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The Chicago Shoyu Story—Shinsaku Nagano and the Japanese Entrepreneurs - Part 1

1. Introduction

In a short story titled “On January First” in his book, American Story, Kafu Nagai depicted a Japanese immigrant in New York who declined to eat a Japanese feast with his countrymen. His reason for declining was that Japanese food reminded him of his poor mother who had died in misery. How painful it is to imagine the depth of sorrow of a person who had to distance himself from his family history by abandoning Japanese food.

Did he mean to reject even “comfort taste” such as shoyu? Shoyu has the magical power to change the taste of unfamiliar food, making it edible for Issei, like the author of this article.

Kikkoman, a major brand of shoyu, has been in the US for more than 60 years. Its promotion of shoyu to the non-Japanese market in the US through Kikkoman International, Inc. began in 1957 in San Francisco. According to Yuzaburo Mogi, who was a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 1960s, there were only one or two stores in Manhattan that carried shoyu; his classmates thought that the shoyu he bought was home-made.1

Kikkoman 1950s (Day collection)

Kikkoman International’s first overseas factory, producing fermented shoyu, was built in Wisconsin in 19732; since then, “Made in USA” Kikkoman shoyu has been contributing to gradually changing American tastes. In the 1980s, Kikkoman’s market share took the lead over non-fermented soy sauce, which had been used in the US for quite a while.3

When did shoyu first come to Chicago?

2. Chicago Shoyu Importers: Hiroshi Mori and Hisakichi Takeda

The earliest records of shoyu in Chicago can be found in the official catalogue of the Columbia Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Twenty-four shoyu manufacturers exhibited their products in the agriculture building at the exposition. Among them, eleven exhibitors were from Chiba prefecture, four from Osaka prefecture, two from each from Gunma, Tokyo, Hyogo, and Kumamoto prefectures, and one from Ibaragi prefecture. This reflects the fact that Chiba was the dominant prefecture for shoyu manufacture in Japan.

Well known among Chiba shoyu producers were Noda Shoyuand Higeta Shoyu. The former, the predecessor of Kikkoman, was made by the Mogi and Takanashi families, the latter in Choshi village by the Tanaka family. Their names—Fusagoro Mogi, Shichirozaemon Mogi, Heizaemon Takanashi, Tsuneemon Tanaka, and Gemba Tanaka—are listed among the exhibitors in the catalogue of the exhibition. However, on the West Coast, Saheiji Mogi of Noda had already registered Kikkoman as a brand name in California in 1879 and had started exporting Kikkoman shoyu to California and the western U.S.4 In 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition, exports of shoyu from Japan were significantly increasing, most of them bound for Hawaii.5

Japanese workers who came to Chicago to build the Japanese pavilion for the exhibition had been prepared not to be able to eat rice, and worried that they might become ill by eating bread and meat all the time, which their bodies were not accustomed to. In fact, the workers could eat rice at every meal and were very satisfied, which encouraged them to work harder.6 They were also most probably offered shoyu from the West Coast.

In 1897, after the exhibition, the Japan Central Tea Traders Association in Tokyo opened its Chicago office in order to promote Japanese green tea. In spring 1899, they opened a tea house in Sans Souci Amusement Park at 6163 Cottage Grove. The tea house hired a Japanese chef from Tokyo who could make Japanese food, although his materials and offerings were limited.7 In September 1899, Kahei Ohtani, director of the Japan Central Tea Traders Association, visited the tea house and wrote this account: “it is very impressive to sit in a Japanese style room and enjoy Japanese food, thousands miles away from Japan.”8 We only can presume that, as a staple of Japanese cooking, shoyu was used in the food at the tea house. It is impossible to know, however, whether the shoyu was imported Kikkoman, made at the tea house, or store-bought non-fermented soy sauce from Chicago Chinatown.

