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‘Community Treasure’ Tomio Moriguchi Named 2020 First Citizen

By August 14, 2020 September 2nd, 2020 No Comments

BELLEVUE, WASH. — When Tomio Moriguchi retired as chairman and CEO of Uwajimaya at the end of 2017, Jim Wajone, who succeeded him as chairman of the family owned specialty supermarket, praised him for his strategic leadership and vision. Outside that business, Moriguchi is known for his volunteerism, generosity, advocacy and dedication.

Tomio Moriguchi was selected to run his family’s company in 1964 after working previously at Boeing Co.

Those are among the traits the selection committee for this year’s Seattle-King County First Citizen Award cited in naming Moriguchi and family as this year’s recipients. The award, which celebrates community leadership, volunteerism and public service, will be presented at a civic celebration at a date to be determined.

In announcing this year’s recipient, event chair Trish Englund said Moriguchi’s remarkable contributions have enriched communities not only locally but also internationally.

“He exemplifies all the qualities of a ‘First Citizen’ in the countless ways he has benefitted the greater good,” said Englund, a broker at Windermere Real Estate Midtown in Seattle.

Community service by the Moriguchi family dates to the company’s founder, Fujimatsu Moriguchi (Tomio’s father) and continues today with the third generation that includes Tomio’s daughter, Denise, who became the company’s CEO in 2017.

Moriguchi, 84, is quick to credit his family.

“You can’t do this without their support,” Moriguchi said after receiving the 1992 Japanese American of the Biennium Award, the highest public service award given by the JACL.

In 1994, Moriguchi was the subject of a resolution passed by the Washington State House of Representatives. It recognized him for myriad contributions ranging from “caring for the elderly” to being “an exemplary role model for Asian American and Pacific Islander youth.”

This year’s First Citizen award recognizes the collective contributions of the Moriguchis in enhancing the quality of life throughout the area. In becoming this year’s honorees, they are only the fifth family to receive the prestigious award.

“As a past recipient of this prestigious award, I cannot think of a more worthy 2020 awardee than Tomio,” stated Phyllis Campbell, Pacific Northwest chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co. “He and his family were early pioneers in the specialty grocery business, catering to Asian and Asian American tastes. However, he is mainly deserving because of his lifetime of generosity, giving back to our community in countless ways to make it a better place. He is truly one of the icons in business and is a role model for up-and-coming diverse leaders, as his inspirational acts transcend generations.”

“Tomio is such an integral part of our local Japanese and Japanese American community, and his tireless community involvement, whether in his longtime role as chairman and CEO at Uwajimaya, or his roles with local community newspaper North American Post or the Japanese American Citizens League,” said Karen Zaugg Black, chair of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington.

Moriguchi led the board at Uwajimaya for nearly five decades, but he traces his start in the business to his childhood in Tacoma, Wash. He recalls sleeping on bags of rice in the back of his dad’s truck as rounds were made to sell fish cakes to Japanese immigrant laborers in railroad, seafood, farming and lumber camps.

Uwajimaya has about 500 employees at four retail locations in Oregon and Washington — Beaverton, Bellevue, Renton and Seattle — as well as a wholesale food operation. Above is Uwajimaya Bellevue.

That business, which was named Uwajimaya (“The Store of Uwajima”) after the fishing village where the elder Moriguchi learned his trade, was interrupted by World War II. Like other Japanese families, the Moriguchis — Tomio’s parents and his three siblings — were sent to the Tule Lake Internment Camp in California.

After the war, in 1945, the family, who would go on to add three more siblings, returned to the Northwest, settling in Seattle, where Fujimatsu Moriguchi (Tomio’s father) borrowed money from friends and former customers to purchase a 1,200-square-foot storefront in Japantown near the King Street Station. Several family members worked there while also helping other Japanese Americans following the end of WWII.

The store expanded as the Moriguchi’s acquired adjacent storefronts, and it gained notoriety when it “scored a slot at the 1962 World’s Fair at the Seattle Center.” That same year, Fujimatsu Moriguchi died, leaving the business to his four sons, who then extended ownership to their mother and three sisters.

When Uwajimaya incorporated in 1964, Tomio was selected to be its leader. Before joining the family business in 1962, the 1961 University of Washington graduate in mechanical engineering had been working at Boeing.

However, under Tomio’s leadership, Uwajimaya grew both in terms of square footage and popularity, adding several locations and employees. It currently has about 500 employees and four retail locations, plus a wholesale food operation.

Through the years, Tomio has held several key community positions on corporate and nonprofit boards, including the International District Economic Development Assn., International District Improvement Assn., Asian Counseling and Referral Service board, Denise Louie Child Care Center, JACL, the Japanese American Pride and Shame exhibit, the Seattle Chapter of the National Treasure and the National Council for Japanese American Redress.

He also is the founding member of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce of Washington State. Since its formation in 1992, the nonprofit organization has promoted increased understanding of Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage through projects such as the Executive Development Institute and Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.

Since his retirement, Tomio has remained active with various organizations and causes. Additionally, he still works on developing the company’s real estate holdings as well.

Reflecting on his heritage and accomplishments, Moriguchi references his Asian Confucian background and the desire to be harmonious.

“The challenge in both my business and nonprofit work was, and is still today, to harmoniously accomplish goals while not being confrontational,” he stated.