[PROFILE] George Aratani - Philanthropist & Successful Business Leader
Using philanthropy to fight prejudice California-born George Aratani,
the Japanese-American founder of Mikasa Chinaware and Kenwood
Electronics, has been a "quiet" but high-impact philanthropist. As
the result of his experience being interned with his family during
World War II, Aratani decided, when he became successful, to fund
institutions that address issues of prejudice and fear so many
Japanese Americans lived through. (Advancing Philanthropy,
Mr. Aratani is currently Chair of the Aratani Foundation in Los
Angeles, California. In 1994, the Aratani Foundation was created to
help support non-profit organizations that serve the Asian Pacific
American community. The Foundation was named after George Aratani who
founded three international corporations: Mikasa - a leading
tableware company, Kenwood - a high fidelity electronics enterprise
and AMCO - a medical supply business.
TRANSFORMING TRAGEDY THROUGH PHILANTHROPY
This is an excerpt from the July/August 2001 Advancing Philanthropy
feature, "The Donor's Turn."
Japanese American philanthropist George Aratani grew up in a small
agricultural town in central California, never expecting to leave the
family farming business. Then World War II intervened, and Aratani's
entire family was interned. They lost everything they owned.
This searing experience lies at the root of Aratani's giving: His
goal is to help institutions involved with Japanese Americans help
others with similar legacies of discrimination and loss. "They, too,
went through trying and difficult times," he explains simply. That's
a modest description of the price Japanese Americans paid during the
internment and its aftermath, but then, his colleagues agree that
George Aratani is a modest man.
William H. "Mo" Marumoto, president of Interface Group, a Washington,
DC, executive search firm, has served on several boards with Aratani
over three decades. "Although he has made numerous major
contributions to a number of organizations, he keeps a low profile
about his giving," Marumoto says. "But he is incredibly generous.
" In the postwar era, Aratani founded two highly successful American
businesses, Mikasa Chinaware and Kenwood Electronics. Aratani wanted
others to share the benefits of his success when, as he says, "I
became fortunate enough to be in a position to help." Using the
wisdom gained from his wartime tragedies, Aratani began the work that
30 years later has enriched and changed untold lives.
A vision comes to life
Aratani and the institutions he supports see the history of Japanese
Americans as one of overcoming prejudice and fear. Telling that story
will benefit all Americans by fostering a climate of mutual
understanding and respect. Although Aratani supports some Pan Asian
and some national causes, he directs his giving predominantly to
Japanese American organizations in the greater Los Angeles area
many in that city's historic Little Tokyo district. Through major
contributions, continuing support, and everyday ventures like
raffles, his generosity spans the entire spectrum. The beneficiaries
are too numerous to name, but the following three stand out:
The Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The National Japanese American Memorial in Washington, DC.
The Asian American Studies Center at UCLAA.
New legacy of hope
In the words of Don Nakanishi, Ph.D., professor and director of the
Asian American Studies Center, "The image and knowledge that most
Americans had of Japanese Americans was so limited and distorted that
it was possible to make wild things believable. So it's up to
Japanese Americans to tell their story. The Center makes history come
"George has a real passion and unflinching commitment to the Japanese
American community," Nakanishi says. "He takes his responsibilities
as a board member very seriously. Having seen how isolated Japanese
Americans were from the mainstream and how easy it was to demonize
them, he feels he has to do this for the community."
"The breadth of George's giving is unusual," agrees Irene Hirano,
president and executive director of the Museum. "He looks across the
range of Japanese American organizations and supports them at varying
levels." Noting that Aratani's contributions go far beyond money,
Hirano relates that Aratani was a major architect of the Museum's
philosophy. "He knew it was critical to build a strong base of
support for the museum within the Japanese American community first,"
she says. "Without that in place, there would have been no hope of
success in soliciting other sectors, such as foundations and
The impressive breadth of his vision is matched only by his
extraordinary ability to effect change. From prejudice and injustice,
desolate concentration camps, impounded wealth, and savaged spirits,
he has created a living legacy of fulfillment and achievement.
