Longtime Yorozu gift store owner, Eugene Hirohisa Okada passes on, leaves legacy

A LASTING LEGACY­— Eugene Okada at the Yorozu store on Riverside. Okada died Sept. 21. He was 93. Okada was the last owner of the family-owned Yorozu.courtesy photo

A LASTING LEGACY­— Eugene Okada at the Yorozu store on Riverside. Okada died Sept. 21. He was 93. Okada was the last owner of the family-owned Yorozu.
courtesy photo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Eugene Okada at the Yorozu store on Riverside. Okada died Sept. 21. He was 93. Okada was the last owner of the Yorozu, which has been family owned and operated for almost 100 years. The longtime owner of the Yorozu Japanese gift store on Riverside Boulevard, Eugene Hirohisa Okada, died in his sleep after battling prostate cancer on Sept. 21, 2012. He was 93.

Last May, Okada was placed in hospice care, but despite that, he continued to drive to and operate the Yorozu six days a week. He continued to work fulltime until two weeks before his death when his condition finally prevented him from getting out of bed.

His closest living relative is his older sister, Agnes Kojima, who now lives in Hyogo Ken, Japan. His younger brother Harold Toshihisa died on Feb. 8, 2006. Okada never married.

The Yorozu store was the place in town to buy Japanese gifts, be it magazines, dishware, or origami. The store will be open until all items have been sold and proceeds will go to his estate: Okada’s older sister Agnes.

Because the Yorozu store was a landmark in the Sacramento community for almost 100 years, the Okada family quietly donated products and funds to charitable organizations and churches throughout the Central Valley.

After Eugene’s death, thousands of appreciation letters were uncovered in the back of the Yorozu store evidencing his lifelong generosity to the community.
Friends have called Eugene a very modest man who never sought attention for his generosity. They said he would give free community event dinner tickets to friends and neighbors. He would even give Christmas gifts to his tenants at his apartments.

A prime example of the unpublicized generosity of Eugene and Harold Okada was when the Sacramento Buddhist Church bell, still used to signal the beginning of a Buddhist funeral, was stolen. Church members began gathering donations for a replacement bell. When they heard of this theft, Eugene and Harold simply ordered a new bell from Japan and delivered it to the church without fanfare. That same bell now signifies the beginning of Eugene’s funeral.

Before Okada’s birth on April 3, 1919, his father Kichi Okada established in Sacramento one of four United States branch stores of the Yokohama Shoji Corporation. The name given to this store was the Yorozu.

In the early 1900s, the Yorozu was a large department type store employing many people and located on 13th Street in downtown Sacramento. It sold Japanese products and distributed Japanese reading materials to the working Issei throughout North America. Thus, Eugene became exposed to the Japanese retail store business from a very early age.

Eugene attended Lincoln Elementary School and Lincoln Junior High School as well as Sacramento High School. After graduating from high school, Eugene obtained his Associate of Arts degree in 1938 from Sacramento City College. In 1940, Eugene began his studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, due to the growing hostilities between Japan and the United States, he was never able to complete his studies at UC Berkeley.

In 1942, because Eugene’s father was a Japanese businessman who traveled extensively to and from Japan, Jiro Okada was seized from his family and transported to a special war camp in New Mexico with Americans of German ancestry. Eugene immediately returned home to Sacramento to be with his mother and younger brother when they were send to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center.

That year, in 1942, Eugene wrote a letter to Edward J. Ennis, Director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit for the Department of Justice, stating that he and his family decline “considerations” for repatriation.

According to the letter, which was found in Eugene’s home after his death, his father was injured in an automobile accident while en route to the San Francisco’s Bureau of Investigation.

“We understand that his leg was injured and that he finds difficulty in walking. Being that he is in such a condition, and is also aging, we would very much like to have him with us in order that we may care for him and rest assured that he is well. Also, he was injured in an automobile accident few months prior to internment …”

Eugene goes on to say that he bought a home and had intended to establish himself in Sacramento. “America is our home – the only place we call home.”

According to sister Agnes, the father was never reunited with the family until World War II ended. He was released to Sacramento and met his family there.

But before that, it’s known that Eugene and his brother Harold were granted an early release from Tule Lake and relocated to New York due to the efforts of their older sister Agnes, who lived in New York and was able to serve as their “sponsor.” While in New York, Eugene began working at a store that sold “Japanese accessories” which cultivated his skill in the retail industry.

Then, in 1946, Eugene returned to Sacramento where he joined his father and reopened the Yorozu as a branch store of Nippon Shinpan Boeki, a company that took over the Yokohama Shoji.

Initially, the parent company in Japan was extremely hesitant to re-establish another Japanese retail store in Sacramento. It did not believe that the Nisei there would buy Japanese products or read Japanese language magazines and books. However, Eugene and his father persevered and finally convinced the main company in Japan that there was still a viable market for Japanese merchandise due to the influx of additional immigrants as well as the arrival of thousands of “war brides” from Japan.

Eugene and his father were correct and the Yorozu again flourished. They soon resumed the sale and distribution of Japanese books and magazines throughout North America. The Okada family also began exporting Japanese reading materials to South America for the Japanese farmers and labors residing there.

After realizing their success, Eugene’s parents leveraged the stock they owned in Nippon Shinpan Boeki in the early 1950s, and purchased the Yorozu from the parent company. Eugene, who was later joined by his younger brother Harold, continued to operate the Yorozu in Sacramento after their father’s death.

In 1968, Eugene purchased the land and reestablished the Yorozu in a new building on Riverside Boulevard where it stands today. Even after he lost the ability to walk due to a spinal condition, Eugene continued working at the store full-time in a wheelchair six days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the same business he grew up in.

Eugene’s family was very involved in the Sacramento Buddhist Church ever since Eugene and his siblings were children. His parents were officers and elders of the Church both in Sacramento and in Japan.

Eugene was also active in the Sacramento Buddhist church singles group and the YBA. Even while in New York, Eugene served as the president of the New York YBA in 1945.

Later, Eugene served as an officer and sponsor of the Nisei and Sacramento Bowling Leagues. Eugene was also the last surviving Charter member of the Senator Lions organization.

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