Matsujiro Otani

Name Matsujiro Otani
Born April 23 1890
Died 1972
Birth Location Yamaguchi-ken, Japan
Generational Identifier


From peddling fish out of the back of a horse-drawn cart through the streets of old Honolulu, Matsujiro Otani rose to become one of the most prominent figures in Hawai'i's commercial fishing industry. He expanded a modest retail operation into an import and wholesale conglomerate during Hawai'i's "golden age" of commercial fishing, when Nikkei dominated and controlled the industry. Along with other leaders of the Hawai'i Issei community, he spent the duration of World War II in mainland internment camps, returning to the islands after the war to develop what would become the largest commercial fresh fish auction in the United States.

Youth in Japan and Immigration to Hawai'i

Otani was born in 1890, the second son of a prosperous fish merchant on tiny Okikamuro Island in the Inland Sea off of Yamaguchi Prefecture's eastern coast. He grew up in a community defined by fishing; his father owned a fleet of twenty boats whose daily catch was sold to fellow villagers. At the age of thirteen, Matsujiro dropped out of school to work for his father, weighing the haul of seabream, yellowtail, horse mackerel, and octopus. At times he was a fisherman or a boat builder, but the work was always related to the sea. [1]

By the late 1800s, fishing expeditions were taking the men of Okikamuro beyond the island's coastal waters to the Korean peninsula, eastern China, and eventually the Hawaiian Islands. [2] When he was sixteen, Otani decided that he too would reach for a distant shore. He initially set his sights on Korea, but the sponsorship for that journey fell through. At about this time, two Okikamuro natives were establishing on Hawai'i Island a business dedicated to the buying and selling of fresh fish. A visit home to Okikamuro by one of the successful immigrants impressed Otani profoundly. "I became very excited when he told me that in one catch, you could easily make a profit of $2.00. I decided to go to Hawaii instead of Korea," Otani would recall. [3]

He arrived in Honolulu in January 1908, just after the contract labor period had come to a close, and as a "free immigrant" worked for the next few years at what jobs came his way: as a "school boy" in the home of a Caucasian family where he earned a dollar a week, as a yard boy, and a truck driver. [4] Otani worked briefly at a camp store on Maui run by a fellow immigrant from Okikamuro and then moved back to Ō'ahu in response to an appeal for those willing to open retail fish stalls in a new market in downtown Honolulu. [5]

At about this time, Otani also joined other fishmongers in mounting a legal challenge to the practice by local officials of harassment and pecuniary sanctions leveled against fish peddlers in Honolulu. A court victory and the legalization of peddling in hand, Otani took to the streets with a horse and wagon and fresh fish obtained at auction. [6]

I would leave my home every day at 5:00 in the morning, purchase fresh fish at the market and from around 11:00 a.m. I would make my rounds throughout the city selling my fish to my clients. At one time I traveled 33 miles all the way to Wahiawa to sell fresh fish. Sometimes I would be back at 7 pm but at other times it would be past 9:00. [7]

Otani was by now married to Kane Yanagihara, the Nisei daughter of another Okikamuro native. His family, which would soon grow to include five sons and four daughters, made their home in Kaka'ako, a community of Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, and Japanese fishing families, including many from Okikamuro. In addition to helping Otani with his fish stall, Kane worked, as did many of the women of Kaka'ako, at the nearby fish cannery. [8]

In 1918, Otani moved his fish stall several blocks west into the new Aala Market, which housed more than thirty independent wholesalers and retailers who catered to the immigrant community with a fresh fish auction, groceries, butcher shops, and tofu and rice stores. [9]

Prewar Success in the Commercial Fishing Industry

Over the next decade, the Japanese, through fishing companies that owned boats, employed fishermen, ran fish auctions, controlled retail and wholesale distribution, and oversaw advances in fishing techniques and product storage, secured their dominance over the commercial fishing industry in the islands. [10] With a shop in Aala Market, then the busiest Japanese retail outlet on the island, Otani was part of this wave, steadily expanding his business to encompass not just fresh fish retailing, but also large-scale direct importing of foodstuffs and the wholesale distribution of those products. He contracted with Nikkei businesses on the mainland West Coast and with large Japanese corporations to bring in to the islands barrels of black cod, fresh and salted salmon, canned crab, and even herring roe-coated seaweed from Alaska. He became the supplier of fresh fish and other seafood to the submarines and battleships of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, a business relationship that would endure until World War II. During this time, he joined the management of Hawaii Suisan, a Honolulu fishing company that operated what was then the islands' largest auction and one of its largest sampan fishing fleets. [11] He also launched a highly profitable kamaboko (fish cake) factory in Aala Market to process surplus fish. By this time, his company, Otani Shokai, was already one of largest fishing enterprises in the territory. [12]

