by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It can very challenging to find historical references and material relating to people of color in greater Los Angeles during the Museum’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930 and so to be able to share the featured artifacts from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a rare event, indeed. They also are reflective of one man’s efforts to employ his entrepreneurship under the most difficult of circumstances amid rampant racism and determined discrimination.
These objects consist of a pamphlet and a pair of business letters dating to 24 June 1925 from The Yamatoya Company, Incorporated, a wholesale import and export company in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. The business operated for under a decade, from about 1917 to 1925, and its proprietor, Nobuhei Kurita (1885-1950). whose mercantile career in the Angel City spanned about three decades, but was abruptly and starkly ended by the federal government’s decision to place Japanese residents in concentration camps during World War II.
Kurita was born in Godo, a town near Nagoya, just a little more than three decades after Japan was forced to open to foreigners when Commodore Matthew Perry and a squadron of two steamships and a pair of sailing vessels sailed into the harbor at Edo, later Tokyo, in 1853 and demanded protection for United States ships and refueling and supplies. While there was internal dissension among the Japanese about how to react, many knew what had been and was happening to China and, with the Meiji restoration of 1868, the conservative shogunate was dismantled and an astonishing “Westernization” ensued.
Kurita was 19 years old when he left Japan for the United States (a brother Eijuro, also came to Los Angeles) and, in 1904, the Japanese were on the verge of a staggering victory over Russia in a war that quickly alerted Western nations to the rising power in the so-called Far East. When the young man got to Los Angeles (it is unsure if there was a chain migration, in which he learned of opportunities from those from his area who emigrated prior to him), though, anti-Japanese sentiment was stoked both by the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War and the increasing Japanese immigration to California.
In 1907, a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was established between the United States and Japan and this informal arrangement included a halt to Japanese migration in return for guarantees that Japanese Americans would not be subject to discrimination as in San Francisco, which denied Japanese American children access to public schools. Naturally, racism and restrictions continued including the Alien Land Law of 1913, passed by the California legislature and which forbade any Japanese national from owning real property. The law was revised in 1920 and 1923, just as all-out immigration reform was culminating in 1924’s federal law establishing a quota system.
By 1910, Kurita was working as a director in the “art store” of the Nara Curio Company, located on Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets and this leads to one of more notable contradictions about American attitudes towards Asians. While discrimination was on the rise and racism prevalent throughout most of white society, there was also a fascination among many Americans concerning Japanese and Chinese art, decorative goods and other products, while the Craftsman movement was influenced by aesthetic and construction ideas from Asia. By the 1920s, there was a nationwide fad with the Chinese game of Mah Jongg, and a few Asian actors, such as Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa, were achieving a level of stardom in film that was at odds with how most Asians were viewed and treated.
In 1910, the Nara Curio Company succumbed to the demands of creditors, perhaps partly or largely because of the effects of the national depression that struck three years earlier, and the business was shuttered. Very shortly afterward, though, Kurita found employment with another Japanese store, Yamato (the ancient name for the Land of the Rising Sun), and, while that enterprise also closed in 1915, a “New Yamato” soon took its place at the same location on Broadway between 6th and 7th streets.
By the time that Kurita registered for the draft in World War One, during the second massive registration drive on 12 September 1918, he was the proprietor of The Yamatoya Company, Incorporated, which set up its export, import and jobber (wholesaler) business at 325-327 East Second Street in Little Tokyo where the Japanese Village Plaza is situated today. Unfortunately, while listings for the business would appear in the Los Angeles Times business directory, there were no located articles to speak of until the business appears to have closed later in 1925.
The firm did make a contribution in 1923 to an advertising campaign by the All-Year Club of Southern California, which was a promotional entity for the region and the same year the company leased a store and basement on Spring Street between 6th and 7th. Otherwise, it is hard to find any information about the business.
This is why the pamphlet and letters are so great to have in the Museum’s holdings. The missives, under Kurita’s signature, are addressed to E.H. Klahr, a jeweler in Middletown, a town on the Susquehanna River ten miles from the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg. One was specific to an order made to a Mr. Legler, obviously an agent, for an assortment of artificial flowers, with Kurita adding that “we would especially appreciating your placing this merchandise on display, if possible, making window and counter displays.”
This was because “this is really the class of merchandise that sells on sight” and will generate holiday orders. Given this, Kurita continued,
We take this opportunity of calling your attention to the splendid lines of merchandise that we are importing for the fall and [Christmas] holiday season. We shall have a most unusual, attractive and salable, merchandise, and we trust you will bear us in mind for your requirements.
