THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The astonishing history of Japanese Americans in Louisiana

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series.

The story of Japanese settlement in Louisiana, whether in the metropolis of New Orleans or in the bayous, is rather unknown, even to locals, but Nikkei have had a surprisingly large impact on the state’s history.

Jokichi Takamine was possibly the first Japanese settler in Louisiana, and certainly the most notable. Takamine was only in his late twenties when he traveled to New Orleans for the Cotton States Exposition of 1884 as co-commissioner of the Japanese delegation, but he was already well known as a scientist. He appreciated New Orleans so much, and in particular a local white woman named Caroline Hitch whom he met there, that after the exposition he and Hitch got hitched, and the couple remained in town part-time through 1888.

While living in New Orleans, Takamine met the writer Lafcadio Hearn, who had previously settled there, and the story has it that Takamine so intrigued Hearn with his stories of Japanese life that he inspired Hearn to move to Japan, where he subsequently achieved renown for his stories of languid Japanese. Takamine himself, after returning briefly to Japan, settled permanently in New York. In 1901 Takamine developed the process for isolating and synthesizing the hormone adrenaline, thereby achieving worldwide fame and a considerable fortune.

Takamine helped cement a special relationship between Louisiana and Japan. In 1896 he escorted a group of six Japanese businessmen to New Orleans, where they placed the first large orders for cotton. Within two decades, the cotton trade expanded so much that New Orleans allegedly did more business with Japan than with all of Central America. In 1922, Japan opened a consulate in the Crescent City. In 1928, businessman Neal Leach founded the Japan Society of New Orleans. By 1937 the society had 175 members.

Meanwhile, white agriculturalists, led by a planter with the delightful name of Seaman A. Knapp, turned to Japan to revive Southwest Louisiana’s once-proud rice industry, which had fallen on hard times. With aid from the Department of Agriculture, Knapp visited Japan as an official agent and explored various rice plants. On Knapp’s recommendation, the department invested $18,000 in Kyushu (aka Kishu) rice, whose grains could stand up without breaking to the rolling mills introduced to process rice, and which thus made mass mechanization possible. Knapp then recruited Japanese experts to plant Kishu rice (locally dubbed “Jap rice”) and teach farmers their ancestral techniques for rice cultivation. As a result of the new techniques, plus better irrigation, rice fields in the Gulf Coast region boomed: Within a space of five years farmers increased their rice acreage threefold and the value of their lands tenfold.

Although the 1900 census listed only 17 Japanese in all of Louisiana, the establishment of such commercial and agricultural ties led some locals to encourage settlement by groups of Japanese farmers, and some immigrants to consider it. Yet racial prejudice and fears of economic competition destroyed plans for mass settlement of ethnic Japanese.

In March 1905, Jiro Harada, a Japanese commissioner from San Francisco and a UC Berkeley graduate, announced that he had made arrangements for the development of a large Japanese rice-growing colony in Southwest Louisiana, to be composed mainly of already-established Issei who had grown weary of prejudice on the Pacific Coast. When town officials in Crowley announced that 200 Japanese farmers would be settling there, influential whites statewide set up an outcry against any such “colonization” on the grounds that it would make the state’s already intractable race problem even worse. A decade later, after California enacted its 1913 Alien Land Act, barring Issei from land ownership, West Coast Issei, encouraged by real estate and railroad interests, once more began to consider establishing themselves in Louisiana. As previously, local whites protested, both openly on racial grounds and more indirectly against what they termed an ‘Oriental’ “invasion.” In 1921, Louisiana enacted its own Alien Land Law.

Ironically, in the face of hostility from Louisiana whites, many settlers ended up establishing themselves instead in Texas. Promoters envious of Louisiana’s profitable rice fields attracted Japanese investors to Texas to build up the industry, and eventually a prosperous colony of Japanese-owned plantations sprang up around the Texas Gulf coast (most famously the legendary Saibara clan, who settled in Webster), while merchants opened shop in downtown Houston.

Still, some Japanese did manage to migrate to Louisiana, and by the 1930s the local community had expanded to 40-50 permanent residents, a population composed of farmers, importers, and fishermen. In 1904, Tomehitsu Hinata, a U.S. navy veteran of the Spanish-American War, arrived in New Orleans, where with his wife Katsue he opened a Japanese art and curio store on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Their daughters Yuki, Toshi, and Kyo, the first Louisiana-born Nisei, attended Louisiana State University in the 1930s and were hired thereafter as teachers in the New Orleans public schools — by way of comparison, before World War II there was not a single teacher of Japanese ancestry in any of the Los Angeles area public school systems. Namyo Bessho, another U.S. Navy Spanish-American War veteran who was one of the rare Issei to become naturalized before 1922, settled in the suburb of Algiers with his wife Koh and their children.

By 1940, according to Tokumi Hamako, a Nisei employee at the New Orleans consulate who wrote a set of columns for the West Coast vernacular press on life in the Deep South, the local population included 10 consular officials, plus “Two Nisei doctors from Hawaii…a chick-sexer; a young Nisei girl from the good ol’ city of Los Angeles; a ship chandler who has a French wife, two children and a bad case of asthma; a shrimp dealer who is a Stanford graduate, and his family; and a fisherman with a red face.” With assistance from the consulate and the Japan Society, in 1931 the city’s first Japanese school opened in the Monteleone Hotel. Hisashi Nomasa, a Loyola University student, was the first permanent language instructor. He was one of several Nikkei to study in the region. In 1937 Roger Yawata of Oakland enrolled at Loyola University, becoming the only Nisei collegian in New Orleans, and took over teaching at the language school. Minoru Kimura, a Nisei from Hawai‘i, graduated from Tulane Medical School in 1936. In 1941, Clifford Uyeda enrolled in medical school at Tulane, and during World War II he worked as an intern at the city’s Charity hospital.

Outside of New Orleans another handful of Issei and Nisei settled. In 1927 Sam Nagata opened a trucking business, hauling produce between New Orleans and New Iberia, Louisiana. His brother relocated to the region in the mid 1930s and opened a fruit market/grocery store in Eunice, La., in Cajun country near Lafayette. Their son, Joe Nagata, made quite a record as a high school football player, enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU) on a football scholarship, and played as 1st string back in the 1942 Sugar Bowl. In 1928, Manabu and Saki Kohara, who had run a photo studio in Omaha, Neb., moved to the central Louisiana town of Alexandria with their five children. After an abortive effort at truck farming, they opened a photo studio, which survived the Depression and prospered during the war, when a pair of nearby Army camps housed GIs (including Nisei soldiers). All of their children attended LSU. Their eldest daughter Kay Kohara became one of the early Nisei women physicians, working as a resident physician in New Orleans Charity Hospital before marrying and moving to Baltimore.

Despite the bars to their settlement, throughout the prewar era Japanese Americans in Louisiana were not treated as “colored,” unlike blacks. Indeed, from all accounts Louisiana was one of the few places in prewar America where Japanese were always granted courteous service in hotels and restaurants and routinely addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” Clifford Uyeda, who arrived in New Orleans in mid-1941, later recounted taking his first streetcar ride and being reproved when he unknowingly took an empty seat in the colored section of the segregated car — the conductor soon settled the matter by taking the “colored” sign out from the slot in front of Uyeda’s seat and sliding it in back of him, thus moving him into the “white” section! Uyeda added that when he was studying at Tulane, he was treated as just another student.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

Comments

  1. jd sparks (kohara) says

    Thank you for including our Kohara clan in this article. We are all proud of our family in Louisiana.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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