The Masudas: the Family Behind an Iconic Image
by Russell Yee
Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) Docent News, Fall 2017
The eldest son of a samurai, Torasaburo Masuda (1866-1934) travelled from Yokohama to San Francisco in 1892, hoping to further his education. He found work as a domestic in SF and then as a farmworker in Elk Grove. Moving to Oakland in 1895, he worked for six years at Osgood’s Drug Store at 7th x Broadway. He also started various side businesses including a barber shop and a rooming house at 6th x Broadway. In 1900 he opened Masuda Co. on 7th St. as a combination grocery and dry goods store, hiring agency, and pool hall. The store became a prime gathering spot for the local Japanese American community.
In 1908 he married Kuni (Nagamatsu, 1881-1953). They had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1916, Masuda joined with two other stores (Goto, Alameda and Morita Bros., Berkeley) to form the Wanto Sho-Kai ( “East Bay Company”). The combined stores prospered up til the Great Depression. In 1931 the company had to declare bankruptcy and Masuda emerged as the sole owner. After he passed away in 1934, two of his daughters, Mineko (1912-2006) and Yoshiko (1914-2011) ran the business, while his only son, Tatsuro (1916–1991), earned a degree in economics at UC Berkeley. (Tatsuro wanted to study engineering but could not afford the additional lab fees and textbooks.) The company struggled through the Depression years, partly because the elder Masuda had long been extremely generous extending credit to those in need.
The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Tatsuro hired a painter to make and install the “I AM AN AMERICAN” sign at the 8th x Franklin storefront. The next month, in January 1942, Tatsuro (25) married Alameda-born Hatsue Kuge (23, 1918-2013). They soon moved to Fresno to be with relatives, just before the “freezing order” prohibiting Japanese American travel.
On March 30 1942, Dorthea Lange took the iconic picture and chatted with Tatsuro. The Masudas had always rented rather than owned the property, so the “SOLD” sign in the full-frame view was probably not related to the store itself. It’s not known who owned the car in the picture, probably a 1937/8 Buick Coupe.
On May 6, 1942, Lange took pictures of the busloading of Japanese Americans at 1117 Oak St., directly across the street from OMCA. Her second picture below shows hastily gather household items being readied for storage. The three houses are across the street from 1117 Oak St., on one of the blocks now occupied by OMCA, near the Oak St. garage entrance.
On August 7, 1942, Tatsuro and Hatsue (then in her second trimester) were removed and eventually incarcerated at the Gila River War Relocation Center (Arizona). Their firstborn, Walter, arrived on November 15, and then their daughter, La Verne, on March 2, 1944.
Tatsuro was released from Gila River on August 10, 1944 and went to Cleveland, Ohio, probably with a lead for work there. Two months later, Hatsue and the two children were released and first went to Madison, Wisconsin. Eventually the family was able to reunite and settled in Utah, where Tatsuro and Hatsue lived out the remainder of their lives.
Today there is no Japantown or Little Tokyo in Oakland, despite the significant prewar Japanese American population here.
Lange’s notes, picture details, and business records clearly place Wanto Co. at 401-403 8th St. (x Franklin), in today’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, some descriptions misstate this location at “13th and Franklin” and the error persists to this day, including in our own History Gallery (though a change order has been entered). [Note here correction at the Library of Congress entry based on documentation I supplied them.] The 1989 Phoenix Plaza mixed-use development now stands there and a Chase bank occupies that corner.
Today this iconic image continues to speak directly to our national debates about identity, race, culture, and citizenship. But it is also simply a snapshot from an American family and part of its story right nearby OMCA.
The author gratefully acknowledges the kind research help of Gerry Naruo, nephew of Tatsuro Masuda.