'Masa' Murakami dies at 90; family store was community hub
Masako "Masa" Murakami traveled the globe, but her world revolved around the family's Seattle business, an International District variety store her father began in 1909 and she helped keep going until 2003. Ms. Murakami, who died Friday at the age of 90, was the last surviving member of her immediate family, all of whom operated the Higo Variety Store.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Masako "Masa" Murakami traveled the globe, but her world revolved around the family's Seattle business, an International District variety store her father began in 1909 and she helped keep going until 2003.
Ms. Murakami, who died Friday at the age of 90, was the last surviving member of her immediate family, all of whom operated the Higo Variety Store.
She was born in Seattle in 1919 and attended Broadway High School. After school and on weekends, she and her siblings helped run the store, which not only supplied wares to community members, but also served as an information hub within the Japanese community.
First known as the Higo 10 Cent Store, the business moved to Sixth Avenue South and South Jackson Street in 1932 and played an important role in the area known as "Nihonmachi," or Japantown. It sold a quirky variety of American and Japanese items that ranged from clothing to soap to cigarettes to kimonos to tins of rice crackers.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, the family was interned at the Minidoka Relocation Center. Masa and sister Ayako (Aya) recalled that one of the few possessions they kept was a crowbar they hoped one day to use to remove the plywood that covered the windows of the family business.
While at the southern Idaho detention camp, Masa and Aya taught elementary-school-age children and kept about 40 short autobiographies she had them write.
Many of those who were interned lost businesses and property, but the Murakamis' business and property were protected by other occupants of their building, Julius Blumenthal and his half-brother, Maurice Zimmer, who also reportedly paid the family's bills in their absence.
The father, Sanzo Murakami, died just eight days after returning to Seattle in 1945, leaving his wife, Matsuyo, and the children to reopen the store.
Masa, Aya and brother Kazuichi (Kay) continued to run the store after Matsuyo's death. When Aya died in 1999, Masa was the lone member of the family and continued to run the store, with the help of friend Ester Matsuda, into her 80s.
Eileen Tokita, who sold goods to the store, said Ms. Murakami was always perfectly coifed, impeccably dressed and kind — to the point of being reluctant to raise prices.
When Ms. Murakami began experiencing health problems, her cousins, Paul and Craig Murakami, searched for the right business to inhabit the space. They wanted someone who would embrace the spirit of the store. In 2003, they found Kobo, a successful gallery and store on Capitol Hill.
Kobo owners Binko Chiong-Bisbee and husband John Bisbee named their new shop "Kobo at Higo." The business consists of gallery space and elegant Asian products, but it also displays merchandise the Murakami family used to sell and a photo album chronicling the Murakamis' history at the spot.
"People, multigenerations of families, continue to come in here after all these years and ask about Masa," Chiong-Bisbee said.
One was a woman who brought her 16-year-old daughter. The woman was showing her daughter how as a teen she had gotten off a train in Seattle and wandered, lost, into the Higo store. She told her daughter how Ms. Murakami walked her to a hotel, called in a favor to help get her back on her feet, and "saved her life."
Ms. Murakami and sister Aya were inseparable. They traveled extensively around the world, marking the destinations they had visited on an oversized map. They also collected matchbooks from around the world with the intention of incorporating them into a coffee table.
Ms. Murakami also was preceded in death by another sister, Chiyoko, who died before World War II. She is survived by the families of Kazuo Murakami, Shizuko Nobuyama, Hideo Harada, Toshi Terayama and Sumi Matsumoto.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Nisei Veterans Hall at 1212 S. King St.
Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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