by Dorothea Lange
from Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration

Wanto Co. was a store selling groceries and Japanese goods, made famous by a Dorothea Lange photo showing a large sign reading "I AM AN AMERICAN."

The store was at 401 & 403 - 8th Street, at the corner of Franklin Street. The store appears in directories from at least 1924 to 1941. The building has since been razed. In its place is the 1989 Phoenix Plaza mixed-use development, with a Chase bank branch on the ground floor of that corner. (For reasons unknown, some references erroneously place the location at 13th St. x Franklin St.)

Heading  of Wanto Co. order form, circa 1940
The Japanese kanji characters read 
“Bay-East-Company"

Lange's note states: "March 30, 1942 8th - Franklin St Oakland Japanese - owned Grocery Store. It has been closed. Owner voluntarily evacuated at the last moment before the 'Freezing order' to Fresno where he has relatives. He is U C graduate, born in California. I asked him 'who put up that sign?' He said 'a sign painter but I paid for it, the day after Pearl Harbor.’”

Timeline: 

  • December 7, 1941 - Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • December 8, 1941 - Storeowning family member Tatsuro Masuda, a University of California graduate, commissions and installs the "I AM AN AMERICAN" sign
  • January 25, 1942 - Masuda (25) marries Hatsue Kuge (23), they move to Fresno 
  • February 19, 1942 - FDR issues Executive Order 9066
  • March 30, 1942 - Dorothea Lange takes this picture (it's not known who owned the car, probably a 1937/8 Buick Coupe)
  • August 7, 1942 - Tatsuro and Hatsue removed and eventually incarcerated at the Gila River War Relocation Center (Arizona)
  • November 15, 1942 - Hatsue gives birth to their firstborn, Walter Kenji Masuda; his sister, La Verne Kimi, is born March 2, 1944
  • August 10, 1944 - Tatsuro released from Gila River
  • October 17, 1944 - Hatsue and children released from Gila River

After their release, Tatsuro went to Cleveland, Ohio (perhaps to look for work?) while Hatsue and the two children went to Madison, Wisconsin. Later they reunited and settled in Utah, where Tatsuro and Hatsue lived the remainder of their lives..

Tatsuro's father, Torasaburo Masuda, had immigrated from Japan in 1892. In 1900 he opened the Masuda Co. at 421-7th St. as a combination grocery and dry goods store, hiring agency, pool hall, and barbershop. In 1916 he partnered with the Goto store (Alameda) and Morita Bros. store (Berkeley) to form Wanto Sho-Kai ("East Bay Company"). The stores prospered until the Great Depression. Torasaburo passed away in 1934 and two of his five daughters, Mineko and Yoshiko, ran the business. Meanwhile, his only son, Tatsuro, earned a degree in economics at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1938. (Note that some accounts conflate Torasaburo and Tatsuro.) 

The Masuda family rented the 8th x Franklin storefront and did not own the building, so the "SOLD" sign visible in the full frame view may not have related to the Wanto Co. store or its closing. 

Directory listing (1940) showing Wanto & Co. at 401 - 8th St.:

Lange also took this separate photograph, standing somewhat to the left of where she took the more famous photograph. Visible in the bottom left corner is the sign for the Kusano Hotel, which was at 709 Franklin Street, between 7th and 8th. (The vertical characters between "Kusano" and "Hotel" are the Japanese Katakana syllables for "Kusano" and not the Arabic numerals "771.")

The Wanto Co. site today, at 8th x Franklin:

 

Links and References

Same Dorothea Lange photo; different cropping