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CELEBRATE! : Orange County's First 100 Years : COMING OF AGE : ALL IN THE FAMILY : The urbanization of Orange County in which 90-year-old Katsumasa (Roy) Sakioka has played a key part has transformed him from vegetable farmer to patriarch of one of Southern California's wealthiest families. The man who in 1916 emigrated from Japan and made a fortune in real estate has retained the work ethic and personal habits of his youth. And the Sakiokafamily has helped change the face of the area.

May 21, 1989|LESLIE BERKMAN | Berkman is a Times staff writer.

As he has done for years, the slightly built, 90-year-old farmer treads the long rows of celery, inspecting the crop that thrives in the heavy black soil of his Costa Mesa fields. Occasionally, close to harvest time, he slashes off a stalk and takes a bite to test its quality. In another field, he picks a head of cabbage and tears off a leaf for inspection. That is how a farmer nurtures his crop. It is a task--rather, a labor of love--that has not changed with time. Other things do change. And for Katsumasa (Roy) Sakioka, it is more than just the slowness in his gait that has changed over the decades. From the vegetable fields that he still walks, Sakioka can see a hotel under construction, a large new luxury apartment complex and several office high-rises. Projects abound in development-rich Orange County, many of them on property that Sakioka and his family own or have joined a partnership to develop. The Sakiokas have helped change the face of Orange County. As a result, the nonagenarian, who still is uncomfortable conversing in English, has profited immensely. Although family members won't divulge their net worth or various business arrangements, combined information from sources who do business with them shows their real estate holdings alone to exceed $360 million.

The urbanization of Orange County in which Sakioka has played a key part has transformed him from vegetable farmer to patriarch of one of Southern California's wealthiest families. But family members and others say the man who in 1916 emigrated from Japan to the United States and eventually made his fortune in real estate has retained the work ethic and personal habits of his youth.

Those who know Sakioka marvel at his adroitness in business. In real estate dealings, Sakioka is known as a loner who, after careful study, makes up his own mind and doesn't rely on consultants. He is notorious for holding out as long as necessary for what he believes is the right price.

A longtime business associate recalls that once when the city of Huntington Beach had land for sale, Roy Sakioka got it for $6,028 an acre. About a year later, he turned down a Beverly Hills investor who was offering to pay him $18,000 an acre for the same land. Instead, he accepted an offer of $25,000 an acre from yet another investor.

Although Sakioka says he has been in "semi-retirement" for 30 years while other family members have assumed greater roles, a business executive who deals with him says, "The old man calls the shots."

But through all the high-powered deals, Sakioka has never forsaken his love of the land.

To this day, friends say, the trunk of his Cadillac frequently carries a shovel, celery knife and rubber boots in case he sees farm work that needs immediate attention.

ROY SAKIOKA KEEPS HIS own counsel, and when he told his story recently to The Times, family members say it was the first interview he has granted to anyone in the media.

He is the youngest of a family of six children born in a farming village on the small Japanese island of Shikoku. Sakioka says it was his father who instilled in him the importance of investing his money in real estate as a hedge against inflation.

"My father said, 'You never forget it: Inflation will never be stopped,' " Sakioka recalled. Besides, he added with a smile, "cash is easy to spend," while land is a kind of forced savings account.

Sakioka left his childhood home in 1916 to travel to the United States, which, he had heard, was a land of opportunity. He joined his oldest brother, Katsuma, who had already settled in Glendale and married. Katsuma--19 years older than Roy--and sister-in-law Masai adopted him as their own son.

Roy and his brother farmed on land they had leased in Glendale until the land was subdivided for houses and they moved to West Los Angeles.

In 1920, Sakioka returned to Japan to marry his childhood friend, Tomio. He brought her back to the United States, and they began their family of three boys and three girls. For the next 22 years, they were exclusively tenant farmers in West Los Angeles and owned no land.

After war was declared on Japan, the Sakiokas were sent with other Japanese-Americans to the Manzanar internment camp in Bishop. When they were ousted from Southern California in 1942, they left all their farm tools and machinery with a friend who agreed to take care of them.

They stayed in the camp about 16 months, until Sakioka heard from a friend that Japanese-Americans were wanted to harvest sugar beets in Utah. They received permission to leave the camp and drive to Utah, with the understanding that they could not return to the West Coast until the war was over.

For the rest of the war, the Sakiokas worked in Utah at various jobs, mostly as contract farm laborers. Sakioka's daughter Hisako, known as Betty, remembers picking peaches, plucking feathers from Thanksgiving turkeys and sewing military uniforms in a garment factory.

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