Home People INTERVIEW: Tomio Moriguchi seeks to restore Japantown’s ravaged roots

INTERVIEW: Tomio Moriguchi seeks to restore Japantown’s ravaged roots

The Moriguchi family in 1952. Back row: Toshi, Akira, Tomio and Kenzo. Front row: Suwako, Tomoko, Sadako, Fujimatsu, Hisako

A Family Legacy
Tomio Moriguchi
seeks to restore Japantown’s ravaged roots

by Bruce Rutledge. Photos courtesy of Moriguchi Family / Uwajimaya

Tomio Moriguchi, the former CEO of Uwajimaya and current publisher of The North American Post, was born in Tacoma in 1936. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering and entered Boeing as an engineer. But when his father, Fujimatsu Moriguchi, fell ill and eventually died in 1962, Tomio took over at Uwajimaya, guiding the family supermarket business over the next several decades and building the chain into one of the Pacific Northwest’s most respected brands. He retired as CEO in 2007 but continued to work as chairman until 2016. Today, he works on his own real estate company, Fujimatsu Corporation LLC. Tomio has been an active community member throughout his adult life, serving on the boards of Keiro Northwest, Puget Sound Energy, The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, KCTS, University of Washington, Seattle Colleges, The Pacific Science Center, and many organizations serving Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

When Tomio Moriguchi was 10 years old, he and his father, Fujimatsu, used to take walks up and down Main Street in the International District. World War II had ended, and the Moriguchi family was in the midst of re-establishing its family business, Uwajimaya, which had been ripped from them when the Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps during the war. One day, Tomio and his dad came across a dilapidated storefront. Fujimatsu began talking with the proprietor, a Filipino, Tomio recalls. “My dad asked in broken English if the store was for sale, and I remember the guy practically threw the keys at him and said, ‘It’s all yours!’”

The Uwajimaya store used to be located on Main Street.

That was the beginning of the rebuilding process for Uwajimaya, which is a thriving Pacific Northwest grocery chain today.

“Main Street has always been Japantown,” Tomio Moriguchi says today while looking over plans for Fujimatsu Village, a proposed retail, hotel, and apartment building on 5th Avenue from Jackson to Main Street. Moriguchi says giving the property a Japanese name will pay tribute to his father but also help to re-establish the area as Japantown.

Tomio Moriguchi (left) working with his brother Kenzo (right) at the Main Street store in 1952.

Moriguchi, the retired chief executive officer of Uwajimaya and longtime publisher of this newspaper, has been slowly changing the look and feel of the International District along 5th Avenue, starting with the transformed Publix Hotel, which now houses apartments and retail, including an upscale ramen restaurant from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and the popular dim sum restaurant Dough Zone.

“These stores have been very successful,” Moriguchi says. “I was pleasantly surprised. Those are the kinds of shops we need more of.”

Groundbreaking on the Fujimatsu Village, a personal project of Moriguchi’s not affiliated with Uwajimaya, won’t happen until at least the first half of 2021, and much rides on the outcome of International Special Review District board meetings, scheduled to begin sometime in early 2020. Moriguchi and his Taiwan partners, Da Li Development, are drawing up plans that include a low-rise structure along 5th and a taller tower behind it. “We didn’t want to put the building right against 5th Avenue and make a canyon effect, so we’ll have a low-rise building on 5th Avenue and a gathering place. Our thought is to make it a retail area. The only problem is that the land rises 15-20 feet, so it will be a stairway,” he says.

Fujimatsu Moriguchi standing in front of the Main Street store.

Moriguchi says he is sensitive to community concerns about the rapid rate of gentrification in Seattle. But he has long argued that the neighborhood needs to draw more middle- and high-income shoppers to sustain the area’s small businesses. “The community needs change,” he says. He sees the Publix Hotel development as a good start. He is also hoping to add parking options to Fujimatsu Village, which could prove a boon to nearby shops such as Momo and Kobo@Higo.

“Those stores don’t have parking,” he says. “I’m trying to convince our team to add parking to directly support those businesses. We provide a lot of parking (at Uwajimaya). I think that’s good for the area. Looking at it strictly by the numbers, it’s difficult. If you cut parking, you may save money, but you have no customers!”

