Ken Hamanaka, founder of Ken Hamanaka Co Inc, passed away peacefully on November 29, 2019 in Glendale, CA. He was 88 years old.
Ken was a native Angeleno who at 10 years old was sent with his family (mom and dad + 3 older brothers) to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, with other Japanese Americans, many of them American born.
Ken’s family owned and lost a hotel, grocery store, and house in the forced relocation. He remembered that when he left school his teacher gave him straight A’s on his report card with tears in her eyes.
In 1949 Ken graduated from Marshall High and enrolled in L.A. City College where he played baseball for the college team. Around this time he met Frances “Cherri” Iwai at a dance and they started dating. Ken decided to get a summer job between semesters and saw an ad in the Japanese-American newspaper Rafu Shimpo seeking a messenger for a customs brokerage firm, James G. Wiley Co.
Ken very much enjoyed his summer job delivering documents to the customs house and steamship and trucking companies, learning about the business along the way. He quickly became Mr. Wiley’s favorite employee. He enjoyed the job so much that he decided not to register for the next semester at LACC despite having tested highly enough on the college deferment test that he could have avoided being drafted by the U.S. military. But the Korean War was still ongoing and Uncle Sam didn’t hesitate to call up Ken’s number in October 1952.
He was sent to Fort Ord and then to Camp San Luis Obispo for basic training. At 6′ Ken was the second-tallest private in his squad and was tapped to be the assistant squad leader. When the 6’3″ squad leader was late returning to the base after a weekend pass, Ken was assigned to take his place. In his army career, Ken saw active duty in Korea, was promoted from Private E1 to Private E2 to Private 1st class, corporal, and then sergeant. He earned the Bronze Star for meritorious service with the Third Infantry Division in 1954.
Ken’s job with James G. Wiley Co. was waiting for him when his military service ended.
Ken and Cherri married after the war and raised three girls, Brigit, Leslie and Linda. He left Wiley to take a job with Robert Wagner, an airport customs broker who hired Ken as a vice president. While growing Wagner’s downtown office, Ken passed his customs broker’s exam by studying on his 45-minute bus commute to and from work.
He became the first Japanese-American to be licensed as a Customs Broker in the continental U.S. and in 1962 he started his own company in a small office at 4th and Spring in downtown LA.
His early clients included Toshiba, Panasonic, and Nissin Foods (he was the first to clear shipments of Top Ramen), among many others. After Ken proved that he could stay in business successfully for five years, the president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc. hired Ken’s company as the customs broker for Toyota. It was clear sailing after Ken landed his biggest client.
Ken was preceded in death by Cherri in 2017 and is survived by his three daughters and spouses and four grandchildren. Brigit and Linda have been heading and expanding the company for 30 years as Ken gradually and graciously stepped aside. Two of his grandchildren, Jordan and Kimi, are now carrying on the family legacy as we all look to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary in 2022.
Funeral services will be held on December 14th at 10:30 a.m. at the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Glendale.