George Aratani


Name George Aratani
Born May 22 1917
Died February 19 2013
Birth Location South Park, CA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Nisei entrepreneur and philanthropist. Leveraging his bilingual abilities, Japanese college education, and family contacts, George Aratani (1917-2013) successfully launched post-World War II international trade enterprises. His first was Mikasa, a tableware company which was doing $400 million in annual sales when it was sold in 2000. Influenced by his late father and motivated by the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Aratani and his wife Sakaye have donated a sizable amount of their wealth to Japanese American organizations and causes.

Contents

Only Son of Agricultural Leader

George Tetsuo Aratani was born in the strawberry-growing area of South Park near Gardena, California, on May 22, 1917. His Issei parents, Setsuo and Yoshiko, then moved their small family unit to San Fernando Valley and finally Guadalupe, a coastal town about 170 miles north of Los Angeles. Guadalupe was where Setsuo developed an agricultural empire of 5,000 acres of vegetables, a chili dehydrating plant, a hog farm, a fertilizer and chemical factory, and even an international trade company.

While Yoshiko had a son and a daughter from her first marriage, George was the only child of the couple. A handsome and talented athlete, George was even being scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team in high school, but a football injury derailed his aspirations for a possible professional sports career. After graduating from high school, George was convinced by his parents to forgo an education at Stanford University for undergraduate studies in Japan. The family, in fact, were all in Tokyo when Yoshiko, who suffered from chronic asthma, died in December 1935. (Setsuo later remarried Yoshiko's niece, Masuko.)

To honor his late mother's wishes, George continued on in Japan and eventually studied law at the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo. Before George could graduate, his father was severely weakened by tuberculosis back in California and eventually died in April 1940.

Guadalupe Produce Company

The 22-year-old Aratani then had to take over the leadership of Guadalupe Produce Company immediately before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, Setsuo had recruited very trustworthy Issei and Nisei employees, who came to Aratani's aid. Assets for the business were transferred to Nisei executives as a precautionary measure. In spite of this transfer, Aratani was still forced to hand over Guadalupe Produce Company to trustees as he and his stepmother were sent to Tulare Assembly Center and then Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.

While in Gila, Aratani was being pursued by the Superintendent of Banks, a government agency that had taken over the assets of Sumitomo Bank. Freezing all Japanese bank accounts, the government demanded repayment of loan that had been issued to Setsuo by Sumitomo before the war. Aratani's problems intensified: he contracted coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, a respiratory disease attributed to the dusty conditions in camp.

Frustrated by the lack of information that could be obtained from behind barbed wire, Aratani and the rest of the board felt that they had no recourse but to sell the farm operation to the trustees. The amount received barely covered the income tax that was due.[1]

As many of his peers were being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, Aratani joined the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as a civilian language instructor at the school in Minnesota. Upon leaving Gila for Minnesota, he married a Nisei woman, Sakaye Inouye, who had been incarcerated in nearby Poston. They eventually had two daughters, Donna and Linda.

Mikasa

In 1946, Aratani decided that it was time to launch an international trade business in Los Angeles. Resurrecting his father's prewar company name, All Star Trading, he was reminded of his father's maxim: "Find good people and work as a team. You only have twenty-four hours a day. Treat your people well." As a result, he assembled a team which included men who used to work for Guadalupe Produce Company. His new venture was later renamed American Commercial, Inc.

In the early years of the company, Aratani experimented with various imports—from dried abalone from Mexico and shell buttons from Japan. They finally began to gain headway with chinaware from Japan. The brand, Mikasa, was officially launched in December 1957. Known for its contemporary bargain sets rather than fine china, Mikasa quickly gained traction in national department stores based in New York City. Instead of having its own factories, as was the practice of many companies at the time, American Commercial commissioned various Japanese manufacturers to produce American-inspired designs.

Aratani went on to other enterprises, including AMCO, an exporter of U.S.-made medical and scientific equipment, in 1951 and Kenwood, a seller of Japanese high-fidelity stereo equipment, in 1961. Both ventures involved other Nisei men who Aratani had befriended in either Guadalupe or the MIS.

Postwar Philanthropy

As Aratani found success in his business endeavors, he began to also get involved in philanthropic activities. With another successful Nisei businessman, Fred Wada, he went on an early fact-finding mission to Japan in 1964 to raise money for a nursing home for aging Issei in Los Angeles, predecessor of Keiro Senior HealthCare. Aratani discovered that there was no precedence for giving to U.S.-based charities. As a result, he worked with the Keidanren, a Japanese consortium of financial and industrial companies, to grant Keiro tax-exempt status. For the completion of the Japanese Nursing Home (now renamed Keiro Nursing Home), Aratani was among the founders to put up their homes as loan collateral.[2]

His wife Sakaye was also active with various social causes within the Japanese and Japanese American communities, ranging from collecting nylons for postwar widows in Japan to assisting Japanese philanthropist Miki Sawada with her campaign to clothe orphans living in Brazil.

The same year Mikasa, Inc. went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1994, the couple launched the Aratani Foundation. (Mikasa was sold to France-based J.G. Durand Industries, Inc. in 2000. Both Kenwood and AMCO have been sold to Japanese entities.)

The Aratani Foundation has supported dozens of Japanese American organizations and programs, mostly based in Southern California, but also some nationally-based ones.

A number of physical spaces within Los Angeles's Little Tokyo have been named after the couple, reflecting their monetary support. Notable ones are the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's Aratani Japan America Theatre; the Japanese American National Museum's George and Sakaye Central Hall; and the Union Center for the Arts's Aratani Courtyard.

"It is my philosophy to help the ones hurt by the mass evacuation," George said. "I myself lost the family business. Eighty-five to ninety-five percent goes to Japanese American organizations."[3]

In 1983 Sakaye received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Fourth Order from the Japanese government. Five years later, George would get his own kunsho medal, Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette.

The couple resided in Hollywood Hills, in the same home custom built for them by Sakaye's brother-in-law in 1958. Aratani passed away on February 19, 2013 at the age of 95.

Authored by Naomi Hirahara

For More Information

Hirahara, Naomi. An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood. Los Angeles, CA: Japanese American National Museum, 2001.

Hirahara, Naomi, and Shelley Kwan, eds. Fifty Years, 50 Stories: Celebrate All Things Keiro. Los Angeles, CA: Keiro Senior HealthCare, 2010.

Footnotes

  1. Naomi Hirahara, An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood (Los Angeles, CA: Japanese American National Museum, 2001), 110.
  2. Naomi Hirahara and Shelley Kwan, eds., Fifty Years, 50 Stories: Celebrate All Things Keiro (Los Angeles, CA: Keiro Senior HealthCare, 2010), 74.
  3. Hirahara and Kwan, Fifty Years, 50 Stories, 277.