As to the second missive, it noted that Legler informed Kurita “that he has arranged with you for the exclusive sale in Middletown for the 1925 season of the merchandise as shipped.” The Yamatoya owner expressed his happiness over the news “with the understanding that you will give our merchandise good displays and co-operate with us in getting the maximum business out of the territory.” Given that “our interests in this matter are mutual,” Kurita closed, “we assure you that we shall be glad to do everything possible in assisting you in making a success of the sale.” Obviously, this pieces of correspondence are written in the same style and tenor as any other “American” business letter and clearly shows Kurita was well-positioned as a merchant and business figure like any other, white or Asian.
The pamphlet, of course, is especially interesting and informative because it shows what was likely a fairly typical selection of goods from an importer of Japanese made goods from such factories, as, like those noted on the letterhead from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Tajimi, the latter a city near Kurita’s hometown and close to Nagoya which is renowned for its ceramics. Because the document was sent to merchants, rather than the public, it had a plain presentation with the front panel, merely noting that “a few of our unusual, attractive and moderately priced lines are listed herewith” and then showing a range of products that were a combination of Japanese in use along with others adapted and modified for Americans.
For example, there were incense and burners, tea sets, parasols, screens, carved wooden stands, lamp shades, and “China novelties” that were more in the former category, while the rest were more representative of the later, including condiment sets, cups and saucers, vases, cigarette cases and bamboo fountain pens. For some items, there were illustrations comprised of drawings, while in other cases there were photos.
Each item had a stock number, a simple description and a price, with the most expensive article being a tea set that was “Gold Deposit with Japanese scenery decoration in burnished gold” and which fetched $25, though the examples shown photographically ranged from about $6-8. On the other end of the spectrum, a small dark red pottery figure with a round shape with touches of green cost just a quarter, while a box of 12 pieces of incense in a variety of odors was 35 cents, as was a figure of a Japanese boy in a boat and 4-inch tall vases in blue or “Chinese Red” were also 35 cents.
Given the small population of Japanese and, since the 1882 Exclusion Act, the declining number of Chinese in Los Angeles and elsewhere, it would seem that the market for these items comprised white Americans, such as those who might have ventured into Klahr’s jewelry store in Middletown, Pennsylvania, a world away from Los Angeles much less Japan and picked up something of the exotic for their home.
Yet, it appears that within a very short time of these letters being sent, Kurita closed The Yamatoya Company, as the Times reported in its 8 December 1925 edition that the city prosecutor’s office acting on a campaign launched by the Better Business Bureau, cracked down “against itinerant venders” who, BBB local head Ferris Miller alleged, “have set up merely for the holiday season” but who evaded a recently enacted ordinance charging such figures $100 a day for a “special itinerant’s license.”
The regulation was created because, the article continued, “many complaints had been received by the city that goods were sold in such stores by fraudulent representations, deliveries promised that were not given and difficulties met in getting money back.” Among those picked up for violation of the ordinance was Kurita, whose address was given as 441 S. Spring Street, so, whether he had a preexisting store which sold items from his wholesale business or whether he was trying to sell inventory from Yamatoya after it was shuttered is not known. it is notable that one of the letters referred to merchandise imported for the holiday.
Whatever the situation, by the end of the Twenties, Kurita was operating, with his wife Fumi (the two married in 1920 with she coming to Los Angeles from Japan and had two sons, Nobuo and Yoshio) a grocery store at Western Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, not far west of the University of Southern California. The family rented a modest bungalow just around the corner from the store.
By the mid-1930s, the Kuritas were living at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Exposition Boulevard adjacent to USC and Exposition Park and then relocated to a house near Western and Exposition, though Nobuhei was working at anther Asian-themed curio shop, this one called The Orient and located on Hollywood Boulevard west of Cahuenga Avenue. He worked at the shop when he registered, at age 57, for the draft in spring 1942, though very shortly afterward came the forced “relocation.”
In the registration conducted at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, where the Japanese were subjected to inhumane conditions, including living in former horse stalls, a registration form noted that Kurita was an immigrant of 1904; had attended 10 years of school in Japan equivalent to a high school education here; spent between 15-20 years in his homeland; returned once, perhaps to marry Fumi; and had worked as a “retail manager.” His American-born sons, both graduates of Manual Arts High School were students at the University of California, Los Angeles, when they were forced to leave for a concentration camp, though the younger, Yoshio, returned after the war and earned his accounting degree at UCLA in 1952.
By then, his father had died at age 65 two years prior, while Fumi lived until 1972, passing away in her mid-Seventies. The couple were buried in Rosedale Cemetery. The pamphlet and letters in the Homestead’s collection are indicative of many aspects of the lives of an entrepreneurial Japanese immigrant who spent most of his life in Los Angeles in the retail trade and, at least for several years, owned his own business, always a speculative and risky endeavor, but even more so for a person of color living in a world of caustic racism and omnipresent discrimination. They’re only a few pieces of two-dimensional paper, but they have a three-dimensional personal story to them and perhaps more to the tale can be added in the future.