Japan Shoyu Company (Nichibei Shuho, July 16, 1904, World fair Souvenir edition)

It was in 1904 that a shoyu importer was first recorded in Chicago history. This firm, the Japan Shoyu Company at 56 Fifth Avenue in Chicago, advertised shoyu as follows: “Try this delicious and wholesome seasoning at Fair Japan Restaurant on the Pike”9 The Fair Japan on the Pike wasn’t even in Chicago; it was a private concession at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904. The Fair Japan Restaurant was operated by the Fair Japan Company, established by Y. Kushibiki, S. Arai, and several prominent businessmen in St. Louis.10 In the Palace of Agriculture at the Exposition, there was a large exhibit of shoyu from Japan.11 The Japan Shoyu Company sold bottles of shoyu for 25 cents on orders received from the Kimono House at Fair Japan.12

The Kimono House handled all kinds of Japanese items; in addition to shoyu, it sold kimonos, silks, laces, embroidery, fans, parasols, slippers, artificial flowers, carved cherry furniture, leather goods, screens, and Japanese antiquities that attracted American merchants.13 It was housed in a traditional Japanese building at the fair, but was run by another Chicago firm, the North Pacific Trading Company, which had formerly been known as Hiroshi Mori and Co.14 The president of the North Pacific Trading Company was George S. Bowen, a prominent entrepreneur and civic leader in Chicago, Hiroshi Mori was the vice president, and Ihei Kuzuhara was secretary.15

A graduate of Sapporo Agricultural College sent to Chicago by the Japanese government as the first trainee in their overseas practical learning program, Hiroshi Mori arrived in Chicago in September 1901 to do research on oil and flour manufacture.16 His term as a trainee was three years, but during that time he established his own trading company, Hiroshi Mori and Co. at 56 Fifth Avenue in the fall of 1903. This evolved into both the North Pacific Trading Company in January 1904, as well as the Japan Shoyu Company.

After the St. Louis Exhibition, in early 1906, he opened a tea house in Chicago and sold Japanese clothing as well.17 The location of the tea house is unknown and his tea house and Japan Shoyu Company were destined for a short life in Chicago. While his friends spread rumors about his failure at business and marriage in statements such as “if Mori had started his work with more definite plan, then, it might have been better, not only for himself but for the rest too” and “Mori made a serious mistake on his marriage”18, Mori and his de-facto wife, Mitsu left Chicago and went to live in Ohio in 1906.19

Takeda Shoten (Nichibei Shuho, September 21, 1907)

As if to take over from Mori’s tea house, the Takeda Shoten came to Chicago in September 1907. The Takeda Shoten became pioneering “Japanese place,” which combined a retail store for Japanese food with lodging in Chicago. The Takeda Shoten had originally been a Japanese restaurant and lodging in New York which opened in June, 1903. All materials were imported from Japan and a professional chef was invited from Seattle.20 Six months later the Takeda Shoten opened a retail Japanese food store at 154 Gold Street in Brooklyn, New York.21 They sold sake, shoyu, miso, rice, umeboshi, dried food, and canned food such as fish, vegetables, and other things imported from Japan. They also accepted mail orders. The Takeda Shoten was an exclusive agent for Kyo-Jirushi shoyu, but also sold a Kikkoman shoyu, according to an advertisement.22

The Takeda Shoten opened a Chicago branch at 2917 Prairie Avenue. They rented a four story building and made the first floor a Japanese grocery store. The upper floors had a pool room, Japanese restaurant, and lodgings. Anadvertisement in a Japanese newspaper expressly stated that the location was ideal because it was close to a train station and convenient for Japanese travelers.23 Later, they added a bath for lodgers.24 They offered to pick up travelers at the train station and give guided tours of Chicago while travelers waited for night trains.25 This pattern of offerings would become a business model for Japanese-run lodging houses in Chicago for the next 30 years. On top of it all, of course, these places offered fresh Japanese food.26

