By TOMO HIRAI, Nichi Bei Weekly
SAN FRANCISCO — Japanese confections have been a San Francisco Japantown staple for more than a century, and while several similar businesses have come and gone, Benkyodo Company remains the last one standing, serving up fresh handmade mochi to customers since 1906.
Community members, however, are learning that Bobby and Ricky Okamura, the brothers who run the shop, plan to retire at the end of the year.
Benkyodo’s storied history as the ethnic enclave’s oldest business has been commemorated and recognized over the years. Benkyodo attained status as a San Francisco Legacy Business in April 2019.
According to the shop’s legacy business application, Suyechi Okamura founded the business at 1533 B Geary Blvd. in 1906. It then moved to 1638 Geary in 1939 and closed temporarily during World War II when the Okamura family was incarcerated at the Granada (Amache), Colo. concentration camp.
Suyechi Okamura handed the reins of the business to his son Hirofumi “Hippo” Okamura and his wife Sue in 1951 and the business moved to its present location at 1747 Buchanan St. in 1959, according to the city report.
The Okamura brothers took over the shop in 1990. Ricky Okamura told The Nichi Bei Weekly he expressed his intent to carry on the family business after graduating from San Francisco City College. His younger brother by three years, Bobby, joined him when their father retired in 1990.
“I told (my father) that I would like to take over the business. And he was very happy. It wasn’t forced on me,” Okamura said. “I did it because I wanted to make them happy — have it go down another generation. He could have easily sold it back then.”
In recent years, community members wondered what would happen to the business should the brothers choose to retire. Bobby Okamura told The Nichi Bei Weekly last year that retirement has been on their minds for the past few years. They finally shared their plans to retire at the end of the year in a KQED article published May 5.
Above all else, Ricky Okamura wished to convey through The Nichi Bei Weekly: “I want to thank the community for their patronage over these 115 years.”
The elder brother said he will turn 70 next January, and had been considering stepping down at that milestone. According to KQED, the brothers are looking for someone to take over, but Ricky Okamura said they would have to be a cousin or second cousin, since none of his children are interested in taking over the business.
He added that he won’t sell the “Benkyodo” name to someone outside his family.
The greater Japantown community lamented the potential loss of the shop. Organizations such as Nihonmachi Little Friends have relied on Benkyodo’s confections for their annual celebrations, such as sakura mochi for Hinamatsuri (Girls Day) and kashiwa mochi for Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day).
“For over 45 years, NLF has enjoyed the delicious manju with our staff, children and families!” Cathy Inamasu, executive director of the preschool, wrote in a statement sent to The Nichi Bei Weekly. “They will be truly missed, but we wish Rick and Bobby and the Benkyodo family all the best and appreciate their long and wonderful service and generous support to the community!”
Judy Hamaguchi, who lived on Buchanan Street prior to the redevelopment of Japantown, said she has a lot of memories associated with the shop, including buying senbei (rice crackers) with a nickel at the Geary Boulevard location as a young child. She also said she calls the shop the “Chapel of Benkyodo” because her stepfather and mother were married at the lunch counter at the Buchanan Street location.
“They said they went up to Buddhist church and got the bosan (minister), walked him down to Benkyodo. They sat at the counter and the bosan did the service and married them, right at the counter at Benkyodo,” Hamaguchi said.
Ricky Okamura said he wasn’t around when that happened, but he believes the story.
“Her parents were the greatest people. Her father was such a nice guy,” he said.
Others such as Allen Okamoto mourned the potential loss of a “community space” as well as the only source for fresh manju in the city. Okamoto said everyone must eventually retire, including the Okamura brothers, but he hopes someone will be able to take up the reins. For Okamoto, whose real estate office is up the street from the confectionery and lunch counter, Benkyodo has been his favorite place to get a sandwich and see both new and familiar faces.
“Along with the Cherry Blossom Festival, the stores, shops and restaurants, I think they help make up the true fabric of Japantown,” Okamoto said.
Hamaguchi concurred. While she recalled the chili dogs and homemade hamburger patties, as well as her favorite root beer floats, she said Benkyodo serves an invaluable role in the community, and its closure would be like the loss of May’s Coffee Shop in the Japan Center West Mall in 2018.
“Of course, manju is important because, where else do you go in San Francisco to get fresh manju? But it was about those people sitting at the counter. It’s the obaachans (grandmothers) who have their weekly party in that corner,” Hamaguchi said. “If you want to hear the latest gossip, go to Benkyodo. And so it was more than just the place to buy senbei or to buy manju.”
Ricky Okamura knows the lunch counter does not generate much revenue, since customers would only sit and talk all day. During the pandemic, he has closed off the counter, but said if everyone gets vaccinated and it is safe to do so, he will consider reopening the counter before they retire.
“Yeah, I’ll open it,” he said. “Even if it’s just for coffee, just a place for people to sit down and talk.”
For now, the Okamuras are looking ahead. The coronavirus pandemic forced the business to close for 10 weeks after mid-March. Today, the business only admits two customers at a time, to sell a smaller selection of manju.
Even still, Ricky Okamura said business is picking up as vaccinations continue and the economy looks towards reopening. He added that he could not say whether anyone would take over the business yet, just that he will continue to work through the year, and possibly a few months into 2022 to finish wrapping up, but no more.
“We may have to go into next year too,” he said. “I mean, a few months to get everything settled and all this stuff. So, no later than March.”