Since its founding in 1918, Little Tokyo-based Fukui Mortuary has provided traditional funerals to generations of Southern California residents of Japanese descent. The mortuary’s vice president, Eric Tanaka ’03, a Cal State Fullerton marketing grad, is poised to take the leadership reins of the fifth-generation enterprise in coming years.
Occupying an unassuming professional building on East Temple Street in the Downtown Los Angeles Little Tokyo district, Fukui Mortuary has been an exceptional family-owned firm, serving an ethnic enclave in Southern California since the end of World War I.
The Fukui story began in 1888, when 22-year-old Soji Fukui emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, to work in sugarcane fields in Kona, Hawaii. “Like most Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, Soji was lured with a better life, greater opportunity and increased wages by working in what was then the Hawaiian Territory,” says Eric Tanaka ’03, Soji Fukui’s great-great grandson.
Following 18 years as an overseer on the sugarcane plantation, Fukui and his family moved to Seattle, Washington, in search of a new and better career path. After dabbling in the import/export business, hat-making, chicken-raising and the restaurant industry, Fukui relocated to Los Angeles, where he became very involved with the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Eventually receiving a Buddhist religious title normally reserved for ministers, Fukui became the liaison between families of temple members who passed away and the local mortuary.
“Soji was hired by a privately-owned funeral home to help deal with the language and customs of the growing Japanese immigrant community residing in the Boyle Heights area,” says Tanaka. “Over the years, he gained ownership, forming the Japanese Undertaking Company in 1918. Around 1940, Soji’s son, Hitoshi Fukui, a World War I veteran, bought out the other partners to form Fukui Mortuary.”
Fukui Mortuary Continues Its Legacy of Service in the 21st Century
Soji Fukui’s entrepreneurship has survived through many changes, including waves of urbanization and revitalization in Downtown Los Angeles, the Great Depression, World War II and the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, the Cold War, several post-war economic recessions, major earthquakes, and social and technological shifts.
Through it all, Los Angeles has maintained one of the largest and most cohesive Japanese ethnic enclaves in the United States, which has supported the continued vitality of what is now known as Fukui Mortuary.
“The most noteworthy recent accomplishments of Fukui Mortuary were commemorating our 100 years of service to the community in 2018, as well as being one of the few Japanese-American companies to attain fifth-generation ownership,” says Tanaka.
Within the Japanese-American community, there is significant religious diversity: A Pew Research Center report in 2012 noted that 32% are unaffiliated with any faith, 25% are Buddhist and 38% are Christian (five-sixths of which are Protestant, with the remainder Roman Catholic).
Fukui Mortuary provides funerary services in line with each of these traditions and has even served Angelenos of other backgrounds.
“Our mortuary conducts services in Buddhist, Christian and other religious traditions, whether it be a traditional funeral, memorial or celebration of life. We will service, with great care, any family that walks through our doors during their time of need,” says Tanaka. “Although most of the families are Japanese, we have served other cultures and other faiths.”
When asked about the challenges and opportunities that Fukui Mortuary faces in the future, Tanaka cites the changing perspectives and identities of younger generations of Japanese-Americans.
“Many Japanese now marry outside of their ethnicity, which makes it difficult to know if they will continue to seek a culturally sensitive funeral home,” he says. “The younger generations are sometimes not as traditional and may seek funeral homes based on convenience rather than tradition.”
Tanaka sees a future in expanding mortuary services to other areas of Southern California through satellite offices, serving families in the Los Angeles South Bay, Orange County and Ventura. However, he remains committed to a dynamic presence in Little Tokyo as the district changes and revitalizes.
“The changing demographics and younger generations moving into Little Tokyo are wonderful to see and helps our community become more diversified,” says Tanaka. “We hope to share our culture with future generations.”
The Impact of a Cal State Fullerton Marketing Education on a Mortuary Executive
When Tanaka pursued his undergraduate degree in marketing from what is now Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics in the early 2000s, he did not yet have plans to join his family’s business. But in retrospect, he recognizes the impact of his education on his current and future roles. Looking back on his coursework, his public speaking training was among the most significant.
“In marketing, you must have interpersonal and communication skills, be a good listener, be able to solve problems, work deadlines, have teamwork and be organized,” he says. “The same can be said of a funeral counselor. When serving a family that has lost a loved one, listening and communicating is very important, as well as having tact when speaking to the family, being aware of their needs, listening to their questions, analyzing and working through any issues that may arise, and meeting deadlines. We work as a team, whether the person is the one meeting with the family, assisting at the service, working on the program or obituary, or following up after the funeral has concluded. We all lean on each other to make sure we provide service at the highest level.”