A Japanese journalist who lived in New York stayed at the Takeda on his way back to Japan and praised their facility as worthy even for noble guests. He noted that the fresh fish selections were fewer than in New York, but he was convinced that this was because Chicago is far from both seacoasts.27 The store was locally called the Takeda Club28 and Hisakichi Takeda was in charge of operations. Later, Kuchiro Nakagami was hired as manager.29

According to the 1910 census, Hisakichi Takeda was 40 years old and had come to the US in 1901 with his wife, Shije. Most likely his business in New York had gone well. Once they arrived in Chicago in 1907, his widowed sister, Raka joined them. Five single Japanese men, including Nakagami, were staying at Takeda Club when the census was taken. From then on, the Takeda Club was well-accepted among local Chicago Japanese as a social club,30 but it also played a role as a reception hall for visiting Japanese consuls and nobility from Japan when they were in Chicago.31 When the Waseda University baseball team came to Chicago and played against the University of Chicago in May 1911, the reception for Waseda students was held at the Takeda Club.32

Takeda Club (Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1911)

The Takeda Club was also a place for celebration and entertainment for local Japanese Chicagoans. They celebrated the Emperor’s birthday in November 1911 and enjoyed entertainment such as acrobatics, rakugo, and music of the satsuma-biwa.33 They also put on plays: “one of the diversions of the Takeda Club members is dramatics. A month ago a complete tragedy in Japanese was given there, the consul being one of the spectators.”34 The Japanese food offered at those occasions, sent from the Takeda Shoten in New York or directly imported from Japan, must have made the Japanese feel more relaxed and at home in Chicago.

In 1910, more than half of the shoyu exported to the US from Japan was Kikkoman brand, and Chicago was one of the principal destinations, along with Honolulu, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Tacoma, and Denver.35 We can presume that Kikkoman shoyu was most likely available at the Takeda Club. But perhaps because of competition among the Japanese in Chicago, the Takeda Club disappeared from Chicago around the end of 1913.

Part 2 >>


1. Hokubei Mainichi, October 31, 2007.
2. Hokubei Mainichi, June 8 2007.
3. Chicago Shimpo, January 7, 2014.
4. Shurtleff and Aoyagi, History of Soy Sauce (160CE to 2012): extensively annotated bibliography and source book, page 9.
5. Ibid.
6. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 25, 1892.
7. Kazuo Ito, Shikago Nikkei Hyaku-nen Shi, page 52.
8. Ohtani, Kahei, Obei Manyu Nisshi, page 62.
9. Nichibei Shuho, World Fair Souvenir Edition, July 16, 1904.
10. Handbook of Japan and Japanese exhibits at World’s Fair St Louis.
11. Ibid.
12. Nichibei Shuho, World Fair Souvenir Edition, July 16, 1904.
13. Nichibei Shuho, August 13, 1904.
14. Statement of the North Pacific Trading Company, Bowen collection, Chicago History Museum.
15. Nichibei Shuho, August 13, 1904.
16. Diplomaic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 6-1-7-18.
17. Nichibei Shuho, March 10, 1906.
18. Tejima letter, Bowen collection.
19. 1906 Dayton Ohio Directory, 1906 Springfield Ohio Directory.
20. Nichibei Shuho, June 13, 1913.
21. Nichibei Shuho, December 19, 1903.
22. Nichibei Shuho, October 6, 1906.
23. Nichibei Shuho, September 21, 1907.
24. Nichibei Shuho, December 19, 1908.
25. Nichibei Shuho, June 12, 1909.
26. Nichibei Shuho, May 20, 1911.
27. Nichibei Shuho, January 30, 1909.
28. 1908 Chicago City Directory.
29. 1911 Chicago City Directory
30. Nichibei Shuho, June 25, 1910.
31. Nichibei Shuho, September 3, 1910, September 16, 1911, and November 16, 1912.
32. Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1911.
33. Nichibei Shuho, November 18, 1911.
34. Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1911.
35. History of Soy Sauce, page 9.


© 2020 Takako Day

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