Uwajimaya CEO visits BC

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

On Tuesday, May 28, in N-201, the Asian Student Association sponsored a lecture by Tomio Moriguchi, founder of Uwajimaya, as part of Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Uwajimaya is a branch of Japanese supermarkets in the region.

Members of the ASA, students taking business classes and a number of faculty and staff attended the lecture.

Moriguchi explained the struggle his family went through after founding the very first Uwajimaya in 1928 and their successful journey to where they are today.

His family was originally from Uwajima, a city by the sea in Japan, where they were trained in the fish business, processing and retailing sea product. Coming to America, Moriguchi’s father hoped to put this to use and founded the first store in Tacoma. He was 20 years old and had come with the hope of beginning a fish company with his original training in processing fish into fish cake.

However it all came to an abrupt end when World War II broke out and the family was sent to Tule Lake.

In 1946, Moriguchi’s father met a destitute man from the Philippines who was selling his business. With only $300 in his pocket, Moriguchi bought the store and was able to open the first Uwajimaya in Seattle named after his city of origin with an added “ya” meaning store in Japanese.

Uwajimaya was originally intended to cater to Japanese customers, but statistics show that only 40 percent of present day customers are Japanese or of Japanese decent.

“It was interesting because in high school I took Japanese for two years and we had a trip to Uwajimaya. It was cool to see the person in charge, his life story and how he did it,” said Mehak Nadeem, a business student at BC. “It was kind of cool to see regardless of the war and racism how  [Moriguchi’s family] maintained the business and now there’s one [branch] in Oregon and different locations. It was really interesting. There were inspiring moments, the father came here with nothing and he ended up with a multi-million dollar business.”

As chairman of Uwajimaya, Moriguchi’s greatest challenge was the different business culture in Japan. However, he overcame it to “incorporate the best of Japan in America.” Another challenge was he had never studied business as a school subject, yet was able to learn by hands on experience.

“We were hoping he would explain it from the perspective of someone who is completely outside [the Asian community],” said Alvin Loong, vice president of ASA.  “He did explain a lot about his life, there were a lot of things about him that tied into the Asian American community, for example the Japanese internment during WWII.”

Loong observed how the image of Asian Americans has transformed since WWII: “Prior to WWII no one knew what sushi was in the U.S. Now you go anywhere in the U.S. and you find a sushi restaurant.”

To Loong, as with Nadeem, Moriguchi’s story was one of hope, perseverance and success. Loong commented how despite all the racism, Moriguchi’s family was able to be successful, beginning with $300 to now owning a business that makes hundreds of millions.