Marumoto sums up the view of the people and institutions fortunate
enough to know and work with Aratani: "Everything about George is
It was in 1961 that three Southern Californians, George Aratani, Bill
Kasuga, and Yoichi Nakase decided that what the country needed was a
better stereo. Rather than building something from scratch, the three
looked around to find who was already making advanced stereo
equipment that they might market themselves. What they found was a
Japanese corporation called Trio. Trio had a track record. Founded in
1946, they'd built Japan's first FM tuner and its first all-
transistor amplifier, and plenty of other respected stereo equipment.
A deal was made, and soon the three were importing and marketing
their new line, which they decided to call Kenwood. What neither
could have guessed was just how successful the upstart Los Angeles
company would become. Within a few years Kenwood was making the most
popular receiver in the country, and by 1986 the Kenwood name was so
well known that the Trio corporation in Japan changed its name to
Kenwood worldwide. That combination of ambition and engineering
excellence has characterized Kenwood ever since. Dozens of
groundbreaking products came to market because of the company's
unusual way of developing products, with the American side
discovering what people wanted and the engineers in Japan designing
and building it. Thus, Kenwood built the first audio/video amplifier
for home theater way back in 1981 and the first anti-theft car
cassette deck that could be slid out of the dash.
Kenwood tries to pay attention to what people want, not just what is
possible to build. For example, Kenwood developed the Stage 3
products after spending three years listening to what people said
about home theater. What they wanted was an easier way to control
their system. Another exciting achievement was the creation of MASK,
the world's first self-hiding car stereo.
In the meantime, Kenwood continued to improve and invent technologies
that made their products sound or work better. Like DRIVE, a circuit
that all but eliminates digital distortion, DualMag car speakers,
which use two opposing magnets to increase accuracy, and K-STAT, the
world's only output transistor with built-in heat sensors, which
significantly reduces distortion and improves musical detail. Today,
Kenwood products are distributed in over 120 countries around the
world, and Kenwood USA markets more than 250 products.
Triple Threat All-Stars (lt to rt) George Aratani, Cappy Harada and
George Aratani batted .500 for his State Championship Santa maria
High School. They beat Ted William's Hoover High School. Earlier in
that season, Hall of Famers, Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner were
assistanct coaches for the Pittsburgh Pirates and picked George and
his teammate Lester Webber to work out with the team.
Cappy Harada served under General MacArthur during the war and helped
to bring the country back through baseball exhibitions with Lefty
Masao iriyama was batting .400 for his Guadalupe Team in the Tule
Lake Detention Camp, when his brother, a p[ilot, was killed in action
while flying for the Shoen-Kok-hei - he was shot down in 1944 when a
B-29 attacked Tokyo
An American Son - $22.00 / The story of George Aratani
By Naomi Hirahara
Decades before trade moved at its present pace between the United
States and Japan, there was a Japanese immigrant's son with an
American dream. Born to a prosperous farmer in California, George
Aratani was forced to leave the family business behind when
incarcerated with more than 120,000 other Japanese Americans during
Would War II. After the war, he traveled to Japan with only a vague
idea about what he would import from the war-devastated nation. What
followed was the development of two powerful businesses, Mikasa and
Kenwood. The story of the man who founded these companies not only
reflects the economic rebuilding of Japan, but it also reveals the
ability of Japanese Americans to create their own American success
George Aratani is recognized nationally for his visionary
entrepeneurship. He is one of the most respected members of our
business community. Because of his business ties with Japan, he has
always been sensitive to the necessity of maintaining a strong and
healthy relationship between Japan and the United States. His
involvement in support of cultural exchange between these two nations
-The Honorable Daniel K. Inouye, U.S. Senator, Hawai'i
In reading this book, one is struck by the determination of George
Aratani and his colleagues to create their own business, despite the
tragic setback of World War II when so many Japanese Americans lost
everything. That George Aratani and his fellow businessmen were able
to prevail in the face of such odds is a great credit to them and our
American way of life.
- The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta, former member of Congress and first
Asian Pacific American Cabinet member
George Aratani is a remarkably successful and innovative business
leader. His legacy extends well beyond the name brand powerhouse
companies he founded. For decades he has been a towering leader in
the Japanese American community in Los Angeles as well as nationwide.
Through his philanthropic generosity and commitments, he has played a
singularly decisive role in supporting major cornerstone programs
that will enrich the lives of Japanese Americans, indeed all
Americans, for generations to come.
