi ingredients, it is a journey to a far-away place at the end of the ride-free bus. Amid the shelves piled high with exotic food items you’ll see the regular neighborhood customers, many of whom are elderly immigrants, filling their grocery carts with reminders of home. You’ll see pre-school classes ogling the live fish and bins of strange fruits and vegetables, tourists taking photos and office workers on lunch break. It’s a place that has come to define Seattle almost as much as the Space Needle.
I enter the sprawling retail complex that is Uwajimaya looking for my interview with its CEO, Tomoko Moriguchi-Matsuno and notice a woman whose head barely rises above a display of rice sacks. She is engaged in what looks like any conversation between two neighbors catching up with family news, although here, one is the store owner and the other a customer.
I introduce myself as she finishes her impromptu chat and she takes up with me as if I were the next neighbor. We climb the employees-only staircase until Tomoko stops a man descending. “What’s up with that -- ‘Can I meet in an hour’?,” she asks him tauntingly. “The soy sauce rep, doesn’t he understand we’re one of their biggest customers?”
“Not one of their biggest customers,” corrects the man with a smile, “their biggest customer!”
“Well, you tell him next time that won’t work, and I don’t give a rat’s ass what he says!” She giggles with these words. “And don’t forget,” her voice shifting to business mode as she continues upward, “I need the names and addresses of the big-wigs in San Francisco to invite to our event down there.”
We’re on a hunt to find a place to talk, and though she has just arrived, she knows what’s going on in any possible space. “That one’s busy with a 401(k) training,” she nods as we approach a room filled with employees. Tomoko offers greetings and personal comment to each person she passes. Striding into an office area she raises her voice loud enough to address everyone sitting at their desks. She breaks into a friendly exchange in Japanese with one woman as we squeeze through to a small room at the back, where Tomoko pushes a stack of supplies to the edge of the small round table, and pulls up a stacking chair.
Across the table from me in this supply-closet-turned-Executive-Conference-Room sits Tomoko Moriguchi-Matsuno, Uwajimaya’s CEO, dressed in a palette of color suggesting an artist’s sensibility. She carries none of the officiousness one would expect from a corporate executive and indeed our interview is peppered more frequently with self-effacements than with boasts of business success.
In the next hour I’ll come to see that this one woman, who reaches 4’10” in a pair of sensible shoes, embodies a package of contrasts which she moves between as quickly and easily as images in an iPad commercial. She speaks fluent Japanese and in English can swear like a sailor. She is an artist surrounded by engineers and business leaders. She was born in the custody of an internment camp yet embraces her American heritage. She can barely reach a kitchen counter, but she worships the giants of the NBA, calling herself a Kobe Bryant ‘freak’.
Raised in a traditional Japanese American family where the men are in charge, she sits at the head of her family business, which last year had $95 million in sales.
From the moment we begin talking, Tomoko demurs, suggesting there is nothing so interesting about her that would fill the paragraphs of a story.
“This is really just a grocery business, it’s not rocket science. I think my family is more interesting than me -- what they are to Seattle and to the Japanese community.”
(some of the colorful shelves at Seattle’s Uwajimaya)
Uwajimaya, named for the Japanese town of Uwajima where Tomoko’s father Fujimatsu Moriguchi learned his trade (the suffix ‘ya’ means ‘store’), began in 1928, when he started making fish cakes in Tacoma to sell to the Japanese farmers and fishermen around Washington State. It was part of his plan to make $5,000 and then return to Japan. “My father was very, very poor. He had just a seventh grade education, if even that.”
But before Fujimatsu Moriguchi could realize his dream, the war came, and with it Executive Order 9066 in 1942 which forcibly relocated to internment camps 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, the Moriguchi family included.
An arranged marriage had partnered Fujimatsu to Sadako Tsutakawa, sister to George Tsutakawa who later would achieve international renown as a Seattle sculptor. Mr. and Mrs. Moriguchi had sent their oldest child, a girl, to Japan before they were interned. Tomoko, their youngest child, was born in the land of the free but not in freedom. She was the last child born in the internment camp in Tule Lake California, her sister having the distinction of being the first child born there.
Tule Lake, in northern California, was one of the most infamous of the internment camps. Prisoners there held frequent demonstrations and strikes, demanding their rights under the U.S. Constitution. As a result, it was made a "segregation camp," and internees from other camps who had refused to take the loyalty oath or had caused disturbances were sent to Tule Lake. At its peak, Tule Lake held 18,789 internees. Tule Lake was also one of the last camps to be closed, staying open until March 20, 1946. -- J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
With two other children born before and three born in camp, the Moriguchis were released in 1945 -- a family of six children with $75 in their father’s pocket, the dreams of returning to Japan having vanished like the smoke from an incense burner. “So, we came back to Seattle and moved into what I learned a little while ago was a barn -- I always thought our house was a little bit strange,” her voice floats higher as her eyes roll upward. “You know, we were very poor but we didn’t know we were poor because we had such good people in our lives.”
