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Roy Sakioka, O.C. Farmer Who Built an Empire, Dies : Obituary: Japanese immigrant, interned during WWII, was among first to foresee land boom. He was 96.

November 01, 1995|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — 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 no English, Sakioka began buying small pieces of rural Orange County just after World War II, much of which he spent in an internment camp.

As a vegetable farmer who toiled in the fields--and continued to do so, occasionally, years after his retirement--Sakioka understood that Orange County's black, moist soil was the sort for which celery thirsted.

But besides his skill raising celery stalks, he had an uncanny knack for knowing where freeways and shopping centers would sprout up, and this sixth sense made him a master at buying land along development's path, then waiting until the last possible moment before selling.

A frail, frugal, intensely private man who lived in a modest one-story, ranch-style house in Costa Mesa without so much as a dishwasher, Sakioka amassed roughly $325 million in landholdings, with virtually no debt.

Many of the county's malls and office towers sit on former Sakioka celery fields.

"He took a lot of what is now Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, and developed it into spectacular uses," Costa Mesa Mayor Joe Erickson said Tuesday.

Still, despite his immense wealth, Sakioka, who died Saturday, retained a boyish humility and passion for hard work.

"The thing that was real nice about Roy," Erickson said, "was that he was a very humble gentleman. You wouldn't confuse him for anybody but your next-door neighbor."

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 declined to grant an interview.

Even in death, his intense desire for privacy was honored by his family, most of whom were also his business partners.

"We're very private," said grandson George Sakioka, the family's spokesman. "We tend to shy away from any publicity. Obviously we're very sad at his passing. But that's pretty much it."

The youngest of six children--as well as the father of six children--Sakioka was born in a farming village on the Japanese island of Shikoku.

In a rare 1989 interview with The Times, he credited his father with teaching him the value of real estate as a hedge against inflation.

"My father said, 'You never forget it: Inflation will never be stopped,' " he said--adding with a smile that real estate had forced him to save, while "cash is easy to spend."

At age 18, Sakioka came to the United States with a simple plan. He would work hard, then return to Japan with his fortune.

He returned only briefly in 1920, to marry a childhood friend, Tomio. Together, the couple raised three boys and three girls in the United States.

For 22 years, the Sakiokas were tenant farmers in Los Angeles.

But when the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, the family was shipped to the Manzanar internment camp near Bishop, where they spent 16 months.

Eventually, Sakioka learned from a friend that sugar beet farmers in Utah were seeking Japanese Americans to harvest their crops. By promising to leave the West Coast and not return until the war was over, Sakioka received permission to take his family to Utah, where they labored as contract farmers.

In 1946, the Sakiokas returned to California, weary of working land that belonged to someone else.

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.

Making minuscule down payments and borrowing heavily, Sakioka acquired 80 acres in Los Angeles' Sawtelle area, which he parlayed into larger parcels of undeveloped Orange County.

Often, Sakioka would sit in on public hearings to learn where sewer service was being extended--a reliable harbinger of development.

After receiving a pacemaker from the White Memorial Medical Center in 1988, Sakioka gave the hospital's foundation a gift of $100,000. Without fanfare, he contributed large sums to the Japanese American community throughout the years.

Sakioka is survived by five of his six children, 17 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Funeral services will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.

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