Back in the tiny, fluorescent-lit factory, the women massaging the curds into the cheesecloth-lined boxes are shyly smiling and ducking my camera, but reluctantly allow me to include their gloved hands in a few shots. Ota’s elderly husband, Ko, allows me to snap a few from behind his station at the soy bean cooker.
I’m taken with the efficiency of the small operation. Everyone has a job to do and they do it well. After more than a century, the kinks have been ironed out. The machines in the factory can crank out 500 pounds of tofu an hour, but much of the work still requires the touch of human hands.
Between 1890 and 1910, Portland’s Japanese population grew from just 20 to nearly 1,500 people. In addition to Nihonmachi (Japantown) just north of the city’s urban center, a second, suburban community emerged in the Montavilla area of East Portland. At first they were mostly men, settling in the fertile foothills of Mount Tabor to farm berries and vegetables. Later women began to arrive to the city, taking out ads in the local paper seeking domestic work in private family residences. In 1905, the local Y.W.C.A. began offering Saturday evening cooking classes to Japanese women, giving inexperienced Nikkei a leg up in American cookery.
With a more gender-balanced population in the mid-oughts, people married and started families, and Nihonmachi went from a seedy district of drifting laborers (and the caterers to men’s vice) to a blossoming neighborhood. Sukiyaki hot pot restaurants (a Japanese analog to the then trendy chow mein parlors run by Chinese cooks), bath houses, grocery stores, and a fish market opened in service to the growing Japanese community, and Saizō Ohta (the original Anglicized spelling of the family’s name) arrived from Okayama with his two older brothers.
Much mystery surrounds the origins of the company. One of the elder Ohta brothers opened the tofu shop in partnership with a Mr. Nagaro in 1911, whose given name and place of origin is unknown. It’s not even clear if the Ohtas had been tofu makers back in Okayama, or if they’d merely seized an opportunity to fill a need in their new city. The brother (whose first name is also not known) then returned to Japan, leaving his half of the business to Saizō. Originally called Asahi Tofu, the tofu-ten, as a tofu shop is known in Japan, was first located on NW Third and Davis, sharing an address with a Japanese laundry. When Saizo and his wife, Shina, took over the business, they moved it around the corner to a new location, and the name of the business was changed from Asahi (meaning “morning sun”) to the family name. No one knows what happened to mysterious Mr. Nagaro.
While Sukiyaki was slowly gaining popularity throughout the U.S., Japanese cuisine was still largely misunderstood and unappreciated. Portland directories in the 1920s and 30s listed the tofu shop as a bakery, the “soy bean cakes” evidently having been confused for pastry by the directory’s publishers. However, one gushing restaurant review published in The Oregonian in 1932 got it right, noting that the Tokio Sukiyaki House, located a block away from the Ohtas’ shop, included ingredients such as bamboo shoots and celery sprouts imported from faraway lands, “while the soy bean cake is made locally.”
Although their Chinese neighbors had always formed a good portion of the Ohtas’ customer base, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 brought growing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese communities to a head. Japanese business owners tried to keep their heads down, but Chinese customers stopped coming in. From their tiny shop, the Ohtas carried on, making silky tofu, puffy and golden-fried aburaage, and gelatinous, bruise-hued blocks of voodoo lily paste called konnyaku. Then, Pearl Harbor changed everything.
Massaging curds—the fifth step in making the tofu.
Anti-Asian racism wasn’t new, but Pearl Harbor was the shit that hit the national fan. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing people with Japanese, German, or Italian ancestry to be incarcerated in concentration camps. Those with Japanese ancestry—nearly 70,000 American citizens—were forcibly evacuated to the assembly center (located at a decommissioned cattle stockyard) for detention before being shipped off to an Idaho concentration camp called the Minidoka Relocation Center. With only 48 hours’ notice in some cases, Japanese businesses were liquidated and property sold off for whatever amount they could get. Whatever property hadn’t been sold was confiscated. Nihonmachi slowly converted to Portland’s second Chinatown as Chinese residents and business owners took advantage of the newly vacated properties, but there were no longer any tofu makers in town.
Life in Minidoka was demoralizing, with families forced into barracks within barbed wire enclosures, living in cubicles divided by a thin sheet. They were fed army rations that attempted to erase their Japanese identities, supplemented with hot dogs and SPAM. If they were cooperative and proved their loyalty, adults and teens might earn the privilege of working in potato and sugar beet fields to break up the monotony of their daily lives. Nonetheless, people carried on, trying to make the most of things by writing newspapers, creating schools for their children, and growing gardens.