BY GARY IWAMOTO
Masajiro Furuya — banker, merchant, and manufacturer — was perhaps the most prominent local Japanese American businessman of the early 20th Century. Taking advantage of every business opportunity, Furuya’s success was admired and respected by not only the members of the local Japanese American community but by the greater Seattle community as well. But eventually, he became a victim of his own success and lost it all.
Furuya was born on November 7, 1862 in Yamanashi Prefecture. His childhood life was reportedly not a happy one. He lost his mother when still small and at the age of 13 entered apprenticeship at a confectionery. He studied at a private school and got a teacher’s credential when he was 21 years old. At the age of 22, Furuya joined the military, serving three years at the Azabu First Infantry Regiment in Tokyo. It is said that while Furuya was in the army, he heard stories about America, the rich and prosperous nation across the Pacific. He began making plans for his move to America. Unlike many of his countrymen, young Furuya did not want to be a mere laborer. He decided that it would be beneficial to his success if he learned a trade. After his discharge from military duty, he apprenticed himself to a tailor named Kurihara in Tokyo and worked there until he left for America at the age of 28.
Furuya landed in Vancouver. He came to Seattle where he worked as a tailor for women’s clothes for one month. In 1892, he went to Chicago for three months, then went to St. Louis for six months where he worked at a grocery store. He returned to Seattle at the end of the year. In December, Furuya opened a grocery store at 303 Yesler Way with $500, the beginning of the Furuya Company. He also continued his tailoring business there.
Taking advantage of situations such as the Sino-Japanese War, the discovery of gold in the Klondike, Alaska, and the sudden increase of the Japanese population in the United States due to the opening of the ocean line between Yokohama and Seattle by N.Y.K., the Furuya Company went straight ahead into expanding its business. The business eventually grew to take over a six-floor building and expanded to include wholesale, retail, importing, and exporting operations. The Furuya Company’s supply of Japanese food, especially sake, tofu, and fried tofu, made it essential to the continued growth of the budding Japanese American community. In 1895, Furuya established an oriental fine arts store at 1304 Second Avenue. The Furuya Company also established a subsidiary called the Furuya Construction Company, which supplied labor to build the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road and the Oregon Short Line.
Mr. Furuya moved the head office to 216 South Second Avenue where chiefly groceries and Japanese art products were handled. The Furuya Company became a focal point for the growing Japanese community, a vital part of “Nihonmachi” (Japantown). Centered around the Furuya Company were hotels, restaurants, laundries, second-hand clothing stores, and barbershops, all operated by Japanese.
Branch offices were opened in Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver (Canada), Yokohama, Kobe, Yokosuka, and a sub branch office in Tokyo. In 1904, a post office was set up in one office. Each branch ran on a self-supporting basis and made an annual remittance as a “payment to the authority” to the head office in Seattle. Yokohama and Yokosuka branches were established particularly for business in Japan, mainly having to do with the delivery of rice to the Japanese navy. The Furuya Company was a small-scale company running various enterprises from real estate and construction to postal service, banking, and printing, but Mr. Furuya was certainly the top businessman among Japanese on the Pacific Coast.
As more Japanese came to the Seattle area, they found that except for working as laborers, most white employers would not hire Japanese, even the college graduates among them. They could find work with Furuya if they give strict allegiance to Furuya and the company. Furuya was a strict man, who demanded a sense of discipline and obedience among his workers. The standard dress for his male employees were black or navy blue suits, black ties, black hats, and black shoes. He frowned on recreational pursuits. His clerks worked 10 to 12 hour shifts. Mr. Furuya took no vacations or Sundays off, so he gave no vacations to his employees. However, once a year, all the employees and their families went to Crystal Springs on Bainbridge Island where Furuya built a botanical garden and his summer house.
The Furuya Resort House was famous in the Japanese community. It had a large greenhouse and eight hot houses on six acres of land stretching 300 feet along the shoreline. There were 5,000 pots of lilies, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, geraniums, and chrysanthemums in the fall. At the time, the Furuya Resort House was famous in Seattle’s Japanese community. All the trees were shipped from Japan, including many paulownias and maple, and wisteria with white and purple flowers, and there were two lanterns, a pond and a bridge. Every Sunday, students of the University of Washington and prefectural association people held picnics, but the Furuya employees most enjoyed the advantage of using it.
