Exemplary Service Keeps Loyal Customers Coming Back

Gwen Battad Ishikawa

Long before the arrival in Hawai‘i of Costco and Sam’s Club, Shimaya Shoten was the place to go for food that could be purchased in bulk, especially ethnic fare. My grandmother used to sell food at community events, so she made one or two trips to Shimaya every month. As a youngster, I would tag along with my parents and grandma to the warehouse on Kohou Street to pick up flour for fried chicken, mochiko for desserts and dried shrimp for pinakbet. When I was old enough to drive, I became my grandma’s Shimaya driver, either bringing my grandma or picking up her order from the will call counter.

It’s been years since I stepped foot into the warehouse, even though it’s located right across the Kapälama Canal from our Herald offices. When I drive by their building and see all of the parking stalls filled, I feel happy knowing that even with the Mainland big box retailers in our Islands, Shimaya still has a following.

One hundred years in business. That’s an impressive milestone to reach, especially in this day and age.

For a company, especially one in food retailing, to remain in business for a century — and still going strong — is almost unheard of. And yet, that is the story of Shimaya Shoten.

History

Shimaya Shoten was founded in Honolulu on Aug. 1, 1917, by Hisaji Onoye, an immigrant from Kagawa-ken, Japan.

While in Hawai‘i on a business trip for Marushima Shoyu, which was owned by his wife’s family, Hisaji saw the opportunity to start his own business in Hawai‘i. After returning to Japan, he asked his father-in-law for a loan to help start the business. When his father-in-law turned him down, Hisaji and his wife decided to immigrate to Hawai‘i and open the business on their own using tanomoshi money. Shortly after settling in Hawai‘i, his wife died unexpectedly from a flu epidemic.

A tanomoshi is a group of individuals who put money into a fund and take turns bidding on the entire pot for personal or business reasons. Rather than going to a bank for a loan, where they were often turned down, many early businesspeople turned to the tanomoshi system to launch their business.

Hisaji used tanomoshi money to open Shimaya Shoten on River Street in Chinatown. It was located on the ground floor of the Taiheiyo Bussan building. Hisaji named the company Shimaya Shoten, taking the “Shima” from his home island of Shödoshima in Kagawa, and “Shoten,” from the Japanese word meaning “mercantile” or “business.” Shimaya Shoten would be his “island store.”

To help with the store’s day-to-day operations, Hisaji enlisted the help of two of his brothers, Araji and Isao Onoye, who came from Japan, and Fumiyo Kochi, the father of his new wife.

In 1922, Hisaji had married Chiyoko Kochi, with whom he had five children: sons Ichiro, Jiro and Hideo, and daughters Kazuko Ishida and Grace Hiroko Sonoda. Of the three brothers, only Ichiro survives.

Ichiro was 18 years old when he started working for the family business. He started at the bottom, learning everything about the company.

When World War II broke out, the Japanese American community immediately came under suspicion. Martial law was declared in Hawai‘i and prominent religious, business and community leaders were interned in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. Japanese Americans were treated like the enemy.

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