One of San Francisco Japantown’s oldest remaining businesses, Uoki K. Sakai Company, will close at the end of the year. Community members expressed shock and disappointment about the impending loss of the market, located at 1656 Post St. in the heart of the ethnic enclave.
The market is one of the last three pre-war family-owned businesses in San Francisco’s Japantown. It is also one of two businesses that have been in operation since 1906, when the present Japantown was formed after the earthquake that leveled much of the city that year.
The store was originally founded by Kitaichi Sakai, an Issei cook and fish peddler. The market was forced to close during the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese descent during World War II. At that time, the Sakai family moved their possessions into storage; after the war the family returned to San Francisco and was able to reopen.
According to a report in the Nichi Bei Times, the market was originally located on Geary Street before relocating to 1684 Post St. The business moved to its current location on 1656 Post St. in 1969.
The name Uoki is based on two Japanese characters, “fish” (uo) and “happiness” (ki), which also was part of Kitaichi Sakai’s name.
Robert Sakai, the third-generation owner of the market, confirmed to the Nichi Bei Weekly on Dec. 16 that he is planning to close his store at the end of the year. He declined to give an interview, however, saying that he “wished to let the store speak for itself.”
Sakai, who works from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, said that between meeting the demands of the holiday rush and closing the market, he was pressed for time.
He also added he is a “private person” and did not wish to discuss the business’s closing or any future plans.
Community members around San Francisco’s Japantown had heard rumors regarding the impending closure, but were shocked nonetheless once it was confirmed.
More than a Market
“It’s hitting us more on an emotional front really,” said Bobby Okamura. Okamura is co-owner of Benkyodo Company, the only other family-owned Nikkei business that’s been in operation since 1906. “We can really relate to it … We’ll miss seeing his family being in Japantown everyday.”
Okamura acknowledged that the pressure of being a third-generation owner is tough. “You gotta keep on having the desire to stick with it,” he said. “It’s hard work and you just keep on doing it.”
Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japanese Merchants Association, was also dismayed by the news. “I really hoped one of his family members would step up to carry it on.”
Sakai previously stated in a Nichi Bei Times report on the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown that his children had no intention of taking over the store.
“I’ve been a customer since the 1960s,” Hashimoto said. “Where am I going to go for groceries? There are other markets in Japantown, but they don’t have cut-to-order fish available at the counter.”
Camaraderie and Competition
Yasuaki Miura, who owns the Super Mira market located on Sutter and Buchanan streets, is a friend and business rival of Sakai. He stressed that locals and local businesses needed to stick together.
“We are competitors, but we also have a sense of camaraderie,” Miura said. “Uoki gives back to the local community. For Japantown, that’s very important. You make money in Japantown, that’s great, but what’s imperative is that you use that money and funnel it back to the locals.”
Sakai has previously donated his time and money to Japantown events and causes. Uoki is a member of the Japantown Merchants Association, and Sakai serves on the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s (JCCCNC) board of directors.
“I mourn the closing of the store as I would any other business that has been around for three generations; my grandparents shopped there when Robert’s grandfather ran the store,” said Dianne Fukami, JCCCNC board president, in an e-mail. Fukami said she would not only miss Sakai’s personalized service and expansive knowledge of Japanese food products, but his support and passion for the well-being of Japantown.
“It would take until 2116 for another business to reach the accomplishments that Uoki Sakai has (reached) if it were to start today,” said Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC. “When we walk by the empty store starting the New Year, we will all shed a tear.”
Bob Hamaguchi, Japantown Task Force executive director, was hit hard by the news, and said it was almost like losing a family member.
“We’ve been blessed to have the Sakai family for three generations,” said Hamaguchi. “But you can’t blame them if there’s no one to continue the store. (Closing the store is) the difficult but logical thing to do.”
Hamaguchi said both he and Sakai have been active within the community as part of the Better Neighborhood Plan. Hamaguchi said Sakai, who owns the property, will likely find a future use for the space that reflects the community’s interests.
Jill Shiraki, of Preserving California’s Japantowns, emphasized the cultural and historical significance of the market’s closure. “So many people remember going to buy their daily fish there,” said Shiraki. “The face of Japantown is changing so much. It’s disappointing when a business that provides character, history and flavor to Japantown closes — there are so few of them left, especially in terms of pre-war history.”
Soko Hardware, located at 1698 Post St., is the other pre-war family-owned business in San Francisco’s Japantown.
For many, Uoki’s closure will signify the loss of both community and business ties.
Harley Inaba, president of North American Food Distributing Co. Inc., said he has had a longtime relationship with Uoki Sakai.
“They are a very good customers of ours,” said Inaba, also a third generation Nikkei family business owner. “It’s been a very trusting relationship … It’s tough to see a family business close — it’s worse than sad, it’s devastating.”
Uoki will close on Saturday, Dec. 31 at 5 p.m. Sakai has put up a bilingual poster on the front of his store thanking his customers for their patronage.