Furuya was a devout Christian. He held “daily inspirational meetings” at the company, often reading specific phrases from the Bible. Furuya was a member of the Seattle First Methodist Church and it was reported that he required his employees to attend the Sunday School class at the church. Despite his wealth, Furuya lived frugally. He had neither a big mansion or expensive car. He lived on the upper floor of the company boarding house. His mode of living and meals were also simple — mush and toast, with coffee in the morning, broiled or boiled fish or meat for lunch, and miso soup and pickles, and leftovers from lunch for supper.
As Furuya prospered, he began to acquire more financial interests. One of his prized possessions was the renowned Nippon Kan (Japanese Hall). The Japanese Hall (Nippon Kan) was planned in 1909. It was completed in January 1910. The land cost $50,000 and the building cost $40,000 — four stories high with a basement. First, the Cascade Investment Company took charge of it, selling shares to the Japanese community to finance the construction of the building. When the Cascade Investment Company failed, Furuya acquired the building and sold stock to raise capital.
In 1907, Mr. Furuya established the Japanese Commercial Bank (capital of $25,000 later increased to $50,000) and became President of the bank. In 1914, he consolidated the Oriental American Bank, which was then experiencing a slack in business. In 1919, he gave aid to the Seattle Specie Bank. In 1923, the Japanese Commercial Bank merged with the Specie Bank of Seattle. In 1928, the Japanese Commercial Bank and the Oriental American Bank were consolidated as the Pacific Commercial Bank with a capital of $150,000. In June 1928, the banks formed the Pacific Holding Company with $960,000.
As the Furuya financial empire grew, the rest of Seattle took notice. Furuya was considered to be important enough to be listed in “Who’s Who in Washington State” in 1927. He was a member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. In his three volume comprehensive history of Seattle, Clarence Bagley (Bagley Hall at the University of Washington is named after him), wrote, “Among many Japanese businessmen in Seattle, the figure of Masajiro Furuya stands unique and most prominent … (A)t the beginning, he had many difficulties and uphill work. But his prudence, foresight, and never-tiring efforts gradually enabled him to overcome all the difficulties he confronted at the outset and firmly established his business on a strong and sound basis. Ever since his business has grown and prospered along with the growth of the city of Seattle. Mr. Furuya is a man of unusual business ability and keen insight and in fact he has never failed in any business enterprise which he has undertaken.”
By the end of the 1920s, Furuya was a millionaire. But good fortune turned to dust.
On October 23, 1931, the Furuya Company went bankrupt. Furuya had overextended himself. One of his banks, the Seattle Specie Bank had been mismanaged, with bad loans and a bank president who mysteriously disappeared. Furuya had made a series of unsecured loans to people in the community. He had also invested in stocks such as those from the City Service of New York, which made huge drops in value. The Sumitomo Bank and the Yokohama Specie Bank had the resources but refused to bail Furuya out on orders from their head offices in Japan.
Furuya was ruined. Rumors circulated throughout the community that Furuya had sold his stock before the bankruptcy. Or that he had been sending money back to Japan for years. When Furuya went bankrupt, he sold his interest in the Nippon Kan to a white man. He left town, disgraced. Furuya attempted to restart his life in Southern California selling books but his reputation made him a pariah. Finally, he became sick and went back to Japan. Once a celebrated millionaire, Furuya went back to Yokohama, Japan to live in rented house where he died on February 15, 1938 at the age of 75.
The financial collapse of Japanese owned banks wasn’t limited to Seattle. In fact, every Japanese operated bank in the United States collapsed, including banks in Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento. Nihonmachi was strongly affected by the collapse of Furuya’s bank. It took much of the savings of the Japanese community with it. Many of the Japanese businesses on Main Street were forced to close and start over. The Furuya bankruptcy led the Japanese American community to tie up with the First National Bank, a leading bank in Seattle. As a result, the International branch of the First National Bank was started on Jackson Street, which opened on April 10, 1934. A modern building was built on site of the old Welcome Hotel on Sixth and Jackson and opened on September 26, 1959. Later the First National Bank would become SeaFirst National Bank and today, that bank continues to serve the community as the Bank of America.