Finding Fred Jiro Fujioka
Written by Matthew Hocker
Awhile back, we came across a circa 1918 directory for the Japanese Automobile Club of Southern California. Thanks to a nice write-up on Hemming’s Daily by Daniel Strohl, I learned the club’s president was a Japanese American named Fred Jiro Fujioka. Laws driven by anti-Japanese sentiment prevented Fujioka from attaining citizenship until 1954. Still, Fujioka managed to carve out a successful life in the automotive trade until World War II, making his story a unique part of automotive history.
Fujioka was born in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, on April 5th, 1887. At age sixteen, he emigrated to the U.S. and settled in southern California to further his education. Learning English and immersion in American culture were top priorities, and he excelled in both. He also developed a fascination with the automobile which, according to the family, drove him to study automotive engineering at Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena. To help sustain his education, Fujioka worked as a schoolboy (a live-in-butler) and, by 1909, was a licensed chauffeur.
In April 1909, Fujioka ventured to the Midwest with high hopes of working in an auto factory. He moved to Wichita, Kanasas, where one of his Japanese friends found him work as a chauffeur for Standard Oil’s A. M. Dunks. Four months later, Fujioka left for Topeka to work for the Smith Automobile Company which designed high-end cars to compete with the likes of Packard and Pierce-Arrow. Unfortunately, an eye injury suffered while operating a lathe forced him out of this job in February 1910.
After the accident, he returned to Wichita and became a chauffeur for Anson O. Rorabaugh, wealthy businessman and founder of the A.O. Rorabaugh & Co. chain of department stores. The two formed a lifelong friendship; Fujioka even named his firstborn son Anson. While working for Rorabaugh, in 1912 Fujioka opened up his own garage named Japanese Fred’s Garage Co. (later known as Fred’s Garage). In addition to maintenance and repair work, he also offered storage services with enough room for twenty-five cars. Fujioka’s work as a mechanic was held with high regard, his garage prospered, and it remained in operation until 1914.
With the growth of F. & K., Fujioka searched for opportunities in Japan’s blossoming auto industry. Demand for cars was still considerably small, but the country’s rapid rate of industrialization seemed to ensure a boom was on the horizon. In 1915, GM began doing business in Japan. That same year, Fujioka traveled to Japan with two Mercer race cars to be used in a series of races in conjunction with the Enthronement Ceremony of Emperor Taisho. He was accompanied by a group of Japanese businessmen interested in the prospect of establishing a factory in Japan.
Between 1922 and 1923, Fujioka’s interest in entering the Japanese market came full circle when he teamed up with former Pierce-Arrow employees Earl B. Spencer and George B. Morrow to develop a car for the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Parts were sourced from America, and the cars were to be assembled in Japan. Known as the Fujioka, its size was small due to Japan’s taxes on cars over 120” in length and, according to the family, Fujioka developed an engine that ran on coal oil with the help of a special carburetor. At the time in Japan, coal oil was more readily available and far cheaper than gasoline.
Nearly a month later, the L.A. Times announced another Japan-bound car from none other than Earl B. Spencer. The relationship between the Spencer and Fujioka remains a mystery, but there is a chance they may have been one in the same. For example, the article’s description of the Spencer engine sounded eerily similar to that of the family’s.
Regardless of the connection, Fujioka and Spencer both traveled to Japan in 1923 to establish production, but it was not to be. In September, Japan suffered a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake in September and Yokohama was among the areas hardest hit. The ensuing tsunami laid waste to the harbor, and the ships containing the materials and equipment to build Fujioka’s cars were completely destroyed. Fujioka responded by helping with the relief efforts and was personally recognized by the emperor for his contribution. He received a special title, sword, and set of cufflinks.
Fujioka’s world would again be turned upside down on December 7th, 1941 when he was arrested less than two hours following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had been under the F.B.I.’s radar because of his prestige and membership to various organizations within the Japanese American community. They claimed he was a member of Nippon Kaigun Kyokai (the Japanese Naval Association) and a suspected spy, which was later proven untrue. For six months, his family had no idea where he was or if he was even still alive. When they were finally reunited, Fujioka’s once jet black hair had gone completely white.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced to move to internment camps in remote locations of the U.S. Fujioka and his family were transferred to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. An estimated $18 million in assets were lost, including his home and F. & K. Garage. After the war, he returned to L.A. and made a living selling insurance. Fujioka refused to talk about his incarceration during the war, but the events that transpired haunted him until his death in 1968.
Fred Jiro Fujioka was but one of thousands of individuals who tried to make their mark in the early automobile industry, and his story remains a sobering tale of what could have been. If you have any additional information on Fujioka or would like to learn more about him, feel free to contact us. We’d love to hear from you!
Author’s Note: A special thanks to the Japanese American National Museum for putting us in touch with the Fujioka family, and to the Fujioka family for providing additional information. Photographs are courtesy of the Fujioka family.