From Japanese Interment Camps to Cincinnati Tofu Production

Yubu, fried tofu, one of the products made in Cincinnati in the 1940s on by Soya Products Company.
Long before the Hippie Farming Movement of the 1970s brought tofu and other soy products into the mainstream, Cincinnati had its own tofu manufacturing company.    A dark period in our history brought two Japanese immigrant families together to form a business that would supply the Japanese market and institutions with Cincinnati made tofu.
Soya Food  Products Company was formed in October of 1944 in Price Hill on Queen City Avenue by two Japanese immigrants, Takeshi “Ben” Yamaguchi (1903-1994) and Yoshio Shimuzu.   Like tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans, Shimuzu and Yamaguchi were detained in an interment camp.   They had become good friends playing mah-jong at the Poston, Arizona, Interment camp from 1942-1944.   A fellow detainee in the camp taught them how to make tofu .     After the war, Yamaguchi and Shimuzu travelled from the camp to Washington, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago to find a place to for their families to settle.    Shimuzu’s brother-in -aw, Heishi Takao was already settled in Cincinnati, and the families thought Cincinnati would be a steady business for their bean sprout experiment.
Ben,  immigrated to the U.S. in 1918, adopted by his Uncle,  Yataro Yamaguchi, to help at he and his wife’s restaurant in Culter, California.  Ben had been born in Fukuoka, Japan, where he was second son and one of ten children.    The Cutler restaurant  was destroyed by fire, so they moved the restaurant to Dinuba, CA, calling it  the Dinuba Café.     The cafe served chop suey, chow mein, steaks, and short orders.      Shortly after he immigrated Ben’s uncle asked him if he knew the story of the wise and good American, Benjamin Franklin.    Yataro started calling his nephew Ben from that day on to help him assimilate to his new homeland.   Ben would pass on the name to his son, Dr. Ben Yamaguchi, a Cincinnati pathologist,  and his son, Ben Yamaguchi III, who would, with his brother, own the west side iconic restaurant, Maury’s Tiny Cove for several years.
The Shimuzu and Yamaguchi families found the Germans of Price Hill to be very friendly.   The kids came by and offered to take their kids to Sunday school at the Plymouth congregational church, where they would later join.     Two German brothers helped them find their second location in 1949 on Wyoming avenue when they needed to expand from  the first Queen City location.
Originally the company was formed to produce bean sprouts for local grocers.  No one was growing bean sprouts in Cincinnati in 1944, so they had absolutely no competition.  Tofu was added when a customer came in and said a sick friend wanted tofu.   Using the methods they learned at the Poston Interment Camp they made tofu and it took off within the Japanese American community around Cincinnati.   It became a boon for all Japanese restaurants and families with two hours of Cincinnati.   For the Japanese American customers, the food that Soya Products offered were the only daily  thread back to their culture.
When the bell of the retail store would signal a customer, Mrs. Yamaguchi, in her husky voice, would say Irashimassen (welcome in Japanese) and pour hot green tea into earthenware cups.   The warm muskiness of boiling soybeans permeated the store.  After their parents paid for their groceries, children were given free boxes of Botan rice candy from Ben Yamaguchi
Although the main business was bean sprouts and tofu, the company expanded into a retail and wholesale business that distributed mung beans, alfalfa and radish sprouts, chicken chop suey, fried tofu and Oriental cooking equipment and other Japanese foods  like canned eels, melons, radish pickled in sake and dried lotus roots.  Ben met with public school and general hospital dieticians, teaching them how to make nutritious vegetable chop suey with rice to help educate the non Asian residents about his products.      Soya sold their extensive product line to schools, hospitals, restaurants and other institutions within 100 miles of Cincinnati.     Being in a mostly Germanic neighborhood, it was tough to get German extracted Cincinnatians to try beans and bean sprouts.
One of the unique tofu products they made was called Yubu, which is fried tofu stuffed with seasoned rice and made into sushi
Two of Ben’s Grandsons, Robby and Steve Yamaguchi were featured on a segment of  Mister Rogers Neighborhood , demonstrating how they made tofu at Soya Products.
The business lasted into the late 1980s, and the torch was taken up by Chieko Tofu and Sunsprout Foods in Cincinnati.

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