- Don T. Nakamishi, Ph.D., Professor and Director, UCLA Asian
American Studies Center
BIOGRAPHY (Ms. Melissa Aratani Kwee - Grand Daughter)
The more you have, the more you give
Ms Melissa Aratani Kwee could have led the life of a socialite but
chose to be a social activist. The child of a property tycoon and
granddaughter of the Kenwood electronics-empire founder says money is
only a tool - use it but do not let it use you.
By Susan Long; POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, The Straits Times, Singapore,
July 27th, 2001
Members of a community should help each other out, says Ms Kwee, who
is grateful for her family's support. -- WANG HUI FEN
ONE label that will never stick on Ms Melissa Aratani Kwee is 'poor
little rich girl'.
The eldest child of property tycoon Kwee Liong Tek, chairman of
Pontiac Land, and his Japanese-American wife exudes a quiet
conviction, self-confidence and a social conscience money cannot buy.
There is nothing 'mis-spent' or 'lost' about her.
At 29, beneath the well-cut clothes and transatlantic accent, this
Harvard anthropology graduate has a definite idea of how she wants to
spend the rest of her life - to make a difference in other people's
As a girl, she says, she was always hatching plans to 'solve the
While her teenage counterparts were making romantic forays, she spent
her wonder years pursuing an array of social service projects, such
as raising funds for flood victims, trying to save the rainforests in
Malaysia and reading to depressed teenagers at Woodbridge hospital.
She even worked with a conservation group in Nepal, where she learnt
Nepali and taught English at a local high school.
As soon as she graduated from Harvard university, she returned here
in 1995 and set up a non-profit group for the development of women
and youth called Project Access.
She attributes her heightened social consciousness to the school she
attended here, United World College, and its 'incredibly-compelling
vision of young people being a positive force in their communities'.
It helps that she really likes people.
She makes it a point to chirp a breezy 'Hi' to counter staff and
everyone else who meets her eye at Millenia Walk, which her family
owns, along with other posh properties like the Ritz Carlton and
Another strong influence was her family, which imbued in her a 'very
strong ethic or value of playing your part, doing your bit and
contributing what you have'.
She and her three younger sisters and brother made it a point to do
thoughtful things for each other, like writing little notes, giving
flowers, putting toothpaste on each other's toothbrush in the morning.
'They are just small, stupid things but there was always a sense that
you can do a small thing to make somebody's day,' she says.
She remembers many balmy summers spent in Los Angeles horseback
riding, doing arts and crafts and getting to know her Japanese-
American grandfather, Mr George Aratani, the founder of the Kenwood
electronics empire and an avid philanthropist, who became her role
When her grandfather turned 80 last year, she adopted his surname,
Aratani, as her middle name as a sign of respect.
YOGA AND FUND-RAISERS
THE three tenets of this self-assured woman's life are to
be 'peaceful, social and find something to learn'.
These days, she spends half her waking hours doing corporate
communications for the Pontiac Land group.
To unwind, she hangs out with friends, 'checking out new and
different things, whether it's food or places or activities', runs
and goes for yoga classes.
She also sits on a slew of committees, such as the United Nations
Development Fund for Women (Unifem), the Singapore Repertory Theatre
and the United World College school board, either doing review work
or 'organising, advocating or connecting people'.
Otherwise, she is speaking to youths or conducting workshops on
various topics like volunteering, global awareness, leadership and
family, or dabbling in schemes from Aids awareness projects to
fundraisers for East Timor.
Of course, she knows people can be snide about her monied background
and her lack of a 'real job', and pin her public-spiritedness down to
a rich girl having too much time on her hands.
'What can I say? If I believed it I would feel bad about it, but I
don't believe it so it just rolls off my back,' she says.
'A lot of people I went to school with in the US were very well-
educated and came from very affluent backgrounds but they tried so
hard to refute the fact that they were from that background. I saw
that as such a waste. I thought that there was a lot more they could
be doing with their lives than trying to prove to people that they
were no different.
'It doesn't mean that I shouldn't try to make a living, it doesn't
mean I should sit at home and do all kinds of frivolous activities. I
think it's a responsibility, and it's something I don't feel obliged
to do but it's something I want to do.
'In this sense, it's expected but it's expected really out of a
recognition that we have a lot,' she says. 'As the proverb goes: To
those to whom much has been given, much is expected. So you give out
of recognition of what you have.'