Little Tokyo senbei and arare maker Umeya closes business

LITTLE TOKYO INSTITUTION — Umeya was founded in Los Angeles in the 1920s by Yasuo Hamano, and handed it down to his son Takeshi, who headed the company until his passing in April 2017. photo courtesy of Umeya

LOS ANGELES — There will be no more senbei and arare from Umeya. The longtime manufacturer and distributor of Japanese rice cakes and cookies closed down its operations on Dec. 31, 2017.

Umeya was founded in Los Angeles by Yasuo Hamano, who was born in 1902 and immigrated to the United States in 1918 from Mie Prefecture in Japan. The company was incorporated around 1924 or 1925 as Umeya Rice Cake Company, according to the company’s Website.

Hamano worked as a farm laborer, gardener and fisherman before going into business with his brother, Bunshichi, manufacturing senbei, a Japanese confection. A brother-in-law provided the initial investment to launch the new enterprise.

Rice crackers have been popular in Japan for hundreds of years and Umeya originally sold the rice crackers to the Japanese population in Los Angeles and other areas with concentrations of Japanese in farming areas, fishing villages, grocery stores and restaurants.

The original senbei products were handmade, folded in many shapes with basic ingredients of wheat flour, sugar and eggs. The flavor was enhanced by tastes familiar to Issei — miso, shoga and goma — according to Umeya’s history written by Hamano’s son Takeshi (Tak) Hamano, who took over as president in 1970 and headed

Umeya until his death in April 2017.

When he started the business, “there were exclusions … to prevent Japanese from assimilating. It was quite difficult to be accepted by the white society,” Yasuo Hamano stated in the company history. “At the time, the availability of capital for businesses was limited … There were daily hardships for close to 20 years.”

Tak Hamano wrote, “My father used to drive his truck up and down the state selling the rice crackers to the small Japanese mom-and-pop grocery stores. This was during the ‘20s and ‘30s when there were no freeways and many times only dirt roads. He would be gone for days at a time to sell and deliver the rice crackers.”

photo courtesy of Umeya

In Southern California, supplying the popular fortune cookies to that era’s 125 to 150 Issei-operated small Chinese restaurants became a steady source of revenue for Umeya.

In prewar Los Angeles, Umeya’s factory was located on Weller Street (now Weller Court), a street with many small family businesses such as barber shops, dry cleaners, udon eateries, pool halls and small hotels.

Incarcerated During WWII
Umeya remained in Little Tokyo until World War II, when the U.S. government expelled all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and incarcerated 120,000 Nikkei in America’s concentration camps.

The Hamanos were among detainees sent initially to Santa Anita, a race track converted into an assembly center. After several months at Santa Anita, the Hamano family was shipped to Rohwer (Ark.) camp.

“It was very difficult for Tak and his father and uncles to go to camp,” June Aochi Berk, an old friend whose family was also incarcerated at Rohwer, stated via e-mail.

“He was in college at the time of the evacuation. The family had to close up their manufacturing plant and store all their equipment … They had to leave everything behind.”

In 1944, with encouragement from the War Relocation Authority, the Hamanos left Rohwer and moved to Denver, where Umeya set up shop. The Hamano family “had to start from scratch,” Aochi Berk related. “Umeya and Mikawaya confectionary stores were very popular during wartime and in the postwar resettlement period … They were the only places to buy senbei and manju and mochi.”

Umeya Returns to L.A.
After the war, Yasuo Hamano moved Umeya back to Los Angeles in 1950, and took up where they left off before the wartime incarceration. They continued to make and sell their popular senbei and arare in large numbers.

A new generation of Nikkei has discovered Umeya’s products, Tak Hamano wrote. In addition, non-Japanese people have found in Umeya’s products a healthy alternative to other snacks.

Umeya, which employed approximately 30 workers and reported annual sales of approximately $4 million, sold its products not only to Japanese stores but also to mainstream supermarkets, on Amazon, and its fortune cookies were featured by McDonald’s in a 1986 campaign.

“I love Umeya senbei,” stated Aochi Berk. “They had so many different varieties of senbei at one time. My favorite was the fortune cookies … I used to have Tak put in special ‘fortunes’ for me to announce special events — engagement announcements, weddings, and births. Any occasion was made special with Umeya Fortune Cookies.”

Umeya always tried to be a part of the community, donating senbei to every basketball, baseball, golf tournament, and church events, but Tak Hamano never wanted any credit, Aochi Berk stated. “I think for Tak … except for the days in camp and in Denver during the war, his home was always Little Tokyo.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Rex Hamano, who took over as president after his father Tak Hamano died, said closing Umeya was a family decision.

With the closing of Umeya and the sale of Mikawaya, the confectionery company, to a private equity firm, the only long-lasting family businesses left in Little Tokyo are Fugetsu-do confectionary store, S.K. Uyeda department store, Bunka-do gift shop and the Rafu Shimpo newspaper.

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