Uwajimaya, the Northwest's premier Asian supermarket, celebrates its 80th anniversary.

Share story

Another plate of salmon teriyaki is nearly done, and now it’s time to shop. Another lunch date in a monthly ritual going back decades.

For 40 years, Japanese-born Toshie Wright of Gig Harbor and Mitzi Walker of Port Orchard have been making the long drive to Uwajimaya and Seattle’s Chinatown International District, poking at food-court bento boxes and stirring up memories of a homeland they left in 1958.

They’re the kind of people who’ve provided the foundation for Uwajimaya, which next week celebrates its 80th anniversary. With 430 employees and annual sales close to $90 million, the Asian grocery and gift store — with stores in Bellevue and Beaverton, Ore. — plans to expand again in the next five years. That’s quite a feat for an enterprise that rose from the rubble of wartime internment, prospered at the 1962 World’s Fair and risked its future on an ethnic identity before it was chic to do so.

From modest origins in the back of a truck in Pierce County, Uwajimaya has achieved prominence as thriving retailer, community anchor and tourist destination — the region’s premier Asian supermarket and one of the nation’s best. For some, the store founded by Fujimatsu Moriguchi is a portal to fading memories and comforts of the heart; for others, it’s a cultural citadel; for others still, a mesmerizing sojourn to worlds beyond.

Today, its aisles, bins and freezers teem with visual delights, Asian and otherwise, foreign to some and second nature to others.

“You can pick up menu ideas just walking down the aisles,” says longtime community activist Bob Santos, who shops there almost daily for that night’s dinner.

Daily-made sushi competes with ready-to-eat edamame, egg foo young and BBQ pork. In the seafood department, there’s live tilapia and geoduck, a scrum of Dungeness crab, eight kinds of oysters, and fish heads on ice alongside whole rockfish, coho and rainbow trout.

Elsewhere: endless ramen. One-gallon cans of soy sauce, 50-pound bags of rice. A plethora of plum wines; canned lychees (brittle-shelled Chinese fruit) and jackfruit (native to South and Southeast Asia); pyrotechnic blasts of brightly wrapped cookies and candy. Panko bread crumbs, seaweed and dried everything — shallot, mushroom, lotus root, black fungus.

Pork tongue, Kobe beef, lamb shank, oxtails, chicken feet. And produce and herbs unseen at most mainstream markets — gai lan (Chinese broccoli), mizuna greens, Thai eggplant, galanga, kaffir, kabocha and walking-stick-sized rods of gobo (burdock root).

“Then — the sauces,” Santos says, practically licking his lips. “All of a sudden, your juices are flowing and you start thinking, this is going to be a pretty good mix.”

Customers praise the store’s variety, freshness, quality, cleanliness and authenticity. Current CEO Tomoko Matsuno, the diminutive, spirited and delightfully candid youngest sister of former head Tomio Moriguchi, says that even the giant woks, an undulating dragon spanning over several grocery aisles and other spendy cultural adornments are part of the store’s philosophy.

“The dragon — I call that my Ferrari,” says Matsuno, who returned to the grocery fold after a brief fine-arts career in San Francisco. “Was it worth it? Yeah.” Then, she quips: “I wish we could blow smoke out of it, but the maintenance guy told me, ‘Drop dead.’ “

But such things come at a cost: Others decry Uwajimaya’s prices compared to other stores such as 99 Ranch Market, which dominates in California and operates two stores locally.

On consumer-review Web site Yelp.com, adherents wax fanatical. “Having moved to Seattle from Japan, I have to say that this place is awesome!” writes Christina L. “… I can find all my old staples here — miso, oden, konnyaku and kamaboko.”

Effuses another, Donkey K.: “Uwajimaya is like if Whole Foods and 99 Ranch Market had a baby.”

For Wright and Walker, it’s a place to find sustenance — and to reminisce.”We’re looking for the basic foods we had growing up in our childhood, things our mother cooked for us,” Walker says. “Maybe it’s not fancy — or maybe people think, ‘What is that?’ But we just cherish those memories.”

FUJIMATSU MORIGUCHI came to Seattle in 1923. A 24-year-old native of the port city of Yawatahama, Japan, he spent several years with a Seattle fish company before moving to Tacoma, where other immigrants from his hometown had started restaurants years before.

