George Shima (George Shima)

George Shima

George Shima (1864–1926) was a Japanese American businessman in California who became the first Japanese American millionaire. At one point, he produced about 85% of the state’s potato crop, which earned him the nickname “The Potato King”. Born Ushijima Kinji (牛島謹爾?) in Kurume, Fukuoka, Japan, he entered a preliminary course at the Tokyo Commercial School (now Hitotsubashi University), but failed the entrance examination for the regular course. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1889 determined to learn English, the subject that gave him the most trouble on the exam. Upon his arrival, he changed his name to George Shima. He first worked as a domestic servant in San Francisco, then became a migrant farm laborer in the Sacramento Delta for a while. Soon afterward, turned his eye to management, when he began supplying Japanese farm workers to white farmers. By the late 1890s, he leased some land and began his own farming operations. He was successful enough to purchase some inexpensive swampland (considered undesirable by white American farmers) in the San Joaquin Delta. After draining and diking the land, he found that potatoes grew best in that type of soil, and using corporate management techniques and the latest agricultural technology, began to corner the market in potatoes. By 1913, he had 28,000 acres (113 km2) in production and by 1920, he had 85% of the market share with his “Shima Fancy” brand, valued at more than $18 million ($212,621,262 today).

His business success did not bring him respite from racism, however. In 1909, while trying to purchase a home in Berkeley, George Shima was actively opposed by real estate agents and other homeowners. Despite being the subject of such newspaper headlines as “Yellow Peril in College Town”, Shima became active in the community, donating $500 to the local YMCA, and gradually won over his neighbors. Still, the opposition he encountered led him that same year to become the first president of the Japanese Association of America and to unsuccessfully fight the passing of the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which was written to prevent Asians from owning land. In 1926, while on a business trip to Los Angeles, he suffered a stroke and died. That same day he was awarded the Fourth Rank Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan. He received the award from Hirohito, later known as Emperor Shōwa. At his funeral, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, and James Rolph, the Mayor of San Francisco, both served as pallbearers. The Shima Center at San Joaquin Delta College honors his legacy. Yoshinobu Hirotsu, a fellow resident of Shima’s hometown of Kurume, also raised several hundred thousand yen to set up a life-sized monument to him in a park there in 1999.

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Born

  • January, 01, 1970
  • Japan
  • Kurume, Fukuoka

Died

  • March, 03, 1926
  • USA
  • Los Angeles, California

Cause of Death

  • stroke

Cemetery

  • Japanese Cemetery
  • Colma, California
  • USA

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