Wo/men at Work at Sun Produce Company, Los Angeles, ca. 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the last half or so of the 19th century, Los Angeles and much of California and the West Coast was rife with anti-Chinese sentiment.  It began with the first arrival of miners from China drawn to the Gold Rush and in an avid search for “Gold Mountain.”  One result of the uproar about the Chinese in the gold fields (not to mention, Latinos and other so-called “aliens”) was the enactment of a Foreign Miners Tax to dissuade them from the mining region.  Outright violence and forced removals were other tactics.

By the end of the century, Chinese emigration was effectively ended, thanks to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but, not long afterward there was a significant migration of Japanese to California.  Much of this was due to conditions in a dramatically transforming Japan, forced into confrontation with the West due to America demands in the 1850s.

Unlike China and other Asian nations, however, that were subjected to colonization and western domination, the Japanese chose to preserve their independence by adopting western methods in economics, politics and in other ways, while still maintaining important vestiges of traditional lifeways and practices.  But, there were costs and, for many Japanese, including farmers and farm laborers, fleeing for other shores, including Hawaii and the American west coast, were tough choices to make.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for hysteria over “the yellow peril” to take root in California and other western locales.  In 1894, a treaty between Japan and the United States included a provision for open immigration of Japanese settlers in America, but the backlash was quick and clear.  Just six years later, as the new century was dawning, the Japanese government agreed to stop issuing passports to those of its people seeking to cross the Pacific and come to America.

Los Angeles Times, 20 December 1914.  It is not known whether this Sun Produce Company is the same or an earlier one of the same name as the one represented in the photos below.

When enterprising Japanese immigrants, however, obtained passports to go to Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico and then enter the U.S. the uproar intensified.  In 1905, an association was formed to combat Japanese and Korean immigration (Japan seized Korea in 1910 ushering in 35 years of rule that still has strong ramifications today) and the following year the City of San Francisco’s school board ordered Japanese students placed in segregated schools.

Japan’s government was angered by the treatment of its expatriates and American President Theodore Roosevelt, seeking to pacify the country because he saw it as a buffer against Russian expansion in the Pacific (Japan stunned the world with a decisive victory against Russia in a 1904-05 war over contending ambitions in Korea and Manchuria in northern China), persuaded the San Francisco authorities to drop its segregation plans by promising to address immigration issues with the Japanese government.

This was in February 1907 and on the twenty-fourth of that month, the Roosevelt Administration concluded negotiations with Japan that yielded the cleverly named “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”  The arrangement meant that Japan would refuse to issue passports for prospective immigrants to America and recognize American demands to refuse the entry of Japanese into the country who held passports issued in other countries.

Consequently, in early March, the school board in San Francisco officially reversed its school segregation policy.  In February 1908, the Japanese government issued another directive to fully enable the Gentlemen’s Agreement to take full effect and the policy continued to operate until another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States led to the first comprehensive and exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924 was enacted.

Meanwhile, the State of California moved aggressively regarding the ownership of land by Japanese, including properties used for truck farming in vegetables as well as some fruit raising and in which Japanese farmers were highly skilled and organized.  In 1913, the legislature passed an Alien Land Law, which targeted the Japanese by only allowing real property ownership to those aliens who were eligible for citizenship or who could have such property through treaties with the country of origin of these people.  Because a 1911 treaty between Japan and the United States did not refer to real property, the state law found a way to limit Japanese ownership of land.

Times, 10 November 1922.  This is definitely the Sun Produce Company shown in the photos below, two of which might be from the stalls at this Standard Public Market at Wilshire and Western, one building north of Wilshire on the east side of Western.

Despite the law, though, Japanese ownership of land actually increased as some creative strategies included acquiring land under the name of a child born in the United States (and, thereby, a citizen) and then enacting guardianship or forming a corporation to purchase property.  The Homestead, in fact, was leased to a Japanese farmer named Yatsuda when Walter P. Temple purchased the 75-acre tract in November 1917.  Because the lease ran through 1918, Temple had to wait until 1919 to make any changes to the property while he had to honor the existing lease.  Perhaps Yatsuda could not otherwise own property so had to lease.

In 1920, the Alien Land Law was revised to address the circumvention of the original statute by stipulating that anytime land was bought in another’s name it was assumed this was done so to purposely work around the law.  It also shifted the burden of proof for this to a defendant in litigation, so that this person had to show that the land was not acquired to bypass the provisions of the law.

Despite the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the first three decades of the 20th century, which included Walter Temple’s brother, attorney William W. Temple writing a scathing screed against the Japanese during the years when the Alien Land Law was first under consideration, there were some Japanese who succeeded in farming and business.