In 1938, twenty years after moving his fish stall into Aala Market, Otani's corporation purchased the marketplace site from land giant Lowell Dillingham and his Oahu Railway and Land Company. [13] Several family members were now active in the Otani corporation, including eldest son, Jay Jiro [14] ; second son, Akira; daughters, Florence and Gladys; and brother, Usanosuke, along with the influential Honolulu attorney William Heen. [15] By 1940, Otani was the largest fish dealer in the territory, maintaining an inventory of some 200,000 pounds of fish in cold storage to fill his army and navy contracts. [16]

Internment During World War II

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Otani and his family were preparing for the finale of a grand, four-day celebration to mark the formal re-opening of the newly renovated Aala Market Place. [17] In disbelief they watched as Japanese bombers roared above the skies and black smoke billowed from Pearl Harbor.

The FBI arrested Otani that afternoon at his home in Manoa Valley. [18] Along with others of the first group of Issei seized on Ō'ahu Island, Otani spent the next several days in confinement at the Honolulu office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. [19] He was then transferred to the Sand Island Internment Camp where he was held while awaiting his appearance before a Hearing Board of Officers and Civilians. His hearing took place over three days in late January 1942, during which he was represented by Heen.

The government's case against Otani rested on its concerns that as "virtually dictator of the Japanese sampan fleet," Otani had been managing the "undercover work" of the sampan fishermen. His Aala Marketplace celebration in the days leading up to December 7 was seen as having been a cover for his involvement in the Pearl Harbor attack. Moreover, Otani's participation in a series of interlocking directorships involving fishing companies, sales outlets, and his own corporation was seen to engender collusion and price-fixing. The government suspected that his monopoly over seafood provisioning for Pearl Harbor was maintained through a system of kickbacks and his control of local commercial fishing. Despite having found no evidence of subversion, the board concluded nevertheless that Otani's role in the fishing industry and his presumed loyalty to Japan were sufficient grounds for ordering his internment. [20] He was sent to the mainland in June 1942. [21]

Otani was processed through the Immigration Station on Angel Island and then sent to the Lordsburg Internment Camp in New Mexico, where he was held for a year. In June 1943, Otani was transferred to the Santa Fe Internment Camp . [22] That fall, he was visited by second son Akira, then a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The visit was bittersweet, as Akira was to be soon sent to the Italian front. [23]

And then, as he bravely departed, I told him to take care. But it was just a cheerful front to send him off to war. The father, under the label of an enemy Japanese, has been interned; the son, as an American soldier, is leaving for the war front. I wondered, can there be this kind of cynical contradiction? Yes, there was much of it at every camp. One could say that this too was one of the tragedies born of war. At the end of our visit, I shook Akira's hand. Secretly, in my heart, I prayed to the kami and the Buddha that he would go in good health and, as an American soldier, fight fiercely for the sake of his country. With these thoughts, I sent him off. After that, for about three months, I had no news from Akira. Was he well on the European front, fighting for his motherland? I worried about this day and night. And then, we learned the news that the men of our 100th Battalion had all perished in the battle at Cassino, Italy. Those of us from Hawaii were anxious. We could not sleep at night and worried constantly. [24]

And then, a letter from Akira arrived. About a week after their visit, Akira had received orders to attend Officer Candidate School. He had not been sent to Italy; he had not perished at Cassino. [25]

Three other sons, Kenji, Theodore Toshiro, and Gilbert Hideo, also served in the U.S. military, as the elder Otani languished in the internment system. [26] In addition, eldest son, Jay, served in broadcast intelligence in Hawai'i during the war. [27]

In July 1944, Matsujiro was paroled to the War Relocation Authority camp of Amache in Colorado, where he remained until the end of the war. [28]

Continued Success after the War

Otani returned to the islands after the war to find the family corporation intact. [29] The postwar development of supermarkets saw the eventual decline of Aala Marketplace as a shopping center, but it contributed to the expansion of Otani's importing and wholesale distribution of seafood products from Japan and other parts of the Pacific Rim. [30]