In finding a hotel operator for the Fujimatsu Village project, Moriguchi has tried to weigh the needs of the community with good business decisions. He has received plenty of interest but has yet to decide what sort of hotel would make a good fit.

“We’ve had offers all across the board, from business hotels to 4- and 5-star hotels that want to put in spas and other things. We have talked to a number of hotel operators, and they are supposed to provide us with some kind of a proposal. Only time will tell if it’s a right fit,” he says, adding, “One thing the community needs is a place to meet.” He plans to ask hotel operators to provide affordable meeting space for local organizations.

As for the residential part of the Village, Moriguchi is committed to apartments rather than condos. “Condo thinking and apartment thinking are a little different,” he says. “With a condo, if everything goes well, you sell it and move to the next project. Family apartments tend to be a longer hold.”

Moriguchi also says he would like to find a way to better connect Japanese Americans and the Shin Issei (newly arrived from Japan) communities, which have been largely separate in the greater Seattle area. “I’m guessing (some Shin Issei) are not all that comfortable coming into the neighborhood except to Uwajimaya,” he says. By bringing more retail to Fujimatsu Village, he hopes to make the International District more inviting to them.

What sort of retail will Moriguchi lure to the area? He points to the stores in the Publix Hotel building as a hint. “Those are the kinds of stores I would like to see in Fujimatsu Village. The stores in Publix have worked out very well,” he says.

When he looks ahead a few years, he sees massive change coming to the International District, and he wants the neighborhood to be prepared to handle it without losing its character, he says.

“In two, three years, you’ll be able to take the train to Bellevue. That in itself is going to be a game-changer, especially with all the major businesses going into Bellevue. To be able to jump on the train and be there in 20, 30 minutes is going to be mind-boggling,” he says. “The government is spending billions of dollars on transportation. They are trying to encourage higher density within transportation hubs, and this is one of them. And in Seattle, we’re still driving and taking Uber!”

Meanwhile, Moriguchi has been supporting publication of The North American Post. “The newspaper is important to our community,” he says, and it needs to attract young readers to continue its long history, which dates back to1902. While its archives, dating back to the early 20th century, are impressive, he emphasizes the importance of bringing current news to today’s Japanese community in Seattle.  “We have been working on updating the Post in the past few years. We changed its layout and added more cross-over contents with Soy Source, which is our Japanese-language newspaper. We updated our websites and strengthened our online contents. It is going well.”

Another thing that gives him hope for the Post is the interest in Japan among young Japanese Americans. “My grandkids love Japan and they are taking Japanese classes. My 9-year-old is even learning how to play the shamisen. The cultural awareness seems to be there,” he says.

“Another aspect (for the Post) is trying to engage the Shin Issei. It’s been very difficult for second- and third-generation (Japanese Americans) to get to know these people,” he says. “There’s always going to be a gap, but hopefully the newspaper will help. Seattle, probably because of its size, has better relations (between Shin Issei and Japanese Americans) than most.” If the paper could bring these communities closer together, he says, it could carve a path for survival in the brutal newspaper sector.

Moriguchi, who turns 84 this year, is ever hopeful. After all, the Year of the Rat is his year. Throughout his life, he and the rest of the Moriguchi family have adapted to changing times. And if there’s one thing that is certain about modern-day Seattle, it is in the throes of some very big changes. Moriguchi hopes to ride this wave and leave the neighborhood he loves better off.

Fujimatsu Village
Concept Image by MG2

Fujimatsu Corporation LLC. and Da Li Development USA, an offshoot of Da Li Development Co. of Taiwan, formed a partnership to build a 28-story apartment/hotel complex on the northeast corner of 5th Ave. and Jackson St. The development will be called Fujimatsu Village in honor of Fujimatsu Moriguchi, who founded Uwajimaya in 1928. The plan is for the lower floors to have about 40,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, a 200-room hotel of the 3.5- to 4-star variety catering to business travelers would extend to the 12th floor, and the higher floors would house apartments.

 

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Bruce Rutledge worked as a journalist in Japan for 15 years before moving to Seattle to found Chin Music Press, an independent book publisher located in Seattle's historic Pike Place Market.