One such example was the Sun Produce Company (the rising sun, of course, being the national symbol for Japan), which appears to have been formed in Los Angeles about 1914, when the firm acquired the lease and business of the Miyake Produce Company on San Pedro Street in downtown.  Naotaro and Tsuruko Ito were the founders and it’s a good thing their son Takeshi, known as Roy, wrote their story in a 2008 blog, because it’s not easy to find information about the firm otherwise.

What Roy Ito recorded is that Naotaro Ito was born in 1886 in a little village near Nagoya, Japan.  While his older brother stood to inherit the family farm, Naotaro was apprenticed to a bicycle merchant, but, at age 18, he migrated to Seattle and worked as a railroad laborer, a dishwasher, and cook.

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This and the two images below are from the Homestead’s collection and show personnel from the Sun Produce Company, probably from the 1920s.  Naotaro Ito, a founder and key figure in the successful wholesale produce firm, is second from the right, judging from photos on his son Takeshi (Roy) Ito’s blog posts from 2008.  The others may be co-owners or managers as they stand next to a company truck at a loading dock, probably at company headquarters in Los Angeles.

By the time he was 25, he managed to purchase a hotel.  When it was time to marry, a housekeeper at the hotel told Naotaro about a young woman, Tsuruko Yoshioka (born in 1896) she knew well from her home village in Japan.  After viewing a photo, he determined to marry the woman and traveled back to his home country in 1914 to do so.

Disaster struck in Seattle in the meantime, as Naotaro’s brother, left to manage the hotel, lost in a business venture gone terribly awry.  Consequently, he and his bride came south and stayed in Los Angeles briefly before going to Riverside to work in an orange packing house and then a fish cannery at Terminal Island near San Pedro, which was an area in which many Japanese worked.

Finances were tough, however, and Tsuruko and the couple’s first two children went to Japan for a period, but then returned to Los Angeles, where Naotaro worked as a cook at the well-known Boos Brothers Cafeteria.  He and two friends, however, decided to open a produce stall at the famed Grand Central Market and this soon led to opening a wholesale produce business to supply their retail stall and that of other retail outlets.

Roy Ito reckoned this as taking place about 1919 or 1920, so it may be that the Sun Produce Company of 1914 was either acquired by his father and partners or that the other firm went out of business and a new one under the same time was opened by the others later.

Business proved to be so good for the Itos that, by 1927, Naotaro decided to retire (he was only 41) and move back to Japan to a resort town near Kobe.  The lifestyle acquired in America, though, proved to be incompatible with that of the homeland and the Itos returned to Los Angeles.  There was one problem: one daughter was born in Japan and could not return to America, but Naotaro’s brother, the same one who lost the Seattle hotel, claimed he had a solution that meant him selling the Ito home near Kobe, but the proceeds of which never got to his brother.

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A trio of employees at a Sun Produce retail stall, perhaps at the Standard Public Market, which was on Western Avenue just north of Wilshire Boluevard.

With retirement set aside, Naotaro turned his attention back to Sun Produce and helped lead it into becoming the largest Japanese wholesale produce house at the expansive Los Angeles City Market.  At its peak it had over fifty employees in addition to the several office staff.  The family had a substantial home in Los Angeles, bought in the name of children who were American citizens, and the company was highly successful.

But, the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December 1941 led to the infamous order to intern the Japanese here in concentration camps and, as with so many families, dismantled all the Itos worked for.  Naotaro was arrested and taken from the family for an extended period.  A daughter, who had a heart condition from rheumatic fever, died in Los Angeles and it was nearly three years before the family was reunited at a camp in Colorado when Naotaro was finally released from custody.

After the war ended, the family managed to reacquire its Los Angeles home, which had been rented to the Mexican consul.  Apparently, Sun Produce was shuttered when the internment of Japanese in the camps was ordered and Roy’s account ends with the family’s return to their residence.  He talked about some youthful rebellion in his posts, but he went on to graduate from U.C.L.A. and then earned a master’s degree in public administration from U.S.C. before becoming a career administrator with the County of Los Angeles.  After retirement, he volunteered at the Japanese American National Museum, where one of his projects was conducting oral histories about the Japanese produce industry in Los Angeles.

The three photos shown here from the Homestead’s collection are of the Sun Produce Company with four gents (the man second from the right appears to be Naotaro judging from photos in his son’s blog posts and the others are likely partners and/or office staff in the business) by a truck at a loading dock and some employees at markets, but no information came with them about who the persons were or the location of the markets (there was a branch of Sun at a market at Wilshire and Western opened in 1922, as the accompanying ad shows, so that could be the locale of two of the images.)

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A quartet of workers at the same location as the above image.

Still, despite the lack of information, these images are rare examples of photo documentation of successful Japanese businessmen in Los Angeles, during a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was pervasive.


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