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The Morey Family: A Self-Guided Walking Tour through Little Tokyo History

Four generations of the Morey family have been a part of Little Tokyo’s business community. Three generations of the Morey family have also been a part of the Japanese American National Museum, since its inception nearly thirty years ago. In fact, much of the Morey family history has taken place within a two-block stroll, west, from the Museum plaza.

Joshua and Jack Morey

1. Your tour starts on the broad steps of JANM’s 85,000 square-foot pavilion designed by Gyo Obata who is also principal architect of the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

2. Walk west to the third door in the original Museum building, which is a historical site, the first Buddhist temple constructed in Los Angeles. You are facing the door of the Little Tokyo branch office of The J. Morey Co., Insurance Agents and Brokers, opened in 2010. The J. Morey Co. is a family business providing all lines of personal and commercial insurance and financial services since 1980, with main offices located in Anaheim and Japantown, San Jose, and a branch office in Torrance. Jack Morey, President, decided with brothers and principal partners John and Jim, to bring Yonsei and nephew Joshua to head this new branch office. According to Jack, “Joshua wanted to be here in the heart of Little Tokyo and that was exciting. He’s brought a lot of energy and initiative. He is building a dynamic and hard working team.”

Josh standing next to the 1907 Article of Incorporation for the Asia Company

From his childhood home in northern California’s Bay Area, to Wheaton College near Chicago to Tokyo, Japan to Los Angeles, Joshua Morey played on Little League, NCAA, and semi-pro baseball teams. Aspirations to become a professional baseball player later transitioned to joining the Morey team in business. “Once I got into high school, I didn’t go down to Dad’s office much—just too busy with sports,” remembers Joshua.

However, it was not the push to join his father, John, in the San Jose office but rather the pull of Little Tokyo’s culture, a resurging business environment, and a respect for his family history that drew Josh to Los Angeles. Joshua and his wife, Brittany, moved outside of Downtown, just a quick ride away to the Gold Line stop across from JANM. “If there’s a place that I wanted to work, where would it be?” he reflected. “Being close to home is good, but as I thought about it more I recalled our family history beginning in Little Tokyo. I remember seeing the original charter for my great grandfather’s Asia Company hanging on the wall of the J. Morey Co. office in Anaheim.”

Asia Company interior in 1907

3. Continue walking west to the end of the block to First and San Pedro streets. Along the way, be sure to see the notable Far East Café, a popular eatery for many Japanese American families after the war. “My grandfather immigrated from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan, entered through Vancouver where Canadian officials changed the spelling of Mori to M-o-r-e-y, and then traveled to Los Angeles. Of course, we heard the stories of how my grandfather worked his way down to Los Angeles and then opened up his business, the Asia Company, in 1907. The store was located on the northwest corner of First and San Pedro,” recalls Jack Morey.

The Asia Company was a dry goods general store owned in partnership with two other families. Jack’s father, George, worked in the store to help his Issei father, Bungaro. The business was lost when the Morey family was incarcerated at Granada or Camp Amache, Colorado, during World War II.

First & San Pedro in 1907

The intersection of First and San Pedro in 2011

4. Cross over to the southwest corner of First and San Pedro to Weller Court. After the war, Jack’s parents George and Sakaye left Amache for New York and after a brief stay, returned to Los Angeles. They lived in a Victorian home on Van Buren Street near USC where their inter-generational household included their four boys Donn, John, Jim, and Jack as well as the Morey grandparents. George started Morey and Company, a rice distribution business, located on Weller Street, which used to be a thoroughfare for vehicles between First and Second streets.

Like their father George, Jack and his brothers worked in the family business after school and on weekends delivering rice to local vendors. Jack remembers, “We were practically living in the Little Tokyo community so there was a connection, a gathering point with other Japanese Americans.” Growing up, it was important to Jack’s parents that their children stay connected with the JA community. To this end, Jack went to Japanese school, played CYC and NAU sports, joined the 49er YMCA group, and attended Centenary Church. He graduated from Manual Arts High School and California State University at Los Angeles where he majored in, what else? History!

Asia Company in 1907. At center, Bungaro Morey and young son, George

5. Retrace your steps down First Street walking full circle back to JANM and enter through its welcoming glass doors. The Moreys’ relationship with JANM is as much a part of their family legacy as running businesses in Little Tokyo. Both Jack and Josh stepped through the doors of the Museum and into leadership roles. “Our family history is here,” said Josh. “My grandfather George generously supported this museum when it first started and my uncle is on the Board of Governors. The Museum preserves a part of history that is very unique and these stories are why the Museum will always be here and will always be relevant.” Jack shares Josh’s perspective of the Museum, “I was a history major in college and I believe that history is life experiences, good or bad, that we can learn from. The stories we continue to tell here at the Museum are vitally important.”

Jack Morey has spent over twenty years as an advocate of the Museum with eight of the most recent years serving on the JANM Board of Governors. “It’s a really involved commitment of time and energy,” says Jack. “All these people are giving of their time. There’s such talent on the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors.” As a promoter, fundraiser, and advisor to the Museum, Jack works to strengthen its future by expanding its reach. He cites the Bid for Education program, which brings students onsite to teach them about the Japanese American story, as an excellent way to attract a diverse audience. He also credits collaborative events and exhibitions showcasing young artists, filmmakers, musicians, and cartoonists who appeal to the JA community and beyond. “These events and programs also invite my generation, the Sanseis, to reconnect to the Museum through their children and grandchildren.”

In addition to a growing arts community, Josh points to a different area event that brings new interest to the Museum. He named the Little Tokyo Design Week held this summer as one example. “They had exhibits at MOCA, JANM, and JACCC which drew close to 50,000 people who visited throughout the week.” Better accessibility is another driver of increased exposure to the area. Joshua commented on the Regional Connector Transit Corridor Project, which will bring light rail from the west side of Los Angeles practically to the doors of the Museum. “If you come here on weekends, this place gets really busy! It’s a hidden gem!”

Joshua Morey chairs the New Leadership Advisory Council, operating under bylaws approved by the Board of Trustees of the Museum. This vibrant group of young professionals, ages 21-40 years, is extending JANM membership to the e-generations. In only one year, Josh reports, “We have over 200 members and within our listserv, close to 500. Our board numbers ten.” New members are attracted to apply for membership in the New Leadership Advisory Council by attending events such as business networking meetings and social dinners or mixers. “This area is becoming quite urbanized and is safer than in years past. There are more ethnic people, other than Japanese, who are coming to Little Tokyo, which is just great! I think the future of Little Tokyo holds great possibilities!”

Multi-generations of Moreys contribute to the success of the Museum and Little Tokyo. Jack considers the Museum to be the “anchor” to Little Tokyo. “It not only focuses on local and regional issues, it also brings national exposure to Little Tokyo and its ethnically diverse surrounding community.” Little Tokyo remains heavily influenced by Japanese and Japanese American culture and also reflects the blending of cultures being experienced throughout America. “The JA community is growing in diversity from its past, which is good. I hope to see the JA saga carried on through future generations. And sometimes I think, maybe it won’t, but the museum will ensure that the stories of our cultural heritage and our backgrounds are conveyed so we can learn from the past and continue to record our unique history—to remain a primary part of generations to come.”

*Interview by Esther Newman. Tour and Photos by Jack Morey.

© 2011 Japanese American National Museum

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