105-Year-Old S.F. Japantown Market to Close Its Doors

2

Uoki K. Sakai's reputation for providing fresh fish has continued for more than a century.

SAN FRANCISCO — Uoki K. Sakai, San Francisco Japantown’s oldest grocery store, is closing its doors at the end of the month.

The announcement was posted on the storefront at 1656 Post St. by Robert Sakai, who represents the third generation of his family to run the market. He has declined to speak publicly about his decision.

Robert Sakai received a small business award from San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi in 2010 at City Hall.

Members of the Japantown community are lamenting the loss of a 105-year-old institution. Richard Hashimoto of the Japantown Merchants Association commented that Dec. 31 “will be a very sad day.”

Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, announced that supporters will gather in front of the store on Dec. 30 from 2 to 2:20 p.m. to say “thank you.”

By the store’s entrance is a plaque identifying Uoki Sakai as part of the San Francisco Japantown History Walk. It gives the following history:

“Kitaichi Sakai arrived in San Francisco in the 1890s. He worked as a cook and sold fish door-to-door from a horse and buggy. After the 1906 earthquake he opened a combined grocery, fish market and ship’s chandlery on Geary Street. The store’s name Uoki comes from uo (‘fish’) and ki (‘happiness’), one of the kanji in Kitaichi’s name.

“As Nihonmachi grew, the store moved to Post Street. Sakai’s customers relied on him for hard-to-find specialties and staples of the Japanese diet: 50-pound bags of Japanese rice varieties, daikon (a long white radish), kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), gobo (burdock root), and impeccably fresh fish — to be served raw as sashimi, simmered in a warming seafood nabe (stew), or grilled as shioyaki or teriyaki.

“As Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps in 1942, the Sakai family moved all of their possessions, including their truck, into the store and boarded up the front, hoping for the best. Returning from internment in Topaz, Utah in 1945, they were among the fortunate few whose store and possessions were intact. They quickly reopened, providing Japanese foods rich with memories and tradition as well as new items reflecting change and adaptation resulting from the Japanese American experience.”

In May 2010, Uoki Sakai was honored at the Small Business Commission’s first annual San Francisco Small Business Week recognition ceremony at City Hall. The honorees, chosen by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and each member of the Board of Supervisors, represented businesses that are family-owned, exhibit outstanding commitment to the community, and provide significant contributions to the vitality of San Francisco.

Uoki Sakai was selected by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who called it “a flagship of the original small businesses in Japantown and the oldest Japanese grocery store in the United States.”

Japantown has two other grocery stores, Super Mira and Nijiya. There are unconfirmed rumors that a new owner will purchase the Uoki Sakai property and continue to run it as a market.

There is another Japantown store that dates back to 1906: Benkyodo, which specializes in manju. Brothers Ricky and Bobby Okamura are the third generation of their family to run the business. The family recently lost its matriarch, Sue Okamura, who passed away on Oct. 29 at the age of 85.

Uoki Sakai's distinctive sign with the characters for "fish" and "happiness" has been a familiar sight to generations of visitors to Japantown. (Google Maps)

Share.

2 Comments

  1. I know the drive was good — to come back after war and camps to reintegrate, educate and prosper. We moved up and out of cities to ‘burbs. Outmarried, abandoned the old ways, the old food and (what is now) the old JA culture. We decline in population, businesses wither on vine, disappear.

    All I can say is big sigh here.

Leave A Reply