Otani's most visible postwar success came with the establishment in 1952 of the United Fishing Agency and its Honolulu Fish Auction. Before the war, nearly a dozen Japanese-run fishing companies had thrived in Honolulu, but wartime restrictions decimated Japanese commercial fishing and severely reduced the number of fishing companies and fish auctions in the city, so that through the fifties and sixties only two remained: UFA and its rival King Fishing Company. [31] Initially operating out of the Aala Marketplace site, UFA's fish auction was patterned after the well-known Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Fishermen brought in their fresh catch, which was auctioned directly to buyers and brokers, who in turn sold the fresh fish to supermarkets, seafood retailers, restaurants, and hotels in Hawaii's burgeoning tourist industry. What made the Honolulu Fish Auction innovative and contributed to its success was that it paid fishermen in cash on the day of auction. With the dissolution of King Fishing Company in the late 1960s, UFA's operation became the only large-scale, commercial, fresh fish auction in the country. By the new millennium, nearly three-fourths of all the marine catch in the state was sold through UFA's Honolulu Fish Auction. [32]

Otani would also play a role in the overall postwar revival of Hawai'i's fishing industry through his advocacy and promotion of fishing. Through speeches and articles, he pressed for government support of an industry that had been gutted during World War II, urging intervention similar to that given to farming. [33] He also recruited fishermen from Okinawa to fill the ranks of the depleted fishing fleets, bringing in dozens of individuals on three-year contracts. [34] The move temporarily filled the postwar shortage of fishermen, but over time members of other ethnic groups entered the industry, bringing an end to the era of Japanese dominance of commercial fishing in Hawaii.

Otani died in 1972. His descendants continue to manage and operate fishing ventures Otani first established nearly a century ago.

Authored by Sheila H. Chun

For More Information

Charlot, Peter and Scott C.S. Stone. Otani . Honolulu: Island Heritage Press, 2003.

Kimura, Yukiko. Issei: Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Odo, Franklin. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i During World War II . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Ogawa, Manako. Sea of Opportunity: The Japanese Pioneers of the Fishing Industry in Hawai'i . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015.

Okihiro, Michael M. A’ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawaii . Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, 2003.

Otani, Akira. "Oral history Interview with Akira Otani." April 14, April 20, and May 5, 1983. Interview by Michiko Kodama-Nishimoto. Aala: Oral History Interviews [with] Robert Sato, Sumiko Yanagisako, Jane Komeiji, Kazue Uyeda, Akira Otani, Hideo Kawano, Toso Haseyama . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Center for Oral History, n.d.

———. Interview by Tom Ikeda, March 3, 2011, Honolulu, Hawaii, Densho Digital Archive, Densho Digital History Collection; .

Otani, Matsujiro. My Footprints: Reflections on 80 Years of My Life . Translation of Waga hito to narishi ashiato: 80-nen no kaiko . Honolulu: Otani Shokai, 1971. Photocopy.

———. Waga hito to narishi ashiato: 80-nen no kaiko . Honolulu: Otani Shokai, 1971.

Schug, Donald M. " Hawai'i's Commerical Fishing Industry: 1820—1945 ." The Hawaiian Journal of History 35 (2001): 15-34.

Suzuki, Kei. "Matsujiro Otani." Hawai'i Herald , Oct. 7, 2007, C-8.

Tago, Katsuya. "Hawaii's Fishing Industry and the Japanese." Annual Report on Trade in Hawaii, September 30, 1913, 106–08. In Tsuneichi Yamamoto, ed. The Rainbow, a Bridge: A 70-Year History of the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce . Honolulu: Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, 1970.


