When it comes to long-standing businesses in the Japanese American community, expectations are high. Years of service bring notoriety, years of notoriety bring generational familiarity, and generational familiarity generates community members accustomed to the idea that the business will be around forever—that is, until it's not.
The Expectations of the Community from One Generation to the Next
Talk to any sansei who grew up in the Greater Los Angeles area, and they'll tell you about the legendary avocado chashu burger from Mago's. Talk with any LA yonsei who reached the age of 21 anytime between the '90s and 2015, and they'll reminisce about the rainbow warrior or the (somewhat mediocre) Japanese buffet at Oiwake. Talk with any generation who's visited Little Tokyo in the last three decades and they'll share a sugary sweet memory from Mikawaya.
Immediately following their fond recollections, they'll typically lament the shuttering of each of those businesses and how a part of them was lost along with each closing.
The community feels some degree of ownership over each and every business they've patronized. But, at the end of the day, the actual ownership and expectations fall on a small group of individuals.
These three examples represent a fraction of a plethora of businesses that have closed over the years. Not just limited to Los Angeles, markets like Dobashi market in San Jose and Benkyodo confectionery and coffee shops have seen (or are seeing) their final days of business.
Each closure brings a sense of loss to community members who have so many formative and institutional memories associated with those places. In a sense, the community feels some degree of ownership over each and every business they've patronized. But, at the end of the day, the actual ownership and expectations fall on a small group of individuals who legally own the business, the family. It's a burden not lightly carried, and when it reaches the point of transferring from one generation to the next, what do those expectations feel like?
The Expectation of Solvency
A business that is not solvent cannot exist. Though family businesses have traditions and a legacy to uphold, those same businesses must evolve with the changing times. In most cases, legacy alone is not a sustainable business model.
Hisae Uki and her brother Kenshiro are second-generation business leaders with Sun Noodle, a worldwide Japanese noodle manufacturing company initially founded by their father. While the company has dramatically expanded over the past several years, she described how balancing that expansion with the personalized attention & customization that defined her father's approach was a priority for her and her brother. "My father was an artist and craftsman in making individualized products for each of our customers. We don't want to lose that connection to our customers that our parents had made," said Uki.
She also described the challenge of growing the business beyond what it was. "Sometimes people see the company being successful and think that taking it over is easy. In reality, we as second generation business leaders have new challenges and it's very difficult," said Uki.
The Expectation of Perpetual Involvement
Running the family business, in-and-of-itself is a challenging task. Representing the business, being the face of the family, and providing a helping hand to community organizations and individuals are just a few items on a long list of unique challenges beyond the already challenging task of maintaining feasible profit margins. In many cases, families have dedicated their years to keep the doors open, not necessarily for themselves, but for the benefit of the community.
Brianne Yasukochi of Yasukochi Farms in Oceanside was instrumental in sustaining and transforming her family's business in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to her involvement, she described a somber family sentiment when faced with closing the business that had been started by her nisei great grandfather.
"My dad had been working in produce since he was 20. To think about the farm's potential closing was really sad for him," Yasukochi said. With the decades of growing up done in and around the farm, her commitment to family, and the sheer fact that she was one of the only siblings in regular close proximity to the farm, she felt the need to step up and step in. Within just a few months, the Yasukochis had transformed a business on the brink of closure to a successful online business, delivering CSA boxes across Southern California.
But beneath the success, Yasukochi also described the pressure that fell on her. "I can't, one day, just say, 'I quit'," she stated when talking about the commitment she's made to the family business. "My family always makes it work, even if I need to step away, but there's always an underlying pressure that I can't just get up and leave."
Yasukochi also described how her (full-time) role with the farm occurs in addition to her (full-time) work as a production coordinator on commercials and shows. "There's the pressure of the farm, but also the pressure of my own career too. I couldn't just drop my profession, so I decided to do both."
The Expectation to Lead… One Day
New blood fosters new innovation and new ways of doing business. Though this concept is essential to the sustainment of any business, passing on leadership has always proved to be a challenging prospect in the Japanese American community. The more time and effort the parent has put into the business, the more their identity and reason for being is wrapped into that entity. When it comes to transitioning ownership to their kids, this typically proves to be difficult because it involves giving up power.
Josh Morey, President of the J. Morey (Insurance) Company, is a third-generation business owner, recently assuming the role of president, from a business run by his father and uncles for decades. Within the last few years, Morey has grown the company three-fold, but he revealed that it took some time to gain the decision-making power to make that happen.
"When taking over the business, the hardest part of me was trying to find my voice. I had a lot of ideas and energy, but I always had to get approval. There were times when I asked if it was even worth it," said Morey, "but I was willing to be patient, and there were lessons learned from my dad and uncles. I don't think I would have been able to grow the business as quickly had I not spent the time learning from them."
Morey described the metaphor of the "two-way street" with one party willing to gradually let go of the reigns and the other willing to patiently spend the time to shadow, learn, and eventually lead.
The Expectations of the Next, Next Generation
With the reality of human mortality, the critical juncture for a family business's longevity is if the next generation is willing to take over.
"My parents never told us that we had to work the business; I don't think they even said one word," said Uki. But she did describe the value of family that was imparted by her parents and growing up with the company as a constant part of their life. "My parents built this family feel with the company, and we've had employees who have been with us for 30+ years." She went on to describe how helping her family, both blood and extended, was a driving factor for her involvement, as well as a deep appreciation for her community. "My dad always said that the community is the reason why we've grown. I also realize that we're here because of them, and it's important for me to give back to that community," said Uki.
I feel more pressure from knowing how influential our family has been. To carry on that legacy, that's why I want to continue the family business,
While he intrinsically knew the influence and the role that the J. Morey Company held in the Japanese American community, Josh Morey described how his first year of involvement really solidified his commitment to the business.
"The pressure I feel doesn't come from my family's expectations; I feel more pressure from knowing how influential our family has been. To carry on that legacy, that's why I want to continue the family business," Morey stated.
As a father of three, Morey carries the same attitude with his children. "With my family, we'll go to Little Tokyo to eat, we'll get manju… it becomes part of who you are," Morey stated. He went on to explain how these memories and conversations throughout the year were his way of imparting the legacy of the family, but ultimately, their involvement would be their decision. "I want them to live their lives, and if they have no interest, that's totally fine. I don't want them to feel pigeon-holed. I want them to feel like they want to do this."
Family businesses are critical elements in the foundation of individual and community identity, but they're not always around forever, and those that remain are held up on the strong backs of a patient, dedicated, and willing next generation. Next time you have the opportunity, savor that special bite of mochi, and be sure to thank the family that brought it to fruition—it took more time, effort, and dedication than any of us could ever truly know.