Recalling Japanese businesses in Ontario

Iseri Insurance and Travel Agency in Ontario, Ore.

A once thriving Japanese business cluster in Ontario dwindles as young people leave the rural community on the Oregon-Idaho border.

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The year 2018 marks the 76th anniversary of executive order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s edict authorizing internment camps for Americans of Japanese-descent.

In Oregon, the order had a longstanding demographic impact.

During the war, the U.S. government demanded an increase in sugar beet production — for food as well as use in weaponry (the sugar was used to make industrial alcohol). Sugar beets were a major crop in eastern Oregon, and the state ended up recruiting 800 Japanese-Americans to work in sugar beet fields near Ontario.

When the war ended, some of the formerly interned Japanese-Americans stayed in Ontario and opened up businesses. By the 1950s, Ontario had the largest per capita Japanese-American population in Oregon.

That demographic trend continues today. Based on the US Census data in 2015, Ontario still has the largest Japanese-American population — 1.82 percent — in Oregon.


A few Japanese-owned businesses — grocery stores, floral shops and insurance agencies — still operate in Ontario. These include Matsy’s Restaurant and Catering and Kanpai.

But the numbers continue to decline. In 2015, there were 204 people of Japanese descent living in Ontario.

“We’re the second generation in our businesses,” says Mike Iseri, owner of the Iseri Insurance and Travel Agency in Ontario. Iseri’s father, George Iseri, a Japanese-American farmer, businessman and city councilman, managed the Iseri Insurance Agency founded by his brother in 1930s, and later founded the Iseri Travel Agency in the 1950s.

First-generation Iseri Business
The first-generation Iseris owned a grocery store in Auburn, Wash., but they were forced to close it down due to executive order 9066. They soon moved to Ontario, where they became farm laborers. 

But Iseri’s own children won’t continue working for the family business, he says. His son is a mechnical engineer in Seattle. His college age daughter is pursuing a marketing degree and is not interested in business ownership.

“Most of our generation’s children grew up, went to college and lived their lives, so a number of second-generation Japanese-owned businesses declined because the children didn’t come back to take over,” he says.

According to Matthew Stringer, executive director of the Four Rivers Cultural Center, a museum in Ontario, more than 20 Japanese-American students graduated from the local high school in the 1970s. Today, there are only two or three.

Ogawa's Wicked Sushi

Tommy Ogawa, former owner of Ogawa’s Wicked Sushi, Burgers and Bowls, sold his business in 2015 and moved to Hood River. The current owners kept the restaurant’s name.

“There was a pretty strong (Japanese) community here,” restaurant owner Connie Huston said.  “We don’t have a lot now, but we have seen some Japanese customers who probably would stop over the area.”

As the Japanese population declines, another ethnic group is thriving. Hispanics now account for 39.88% of Ontario’s population.

 “Ontario has a blend of many different ethnicities,” Iseri says. “Diversity is apparent, and it’s an important part of the community.”

Rachel Ramirez is an Oregon Business intern.