Written by Takeshi Hamano
Like many Japanese of his generation, my father Yasuo Hamano immigrated to a strange land called America with aspirations of making a hopeful financial windfall and then returning to his Shima Peninsula home in Mie Prefecture, where his wife and two children anxiously waited for his triumphant return.
His dream did not materialize immediately. He toiled as a laborer on farms, tried his hand at gardening as well as toiling as a fisherman.
When least expected, an unusual opportunity knocked on his door. Along with his brother, Bunshichi, a chance to enter the business world. The business was the manufacturing of senbei, a Japanese confection. Fortunately, he also had a brother-in-law that provided the initial investment to make it possible for him to launch his new enterprise.
The Umeya concept was born about the years 1916 to 1918.
The original senbei products were hand-made, folded in many shapes with the basic ingredients of wheat flour, sugar and eggs. The flavoring was also enhanced by tastes familiar to the Issei, such as miso, shoga, nikkei, and goma.
The product was sold to retailers in bulk cans who then sold it to the public in half pound to one pound bags.
The customer base was spread out from Santa Ana to San Diego on the South Coast. Also in Oxnard, Ventura through Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley on the North Coast. Cities in the South Central region included Brawley, El Centro, and Calexico. In addition to providing Japanese confection to give a bit of “back home” taste to his many customers of Japanese ancestry, Umeya was also able to provide employment opportunities to many people seeking work.
With many small grocery stores, fishing villages, farm camps in the area served by Umeya senbei became a popular item. However, the untold story behind Umeya’s past is that in Southern California, there were many mom and pop styled Chinese restaurants operated by Japanese Issei. There numbers were estimated at approximately 125 to 150. Considering that one of the favorites in a Chinese restaurant were fortune cookies, one or two cans of the cookies became a steady business.
Umeya’s factory was first located on what is now known as “Weller Court,” which was a street with many small mom and pop stores such as barber shops, drying cleaning, hand-made udon eateries, pool halls and small hotels.
The factory remained at this location until the start of World War II when the government ordered the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry. I was born in 1924 and never realized that one day I would be the heir apparent to the Umeya business.
As the business grew and I grew older, it became apparent that I would become more involved in the Umeya operation, although my father never indicated this to me directly. This move upward in the company was probably hastened by the evacuation of all Japanese Americans.
Umeya was forced to store all of its manufacturing machinery, even though we were not quite sure if we would ever re-establish the business when all returned to normal. We were sent to the Santa Anita race track which was designated as an “assembly center” prior to a more permanent move to Rohwer, Arkansas, which was labelled as a “relocation center.” While incarcerated at Rohwer, we explored the possibility of moving out to Colorado since many other evacuees were going to Denver.
With the encouragement and assistance of the War Relocation Authority (W.R.A.) and the possibility of being able to purchase sugar at 70% of our original usage, we made the determination to make the move.
In our initial production, the demand for sweet snacks from all the relocation camps were overwhelming and we struggled to meet the demands.
Until the war’s end and the West Coast once more being opened up to Japanese Americans, the demand continued to be steady. With the West Coast opening up, retail stores opened for operation in Washington, Oregon and California.
While in Colorado, a subsidiary company was established under the title of “American Arare Company.” Crackers made from sweet rice, with assistance from Koda Farms of Dos Palos, in Central California, it became possible to begin another venture.
Since our knowledge of the process of producing arare was limited to the fact that it was basically mochi, we were able to produce something close to the original after repeated efforts to make mochi, dry, slice, toast and flavor the finished product.
At times, because of the many trial and errors involved, we almost threw up our hands and gave up hope. However, after a couple of years, with people and customers moving back to the West Coast, Umeya decided to make the move back to its original home in Los Angeles.
The year was 1950 when the move from Denver to Los Angeles took place. The new factory was located on Fourth Street, between San Pedro and Central Avenue, just a few blocks from Little Tokyo.
At the opening of the new operation, the realization of labor costs going up became a prime concern. To overcome this new problem, much of the hand work required more floor space and another move was deemed necessary. The present factor at its present location was born.
In any innovation, new problems also cropped up. The type of equipment we required were not available with the exception of the packaging machine. Again, by trial and error, not all, but most of the products were able to be manufactured by new machinery.
With the support of the Japanese and Japanese American community throughout the vast regions of the country, Umeya has been fortunate to sustain its business for so many years. Although most of the Issei population has left us, and the Nissei generation is in its twilight years, the new generation of Japanese Americans have been attracted to the sweets and snacks and we have been able to reach another crossroad in our existence.
In addition, by coincidence non-Japanese people have found senbei and arare to fit their taste buds and have realized that they are a healthy alternative to other chips. This has created a big increase in demand even with competition from abroad. It is our hope we can capitalize on this new boom.
The longevity of Umeya is the result of the hard work of Yasuo Hamano and his two brothers Bunshichi and Kamejiro and like other Issei, the wives played a major role. During my childhood, I recall being told that during trying times such as depressions, many people of Mie Prefecture came to our support and would not let us down.
They may have been gardeners, fishermen from Terminal Islands, farmers from Venice, Oxnard, Coachella Valley and other regions. They all came through. For this, I am forever grateful to the people of Mie. I know other prefectures support their own but we were indeed fortunate to be aligned with the caring people of Mie.