  1. Matsujiro Otani, Waga hito to narishi ashiato: 80-nen no kaiko (Honolulu: Otani Shokai, 1971), 2, 171; translation of Waga hito published as My Footprints: Reflections on 80 Years of My Life (Honolulu: Otani Shokai, 1971); Akira Otani, interview by Tom Ikeda, Densho Digital Archive, Densho Digital History Collection, 3 March 2011, Honolulu, Hawaii, accessed on Jan. 16, 2018 at .
  2. Manako Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity: The Japanese Pioneers of the Fishing Industry in Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015), 21, 41-42.
  3. In 1907, Okikamuro natives Kamezo Matsuno and Isojiro Kitagawa established in the town of Hilo on Hawai'i Island what would become the highly successful Suisan Fish Market, the first Japanese enterprise in the islands dedicated to the merchandising of fresh fish. For Otani's description of the dissolution of his Korea plans and the impact of Kitagawa's visit, see Otani, Waga hito , 3. This translated quote is from Otani, My Footprints , 2. The tale of Otani's perseverance and his clever negotiations with an immigration company in the pursuit of his ambition have been discussed by historian Franklin Odo in the context of a larger mythology about Japanese American success. See Odo, No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i During World War II (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 29-30.
  4. "Record of the Hearings of a Board of Officers and Civilians, In the Case of Matsujiro Otani," 26, 27, 30 Jan 1942, Case File #146-13-2-21-242: Otani, Matsujiro; digital reproduction courtesy of Grant Din and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Also Otani, Waga hito , 21-22.
  5. Otani, Waga hito , 23-29, 33. Otani responded to a call for fishmongers at downtown Honolulu's King Fish Market, which was run by the Hawaii Fishing Company, one of the largest of the Japanese fishing enterprises. Hawaii Fishing also operated a fresh fish auction at the market, owned a fleet of fifty fishing boats, and employed some 370 fishermen. One of the principals of the company was the prominent Honolulu newspaper publisher Yasutaro Soga . For more on the establishment of other early Japanese fishing companies, see Otani, "Nikkei gyogyō kaisha no hensen o kataru," in Otani, Waga hito , 113-14; Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 47-49; Katsuya Tago, "Hawaii's Fishing Industry and the Japanese," September 1913, in Tsuneichi Yamamoto, ed., The Rainbow, a Bridge: A 70-Year History of the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce (Honolulu: Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, 1970), 107-08.
  6. Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 58; Otani, Waga hito , 34.
  7. Otani, My Footprints , 12.
  8. The fish cannery, opened in 1917, would later become Hawaiian Tuna Packers, producers of Hawai'i's third largest commercial export after sugar and pineapple. Its location at Kewalo Basin allowed Japanese sampan fleets to bring their tuna catch straight to the cannery doors and the wives of the fishermen to provide close to 90 percent of the factory's female work force. Otani, Waga hito , 19, 34, 171; Peter Charlot and Scott C.S. Stone, Otani (Honolulu: Island Heritage Press, 2003), 18; "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 14, 20 April 1993, 5 May 1993, interview by Michiko Kodama-Nishimoto in Aala: Oral History Interviews [with] Robert Sato, Sumiko Yanagisako, Jane Komeiji, Kazue Uyeda, Akira Otani, Hideo Kawano, Toso Haseyama (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Center for Oral History, n.d.), 201; Donald M. Schug, "Hawai'i's Commerical Fishing Industry: 1820—1945," The Hawaiian Journal of History 35 (2001): 19-22, accessed on Oct. 3, 2014 at ; Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 76-77.
  9. Otani, Waga hito , 53, 171; Michael M.Okihiro, et al., A'ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawai'i (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, 2003), 25; "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 234.
  10. Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 6, 56.
  11. A group of Yamaguchi men had purchased Hawaii Fishing Company in 1922, renaming it Hawaii Suisan and filling all of its executive positions with prefecture men, including Otani.
  12. "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 231-33; Otani, Waga hito , 37-38, 44, 48, 171; Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 53, 59-60; Schug, 23; Charlot and Stone, Otani , 17.
  13. Otani, Waga hito , 172; William Heen, "Foreword," in Otani, Waga hito , n.p.; "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 242.
  14. For an alternative depiction of Matsujiro's role in the Otani enterprises during this time period, see Jay Otani's biography penned by Peter Charlot and Scott C.S. Stone, Otani . Matsujiro's health had apparently always been precarious, and during negotiations over the Aala Market, he suffered a massive heart attack, which, according to Jay Otani, rendered Matsujiro incapable of handling the significant aspects of the Otani businesses, including the negotiations for the purchase of the market. Jay Otani suggests that from this point on he and attorney William Heen directed the Otani businesses and oversaw their day-to-day operations. Heen, who helped negotiate the purchase of the Aala property, was named to executive positions in Otani's parent corporation and the Aala Market venture. Akira Otani also identifies his brother as the "key man" behind the purchase and management of the Market Place; see "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 242.
