Having achieved the milestone of its 75th anniversary since its founding in Little Tokyo right after World War II, the Aihara Insurance Agency announced that it had reached an agreement to sell its business to another long-time Japanese American insurance firm with community history: the J. Morey Company.
The Aihara Insurance Agency was founded by Luis Aihara on May 1, 1946, in Little Tokyo. Like many Japanese Americans, he had returned to Southern California with his family after being displaced by the U.S. government during World War II and unfairly incarcerated in a concentration camp. The family had a farm in Garden Grove and were among the fortunate ones to have neighbors who maintained their property during the war.
Upon returning, however, Luis sought another career away from the farm and relocated to Little Tokyo. He began selling life insurance for Occidental Life, one of the first companies that sold policies at standard rates to those of Japanese ancestry and other people of color beginning in the 1930s.
In June 1951, Luis incorporated his business as the Aihara Insurance Agency and began selling auto and home insurance to his clients. As with life insurance, Japanese American agents had been limited or even restricted from selling auto and home policies by the insurance companies until the postwar era.
“The renewals for auto and home insurance provided my dad with a steady income,” explained Doug Aihara, who took over the family business from his father in November of 1993. But it was hardly lucrative. “Back in those days, annual auto premiums were less than $100 per year.”
In October 1968, the Aihara Insurance Agency moved into the newly constructed Kajima Building at the corner of First and San Pedro streets as one of the original tenants. The move coincided with the steady growth for the agency as the Japanese American community’s economic strength improved.
The Aihara Insurance Agency was also one of the first to benefit from the emerging presence of Japanese corporations doing business in America. Because of language and cultural obstacles, Japanese companies sought out Japanese American insurance agencies who had the ability to speak Japanese and understood the culture. Luis and his agency acquired Japanese corporate clients including Yamaha, Suzuki Motors, Epson, Kajima and Panasonic.
As business prospered, the Aihara Insurance Agency took a leadership role as one of the founding members of the Japanese Casualty Insurance Association, which used the collective strength of almost a dozen Japanese American agencies to attract the attention of insurance carriers who had ignored or shut out their Nikkei clients.
“With the buying and selling power of so many agencies,” Doug noted, “the association members were able to secure contracts to sell a carrier’s product that may not have been available otherwise. Back in those days, finding carriers that would sell to Japanese was hard enough, so having the purchasing power of the association opened doors for many of its members.”
The Japanese Casualty Insurance Association also set ethical guidelines for its members to respect each other’s business and not try to lure clients away from fellow members. “The idea was there was enough business to go around the Japanese American community,” Doug explained.
Luis passed away in 2007 and over the years, there has been some thought of continuing the family business into the third generation. But, circumstances did not work out and Doug began seeking the right fit for the sale of the company. Ultimately, he chose the J. Morey Company.
‘I was looking for a company that I was confident would serve the needs of our clients moving forward,” he stated. “The J. Morey Company was the best choice. They agreed to let the Aihara Insurance Agency continue working under our name during the transition in our offices. I feel strongly that this was the ideal outcome for all parties. Having reached our 75th anniversary, I thought this was the right time to sell the business. I think my dad would have agreed.”
The J. Morey Company was founded in Cerritos in 1980 by brothers John, Jack and Jim Morey, but the family’s roots began in Little Tokyo. Their grandfather Bungaro opened a dry goods general store in Little Tokyo in 1907 and their father George worked there until the war. Because of their forced removal, the Morey family lost that business.
Over the years, the J. Morey Company expanded, acquiring the Hirohata Insurance Agency, the oldest existing Japanese American business, and Mineta Insurance in San Jose. In 2012, Joshua Morey, John’s son, opened the company’s office in Little Tokyo, walking distance from his great-grandfather’s general store. He is now the president of the company
“I emphatically believe in the perpetuation of minority communities,” Josh Morey said. “My father, John, and uncles Jack and Jim have instilled values of community that are bigger than anything we can do on our own. It’s an honor to assist in the perpetuation of the Aihara family’s 75 years of cultural footprints in our Japanese American community. Our firm’s duty (giri) is to preserve and grow the legacies of those who’ve gone before us.”