Moriguchi sold fish cakes from the back of his truck to Japanese immigrant laborers in railroad, seafood, farming and lumber camps throughout the area. He called the business Uwajimaya, after the fishing village where he’d learned his trade. Son Tomio, now 72, remembers being on the road, sleeping on rice bags and enjoying treats given to him and his siblings on his father’s rounds. “They treated us kids well,” he says. “We never lacked for candy or pop.”

Then came World War II. In 1942, like other Japanese families, Fujimatsu and wife Sadako were sent to California’s Tule Lake Internment Camp along with their four kids. Another three children, including Tomoko, were born there.

After the war, the family joined other Japanese families resettling in Seattle’s former Nihonmachi, or Japantown, in what is now the Chinatown International District. Fujimatsu roamed the neighborhood, looking for a store to buy. He had $400 in his pocket. Eventually, he found a 1,200-square-foot storefront at 422 Main Street.

“The Filipino man there practically threw the key at my dad,” Moriguchi says. “He said, ‘Take it, if you’re crazy enough to start a business right now.’ “

The Moriguchis eventually took over adjacent storefronts. Then, in 1962, Fujimatsu scored a slot at the World’s Fair at Seattle Center. The space wasn’t much bigger than a studio apartment, but the six-month venture proved successful by serving fair workers: Long after the crowds had dwindled, the family continued to sell cigarettes and rice cookers to event employees who still showed up daily.

The same year, Fujimatsu died. He left the business to his four sons — Kenzo, Tomio, Akira and Toshi — who then extended ownership to their mother and three sisters.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the store catered to a large influx of Japanese war brides and then waves of Japanese businessmen on the front lines of a reviving economy, says S. Frank Miyamoto, sociology professor emeritus at the University of Washington. As the 1970s approached, two things worked in Uwajimaya’s favor — the growth of Seattle’s Asian population following changes in immigration law, and dramatic shifts in American ethnic awareness.

As CEO, Tomio Moriguchi led Uwajimaya’s expansion from its 3,600-square-foot Main Street location to what would eventually be a 20,000-square-foot, pan-Asian operation on King Street.

“At the time, it was not at all apparent that an ethnic food store of the kind advertised could succeed,” Miyamoto says. “… Tomio and his family obviously sensed the potential.”

The company pursued a pan-Asian identity, and part of its success lies in its user-friendly appeal to non-Asian customers, estimated at near 40 percent of its clientele.

“I’m convinced that it doesn’t matter what culture you are — the more sophisticated customers will seek you out because you are authentic,” says Moriguchi, CEO from 1965-2007. “It’s our desire to be as authentic as possible.”

The family’s biggest venture has been the creation of Uwajimaya Village, a commercial/residential complex that opened in 2000 and now includes a 66,000-square-foot main store, 176 market-rate apartments, underground parking, a pan-Asian food court and Tokyo-based Kinokuniya bookstore.

It was a major step for a neighborhood aiming to maintain a mix of market-rate, low-income and senior housing, and it didn’t come without a fight. The mammoth project, sprawling over three city blocks, permanently closed a block’s worth of Lane Street, prompting legal challenges from the Chinese/Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Matsuno still steams over the opposition. “Do you know what it’s done for this district?” she says of the development, with characteristic frankness. You can see why her brothers wouldn’t even tell her when the court dates were.

Of those who raised objections, many of whom she never met, she says: “They didn’t see beyond the silliness. Sure, I’m resentful. Resentful for small thinking. We took a big gamble. I resent that mentality more than I resent the people.”

The second-generation siblings, now in the twilight of their reign, have been grooming “3-G” family members to assume the helm. Four of the family’s 20 grandchildren, and their spouses, already work for the store, and during the holidays, visiting grandchildren are put to work.

“That’s why a lot of them don’t like to come home,” Matsuno says. “It’s not really a holiday.”

For Moriguchi, real satisfaction lies in fulfilling his parents’ desires to see their children succeed. “You know deep down they [were] not working so much for themselves as for the future generation,” he says. “They never told you that, but you kind of knew.”

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com