  15. The Hawaiian-Chinese Heen was a prominent figure in Honolulu politics. He was a circuit court judge and Ō'ahu county attorney, defended four local men accused of rape in the infamous Massie Case , and served in the territorial Senate for thirty years, where he was president from 1955 to 1957. Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 146; Bob Dye, "Long Era of Public Duty by Heens Comes to End," Honolulu Advertiser , April 22, 2001, accessed on Jan. 28, 2016 at .
  16. Otani Case File.
  17. "Formal Opening," Nippu Jiji , December 4, 1941. In November 1940, Otani's business suffered a setback when a fire at the Market Place killed a worker and damaged most of the retail stalls in the old, wooden structure. A reconstruction effort was launched to turn the old marketplace into a modern, concrete shopping center. Okihiro, A'ala , 27; Otani, Waga hito , 56-59
  18. Otani, Waga hito , 61. An oral history interview of Otani's son Akira recounts the events of that afternoon. See Akira Otani, Densho interview. A similar description of Matsujiro's arrest also appears in Odo, No Sword to Bury , 112.
  19. Otani, Waga hito , 61-62. For a description of these first days of imprisonment at the INS, see the internment memoirs of Yasutaro Soga and Kumaji Furuya.
  20. Otani Case File.
  21. "Matsujiro Otani Internment Sequence," Tatsumi Hayashi, ed., Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii Internee Database . For Otani's depictions of Sand Island events like the Okano Incident and the death of Hisahiko Kokubo, see Otani, Waga hito , 64, 67.
  22. "Matsujiro Otani Internment Sequence."
  23. For a reproduction of a letter Akira wrote to his sister Florence about his visit with his father, see Gail Okawa, "Hawaii Japanese Internee Fathers and American Military Sons in Santa Fe," New Mexico, accessed on April 17, 2014 at ; Otani, Waga hito , 81-82.
  24. Otani, Waga hito , 81-82.
  25. Otani, Waga hito , 82. Prior to serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , Akira had been an officer with the Hawaii Territorial Guard and the Varsity Victory Volunteers . He went on to attend the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling , Minnesota, and was sent to Japan after the war with the U.S. Occupation forces. For more information on Akira Otani, see "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani"; Densho interview of Akira Otani; Odo, No Sword to Bury .
  26. Letter from "Major Stephen M. Farrand," Prisoner of War Operations Division, Provost Marshal General's Office, to Matsujiro Otani, 16 May 1945," Otani Case File.
  27. Jay Jiro suffered a disabling accident in his early childhood, keeping him from combat service. In his biography, however, Jay claims that he worked on "top secret" projects for U.S. military intelligence, including the Federal Communications Commission's Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, which monitored and translated Japanese broadcasts and other communications. See Charlot and Stone, Otani , 32-33.
  28. Otani, Waga hito , 88-93.
  29. Jay Otani is credited for having maintained the family businesses throughout the war years. Otani, Waga hito , 103. In his biography, Jay also claims to have become a highly successful importer, bringing in 76 percent of all seafood imported into the islands during World War II, along with other foodstuffs from U.S. mainland. Charlot and Stone, Otani , 30-31.
  30. "Oral History Interview with Akira Otani," 239; Heen, "Foreword," in Otani, Waga hito , n.p.
  31. In 1947, Otani established the Kyodo Gyogyo, a fishing cooperative of executives from a number of defunct Honolulu fishing companies. Operating out of Aala Market, Kyodo ran what was then the only fish auction in the territory; it was headed by William Heen. Kyodo's monopoly ended when Heen's political rival, Republican politician Hiram Fong, established his own King Fishing Company. The two fishing companies remained competitors until King's dissolution in 1968. Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 117-18.
  32. Densho interview of Akira Otani; "Oafu no sakana oroshiuri shijo," The Hawaii Hochi , January 28, 2008; Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 161-62.
  33. Excerpted, Otani, Waga hito , 116-18, 124–26; Otani, My Footprints , 37-38, 40–41.
  34. Ogawa, Sea of Opportunity , 138-39; "Gyogyōkai no kōrōsha Ōtani Matsujirō-shi," in Otani, Waga hito , 142. While the move has generally been seen has having helped save the industry by filling unmet labor demands, it also has been interpreted as a clever business strategy that benefitted UFA, securing contract labor under the guise of a training program. "Gyogyōkai no kōrōsha Ōtani Matsujirō-shi," in Otani, Waga hito , 142; Henry Okamoto, et al., "History of the Japanese in Hawaii's Commerical Fishing Industry" (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, 1999), photocopy text for JCCH exhibit.

Last updated Feb. 6, 2024, 5:44 a.m..