Katsumasa Sakioka; Made Fortune in O.C. Real Estate
Katsumasa (Roy) Sakioka, who overcame prejudice, wartime internment and chronic shyness to become one of the nation’s richest men, has died. He was 96.
At its zenith, Sakioka’s spectacular land empire included 1,000 prized acres in Orange County alone, where he was among the first to envision the coming real estate boom.
Despite immigrating to the United States with little money and speaking no English, Sakioka began buying small pieces of rural Orange County just after World War II, much of which he had spent in an internment camp.
Sakioka understood that celery thrived in Orange County’s black, moist soil. But he also had an uncanny knack for knowing where freeways and shopping centers would sprout. He was a master at buying land along development’s path and selling it at the last possible--and most profitable--moment.
A frail, frugal, intensely private man who lived in a modest one-story, ranch-style house in Costa Mesa, Sakioka amassed roughly $325 million in landholdings. Many of the county’s malls and office towers sit on former celery fields he owned.
Still, despite his immense wealth, Sakioka, who died Saturday, retained a passion for hard work. Twenty years after his retirement in the 1960s, Sakioka was still carrying a celery knife and rubber boots in his car, just in case he spied some farm work that needed doing.
In 1991, Sakioka was named one of America’s 400 richest individuals by Forbes Magazine, to which he refused to grant an interview.
The youngest of six children--as well as the father of six children--Sakioka was born in a farming village on the tiny Japanese island of Shikoku. At age 18, Sakioka came to the United States, planning to work hard and then return to Japan with his fortune. He returned only briefly in 1920, to marry his childhood friend, Tomio. Together, the couple raised three boys and three girls here.
For 22 years, the Sakiokas were tenant farmers in West Los Angeles, owning not one acre of the land they worked. But when the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, the family was rounded up with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans and shipped to the Manzanar internment camp in Bishop.
Eventually, Sakioka learned from a friend that sugar beet farmers in Utah were seeking Japanese Americans to harvest their crops. Sakioka received permission to take his family to Utah, where they labored as contract farmers.
In 1946, the Sakiokas returned to California. The law barred Japanese residents from becoming citizens, and non-citizens from owning land. But Sakioka got around the law by acquiring land in the names of his American-born children.
Later, Sakioka would sit in on public hearings to learn where sewer service was being extended--a reliable harbinger of future development.
Sakioka is survived by five of his six children, 17 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, along with three daughters-in-law and two sons-in-law. Funeral services are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.
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