Her father started a store at 4th and Main in Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Little Japan Town, an area just a shadow of what it had been before it was cleared of many of its residents. “It was a very small Uwajimaya store where he made his fishcakes again.”
The family worked hard. “Oh, we lived in the store, my mother and father worked 7 days a week; 15 - 20 hours a day.” Knowing a life of poverty, Fujimatsu was determined that his children would have greater opportunities, starting with a solid education. Undoubtedly reflective of his recent experience he would tell his children, “There are many things that can be taken away from you, but not an education.”
Of the seven children, every one went to college with the exception of the oldest sister in Japan. Represented among them are engineering degrees, chemistry degrees, home economics, and Tomoko’s fine arts degree.
(Left: Fujimatsu outside the original Seattle Uwajimaya)
While he was still alive, her father gave the business to the four boys. “He expected the girls to get married and not do anything.” With the sad passing of the family patriarch in 1962, Tomoko’s brother Tomio Moriguchi left his job at the Boeing Company where he was working as an engineer, and took over the family business, running it for the next 40 years.
Meanwhile, the youngest sibling Tomoko, was working as a graphic artist in San Francisco, living near her sister. Tomoko married her husband, Koji Matsuno, a San Francisco native, and they had two daughters. But when her sister announced that she was moving back to Seattle for her husband to take a job with the family business, Tomoko told her own husband that they would be leaving, too. “He was an engineer for the Navy, and I told him he would have to transfer.”
When she came back was it to be involved in the business? “No, no, no, no. Trust me, this is not what I thought I’d be doing today,” she says sotto voce.
And what did she think she would be doing? “I didn’t think anything beyond just bringing up my kids. I do everything for them, but I’m a tiger mom, too. People criticize that woman, I don’t criticize her. First of all, she’s not telling you what to do. That’s the way I brought them up, we were tough and they’re successful. I didn’t beat them, but we were tough.”
Shortly after her return to Seattle, “I was working part-time, fixing up the stores, setting up the displays. It was just a nice way for my family to give me a job. Actually,” she says conspiratorially, “I don’t know if they did give the job to me -- I think I just ended up doing it. We always kid that no one would hire us so we all had to come back to the family business.”
Over the years, her job at Uwajimaya grew to entail oversight of much of the business’s day-to-day operations. Tomoko was the one responsible for opening new stores in Beaverton, Oregon and in Bellevue and Renton, Washington. Along the way, she put her artistic flair to work in designing vivid store displays.
Then in November 2000, Uwajimaya made its second Seattle move since the 4th and Main location, to anchor Uwajimaya Village. Along with the grocery and gift market, the 66,000 square foot retail space includes Kinokuniya Bookstore, an Asian food court, underground parking and several other retail stores and services. Above the store sits the 176-unit Uwajimaya Village Apartments. Altogether, it represents a project of incredible magnitude for a family business.
(You can read more about the business in this Seattle Times story commemorating the 80th anniversary of Uwajimaya).
(Exterior of Uwajimaya Seattle; Village apartments visible above)
“And then, the four brothers for some crazy reason all retired within years of each other and they said, oh, we’re going to have you run it.” Tomoko was 62.
Her answer? “Well, I guess there’s no one else to do it,” she says with her eyes moving from side to side, feigning a search for an alternative. “We wanted a family member. So I thought, I think I can do it for a year (I’m in my third year now). But I’m very, very bad with numbers. I’m an art major! And my brothers said, we’ll just put good people around you and that’s what I have -- I have really good people around me. So, what choice do I have?” she asks as if scheming to find another solution.
“I was already doing so much of the day to day operations for the retail -- but I didn’t have the wholesale and everything else. But I’m always good at telling people what to do,” she says mischievously, her eyes sparkling.
She jokes about what the first days were like. “I just sort of sat around and thought, hmmm,” her shoulders hunched as if her goal were to make herself even smaller than she already was. “You know, I don’t have a secretary, I don’t have an assistant. It wasn’t like I was in a whole new world where people were driving me around and bringing me lunch -- in fact, I have to go out there and beg people to get me something,” she says, faking outrage.
She acknowledges that much of what she knows about the business comes from having been in it basically all her life. “I not just grew up in it but I understood from my brothers which were the important parts.
“The store is us and we are the store.”
The store seems to function as the sun in this family’s solar system. Each of the siblings, like planets, may rotate independently but their orbits always bring them back to Uwajimaya. Over time, each of the siblings have added to the family network, like moons to the planets, but still they all feel the gravitational pull of a business in its third and fourth generations, that is open seven days a week for most every day of each year after year. And like the sun, its steady presence becomes indistinguishable from the daily pace of life. It is no wonder there are no apparent boundaries in Tomoko between the personal and the business, from a chat with a neighbor to instructions regarding a contract. In addition to her Japanese upbringing, to which she attributes her reticence to take credit, the business is such an intrinsic aspect of daily life that it often goes unnoticed for how amazing it really is.
At this point in the interview Tomoko stops to challenge me. “How interesting is this? It’s so weird to think that anyone would want to read about me. Running the grocery store -- that’s not interesting, that’s second nature.”
