The Nisei Week Foundation announced that George Aratani passed away peacefully on Tuesday at the age of 95.
Aratani successfully launched post-World War II international trade enterprises. His first was Mikasa, a tableware company that was doing $400 million in annual sales when it was sold in 2000.
Influenced by his father and motivated by the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Aratani and his wife Sakaye donated a sizable amount of their wealth to Japanese American organizations and causes.
A number of spaces within Little Tokyo have been named after the couple, reflecting their monetary support — the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s Aratani Japan America Theatre; the Japanese American National Museum’s George and Sakaye Central Hall; and the Union Center for the Arts’ Aratani Courtyard.
The couple also established the George and Sakaye Aratani Community Advancement Research Endowment (Aratani CARE) at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center to promote projects that will benefit and advance the Japanese American community as well as strengthen ties between the community and UCLA students, staff, faculty and alumni.
Don Nakanishi, former director of the center, said, “What a remarkable person. No other Nikkei community had such a generous and committed benefactor like George Aratani and his wonderful wife Sakaye. He left an unrivaled legacy.”
Aratani is also remembered as one of the eight founders of Keiro Senior HealthCare.
The following biography was written for the Densho Encyclopedia by Naomi Hirahara, author of “An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood” (Japanese American National Museum, 2001).
George Tetsuo Aratani was born in the strawberry-growing area of South Park near Gardena on May 22, 1917. His Issei parents, Setsuo and Yoshiko, then moved their small family unit to San Fernando Valley and finally Guadalupe, where Setsuo developed an agricultural empire of 5,000 acres of vegetables, a chili dehydrating plant, a hog farm, a fertilizer and chemical factory, and even an international trade company.
While Yoshiko had a son and a daughter from her first marriage, George was the only child of the couple. A handsome and talented athlete, he was even being scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team in high school, but a football injury derailed his aspirations for a possible professional sports career.
After graduating from high school, Aratani was convinced by his parents to forgo an education at Stanford University for undergraduate studies in Japan. The family was all in Tokyo when Yoshiko, who suffered from chronic asthma, died in December 1935.
To honor his late mother’s wishes, Aratani stayed in Japan and eventually studied law at the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo. Before he could graduate, his father was severely weakened by tuberculosis back in California and eventually died in April 1940.
The 22-year-old Aratani then had to take over the leadership of Guadalupe Produce Company immediately before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, Setsuo had recruited trustworthy Issei and Nisei employees, who came to Aratani’s aid. Assets for the business were transferred to Nisei executives as a precautionary measure. In spite of this transfer, Aratani was still forced to hand over the company to trustees as he and his stepmother were sent to Tulare Assembly Center and then Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.
While in Gila, Aratani was being pursued by the Superintendent of Banks, a government agency that had taken over the assets of Sumitomo Bank. Freezing all Japanese bank accounts, the government demanded repayment of loan that had been issued to Setsuo by Sumitomo before the war. Aratani’s problems intensified: he contracted coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, a respiratory disease attributed to the dusty conditions in camp.
Frustrated by the lack of information that could be obtained from behind barbed wire, Aratani and the rest of the board felt that they had no recourse but to sell the farm operation to the trustees. The amount received barely covered the income tax that was due.
As many of his peers were being drafted into the Army in 1944, Aratani joined the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as a civilian language instructor at the school in Minnesota. Upon leaving Gila for Minnesota, he married a Nisei woman, Sakaye Inouye, who had been incarcerated in nearby Poston. They eventually had two daughters, Donna and Linda.
In 1946, Aratani decided that it was time to launch an international trade business in Los Angeles. Resurrecting his father’s prewar company name, All Star Trading, he was reminded of his father’s maxim: “Find good people and work as a team. You only have 24 hours a day. Treat your people well.” As a result, he assembled a team that included men who used to work for Guadalupe Produce Company. His new venture was later renamed American Commercial Inc.
In the early years of the company, Aratani experimented with various imports — from dried abalone from Mexico and shell buttons from Japan. They finally began to gain headway with chinaware from Japan. The brand, Mikasa, was officially launched in December 1957.
Known for its contemporary bargain sets rather than fine china, Mikasa quickly gained traction in national department stores based in New York City. Instead of having its own factories, as was the practice of many companies at the time, American Commercial commissioned various Japanese manufacturers to produce American-inspired designs.
Aratani went on to other enterprises, including AMCO, an exporter of U.S.-made medical and scientific equipment, in 1951 and Kenwood, a seller of Japanese high-fidelity stereo equipment, in 1961. Both ventures involved other Nisei whom Aratani had befriended in either Guadalupe or the MIS.
As Aratani found success in his business endeavors, he began to also get involved in philanthropic activities. With another successful Nisei businessman, Fred Wada, he went on an early fact-finding mission to Japan in 1964 to raise money for a nursing home for aging Issei in Los Angeles, predecessor of Keiro Senior HealthCare.
Aratani discovered that there was no precedence for giving to U.S.-based charities. As a result, he worked with the Keidanren, a Japanese consortium of financial and industrial companies, to grant Keiro tax-exempt status. For the completion of the Japanese Nursing Home (now Keiro Nursing Home), Aratani was among the founders to put up their homes as loan collateral.
His wife was also active with various social causes, ranging from collecting nylons for postwar widows in Japan to assisting Japanese philanthropist Miki Sawada with her campaign to clothe orphans living in Brazil.
In 1994, the same year Mikasa Inc. went public on the New York Stock Exchange, the couple launched the Aratani Foundation. Mikasa was sold to France-based J.G. Durand Industries, Inc. in 2000. Both Kenwood and AMCO have been sold to Japanese entities.
The Aratani Foundation has supported dozens of Japanese American organizations and programs, mostly based in Southern California, but also some nationally based ones.
“It is my philosophy to help the ones hurt by the mass evacuation,” Aratani said. “I myself lost the family business. Eighty-five to ninety-five percent goes to Japanese American organizations.”
In 1983 Sakaye received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Fourth Order from the Japanese government. Five years later, George got his own Kunsho medal, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette.