DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Frances Hashimoto, a longtime Little Tokyo business owner and civic leader, died Sunday afternoon.
Hashimoto, who was born in the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona in 1943, passed away after a long battle with cancer. She was president and CEO of Mikawaya, a Little Tokyo-based bakery and ice cream empire owned by her family since 1910.
“She was my guidepost. She loved talking and teaching about and sharing the Japanese culture,” said Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district formerly encompassed Little Tokyo.
Perry said she knew Hashimoto long before she was elected to office. She called Hashimoto a “big sister.”
“She was a wonderful, giving, warm person who was funny, feisty and a mogul over a major empire,” Perry said.
Hashimoto’s contribution to Little Tokyo went far beyond running the family business. Working with other area leaders, she helped launch organizations such as the Little Tokyo Community Council and the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District.
She twice served as chair of the Nisei Week Japanese Festival and was the current chair of the Little Tokyo Business Association, as well as the vice chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. On Sept. 18, the City Council approved naming Azusa and Second streets Frances Hashimoto Plaza in honor of her contributions to the community.
Joanne Kumamoto, co-chair of the LTBID and a board member of the LTBA, noted that Hashimoto was a recognizable figure in Little Tokyo since childhood.
“She grew up roller skating around the neighborhood. She knew everybody,” said Kumamoto. “She was one person who really had Little Tokyo’s best interest in mind.”
Hashimoto was a familiar presence at Mikawaya, the Japanese Village Plaza bakery owned by her family for more than a century. She often greeted longtime customers with a hug and a few words in Japanese.
Hashimoto took over operations of Mikawaya in 1970. Ultimately, she grew it into a $13 million-a-year business with five stores, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and bakery on Fourth Street in Downtown and a 100,000-square-foot facility in Vernon.
“We’ve been very lucky to be part of this community for so long,” Hashimoto said in a 2010 interview shortly before the 100-year anniversary of her family business.
The business may be best known for the mochi ice cream that was invented in 1994 by Joel Friedman, Hashimoto’s husband.
The bakery was purchased in 1910 by Hashimoto’s uncle, Ryuzaburo Hashimoto. In 1925, his nephew, Koroku Hashimoto, and Koroku’s wife Haru, Frances Hashimoto’s parents, purchased the business.
The store was forced to close when Hashimoto’s family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, were moved during World War II to an internment camp in Arizona.
Frances Hashimoto was born in there in 1943, and when the family returned to Little Tokyo in December 1945, they reopened the store. Hashimoto grew up in the neighborhood and, after graduating from college began working as a teacher.
She returned to the family business and took over Mikawaya in 1970. At the time it was being run by her older sister and mother following her father’s death.
The company’s growth and Hashimoto’s civic involvement began soon after. That brought her into regular contact with officials including Perry.
“She embodied a great spirit and lived her life with high principals,” Perry said. “She was an exceptional business woman, a tremendous wife and mother and a community leader.”
Hashimoto is survived by her husband Joel Friedman and two sons. On Monday morning, the Mikawaya website was temporarily suspended in remembrance of Hashimoto. A small black and white image of a younger Hashimoto was posted instead.
Update: Funeral and memorial services will be held Nov. 10 at 10 a.m. at the JACCC's Aratani Japan America Theatre.
Contact Richard Guzmán at email@example.com.