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OKASAKI, TSUNEKICHI [TOM BROWN]

OKASAKI, TSUNEKICHI [TOM BROWN] (ca. 1866–?). One of the first known three Japanese immigrants to the Lone Star State, Tsunekichi Okasaki, restaurateur, came to the United States in 1888 from Okayama Prefecture, Japan, and by the 1890s had arrived in Houston, where he was known as “Tom Brown.” Okasaki was proprietor of the “Japanese Restaurant” at 1111 Congress Avenue in downtown Houston. The fare at his restaurant was ironically not rice and traditional Japanese cuisine but American food. The establishment became quite popular, perhaps because he was known for the low price of ten cents to twenty-five cents for a substantial meal. 

In 1905 Okasaki entered a partnership with future Communist party member Sugataro Yabuki, often known as Sen Katayama. For the purpose of rice farming, Okasaki purchased more than 10,000 acres of land in Live Oak and McMullen counties and sought investors in Japan, while Katayama recruited supporters and laborers in Texas. Their partnership eventually ended due to Katayama’s involvement in and association with the American Socialist movement. Okasaki attempted additional rice farming ventures with another local Japanese Texan immigrant Kuniemon Sando (also from Okayama), but poor weather caused the ruin of Okasaki’s crops and his ultimate return to the restaurant industry. Though rice farming was a popular industry for many Japanese Texan immigrants, Okasaki’s efforts in the business failed. 

As a leader in the Houston Japanese American community, Okasaki often employed other immigrants in his businesses. After the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, Okasaki invited displaced West Coast immigrants like Otsukichi Matsumoto to Houston to work in his restaurant. Many Japanese waiters, dishwashers, and cooks worked for him, and he often hosted traditional holidays, including New Year’s and the Emperor’s Birthday, at his establishments. In contrast to his farming endeavors, he had such business success that he became a partner in the Japan Art and Tea Company in 1911, along with Junzo Fujino and Yoshimatsu Konishi. He independently owned the Japanese Art Store at 715 Main Street, just blocks away from his other business partnership. Unfortunately, one of his art stores burned down, pushing Tsunekichi back towards the restaurant industry. He opened two more establishments, including the “Eagle Café,” which was listed as a “chop suey parlor” in the local directory. 

Okasaki may have been married to a woman named Kumae. Both names appeared on a 1908 passenger list from Hong Kong to Honolulu, and they were listed as married. Tsunekichi’s age was recorded as forty-two, and Kumae’s age was given as twenty-two. She was also listed in a 1911 Houston city directory, but was not listed in the 1910 census (though Tsunekichi Okasaki was listed as being married). Kumae’s name did not appear in city directories after 1911.

By 1910 nearly 350 Japanese settlers were in Texas, and by 1920 there were almost 450. Many of these immigrants entered the state from the south, where they had worked in the mines or railroads in Mexico. Many of these early arrivals were laborers and others established themselves as businessmen or entrepreneurs. Okasaki continued to operate his Houston restaurants until after World War I. The last year that he was listed in Houston city directories was 1919. In 1920, three Japanese restaurants were listed in Houston city directories. The Japanese Café was operated by Okasaki’s fellow countryman Kuniemon Sando. Two other restaurants (both listed as “Japanese Restaurant”) were run by Benjamin Kinugasa and Hideharu Numano. According to Thomas K. Walls, author of The Japanese Texans, Okasaki returned to Japan where he bought a small hotel and lived the rest of his life. The date of his death is not known. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Marilyn Dell Brady, The Asian Texans (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). Abbie Salyers Grubb, “From ‘Tom Brown’ to Mykawa Road: The Impact of the Japanese American Community on Houston in the Twentieth Century,” Houston History, 13 (2015). Thomas K. Walls, The Japanese Texans (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1997).

Abbie L. Grubb

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Abbie L. Grubb, "Okasaki, Tsunekichi [Tom Brown] ," accessed January 19, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fokas.

Uploaded on December 20, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.