After she describes all that is part of this family business, including an arm that sells wholesale products to Asian restaurants, I challenge her initial premise that this isn’t much like rocket science. It sounds pretty complicated to me.
“I wish I could say it is but because we’re in it every single day and it’s human. Retail is like farming -- you have to work with what you have, you have to have good common sense, good social skills, you have to think fast, and because you’re working in a grocery store, you can’t tell everyone to go to hell.”
I ask what changes Tomoko has witnessed in the decades her family has been growing the business. “It used to be (in the original Seattle store) that people actually worked for us -- and I don’t mean this in a power play at all -- because we were a business. Now the company works for the employees to give them good jobs and good benefits.” I note the 401(k) seminar we passed and she nods her head. “Thirty-seven cents of every dollar goes to employee benefits. For a small Asian family business, we work hard to take care of our 500 employees. We want our employees to be citizens, to pay their taxes, to get the same privileges of any other person.”
She points out that if the philosophy weren’t so ingrained, the family “would have taken a lot of money out of the business to drive fancy-dancy cars, but that doesn’t suit us. Now, were not starving,” she states sincerely, to assure me that martyrdom isn’t part of the business plan, “but we are not here to live the kind of life that we wouldn’t know what to do with.”
Where their clientele was once all Japanese, they are now 50% non-Asian in all their stores, and their Asian products represent every part of the continent. “The mix makes it stronger,” she says noting that the mix comes not just from the products they sell but from the different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and 30 native languages represented in their employee base. “But our policy is that you can only speak English on the floor unless a customer asks for something in another language. Because we’re America,” she says with a mixture of national pride and retail pragmatics. “We find it insulting to customers if we’re talking away in a language they don’t understand.
Has she changed during these three years of being in charge? “Yeah, a lot, but I can’t tell you exactly how because they are subtle things. I understand numbers better but I still hate them. Numbers are good but your heart is even more important.
“At the end of the year if we didn’t make $1 million but we made $900,000 and we did it by not letting people go -- the numbers can’t always drive you. If we were a public company, the investors would come in and tar and feather me. But for all my life working in this business, there are many stupid things I have done, not once have I been reprimanded. But also, my family figures since I never listen to them, why tell her?”
Tomoko sees herself in this position for another two years, but her family insists it will take longer than that to groom other family members to take over. And when she’s done being a CEO? “I’m going to find myself in either art or food or both. I like to cook, but I also have this art in me. I do crazy things with fabric. Somewhere I’ll find a mix with my art and my food, but I don’t know what it is yet. And I would like to tell women, in Japan mostly, that they don’t have to abide by the old rules.”
Before our interview comes to a close, Tomoko pauses to check her cell phone for a message. “My lawyer’s wife fell down today and he said he would call the minute she was diagnosed.” We leave the supply closet whereupon Tomoko issues a few more jokes to the office workers and a couple instructions regarding a contract negotiation before heading downstairs to see an old friend. I leave her by the rice sacks, talking to a customer just as I had found her a couple hours earlier.
Tomoko’s Not-So Secrets for How She Does It?
- You know what I’ve gotten with age? I’ve been able to kiss off worrying about things I have no control over.
- If she had a group of Japanese women here what would she would tell them? “First of all, if you’re a mother, be a good mother, be a good wife, a good partner, whatever you are. I’ve had the opportunity to break some silly social glass ceilings both for my family and myself. I would tell them, you have to not feel inferior. There is always something you can do -- I don’t mean reinvent the light bulb, but even the littlest thing, every single day, if you have some control to make it better, you need to make it better. I think, as women, we sort of think, oh, somebody else should do that, especially in the Japanese community. You don’t have to be a leader, but you can focus everyday on what you can do. That’s the advice I would give them.”
- I’m always figuring out how to have a really good time, but the good time comes because you’ve had some crappy times.
- Being able to wake up is a good time. Everything is a good time, even when my mother died it was a good time because she suffered so much.
- I always have a really good time with my two girls when we take a good trip -- those REALLY are good times. My other good times? Just laughing. I love laughing -- I feel that it’s really good for your heart.
What has Tomoko read recently?
- Besides every grocery article in the whole entire world now? I read the newspapers inside out. I read the NBA sports stories. I’m a Kobe Bryant freak. I was very sick one year and I had to stay in bed, and the NBA playoffs were on. What I was admiring about Kobe, not only do I think he’s cute, but he had this incredible physical talent. I fell in love with him. And of course his name is Kobe -- probably because his mother liked Kobe beef. I am just impressed with NBA physical talent -- you can see them do nine things in half a second -- if you don’t admire that there’s something wrong with you. I love basketball. I’ll lie to people, if a game is on and there’s something I have to go to, I’ll lie in order to watch it.
Whom does Tomoko want me to interview next?
- Megan Macphee -- a young woman who is an artist, going through melanoma. Her story is amazing -- the art piece she’s creating is just amazing. It is something she needs to be doing.
- Mickey Flowers -- she used to be on channel 7 news. She’s done a lot with the African American museum. She’s one of twin sisters -- it would be very interesting to interview them together.