A ‘LABOR OF LOVE’: Farming exhibit in San Jose honors Issei legacy

ON THE FARM — Eiichi Sakauye. courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

SAN JOSE — The Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj) introduced its new agricultural exhibit, “Yesterday’s Farmer: Planting an American Dream,” on Dec. 10. With a focus on the Japanese immigrants who settled in Santa Clara Valley in the early part of the 20th century, the permanent exhibit features more than 100 types of vintage farming equipment and vehicles. The vehicles include tractors and wagons from 1902 to 1917, as well as a Model T truck.

“We’re so proud of our beautiful new exhibit. It’s such a delight,” JAMsj President Aggie Idemoto said at a reception that was held at the Wesley United Methodist Church, across the street from the museum in Japantown. The exhibit has been planned for a year, and team members have worked tirelessly over the last three or four months to put it together.

San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo said “Yesterday’s Farmer” highlights the struggles of Japanese immigrant families. “The exhibit reflects the memories of generations who have shared their painful experiences. We can see the struggles that many immigrant families endured.”

Japanese American community members donated the exhibit’s artifacts. A number of the items came from the late Eiichi Sakauye, an author and farmer who helped found the museum.

FARMER JIMI — Jimi Yamaichi, a former vegetable farmer, and director and curator at JAMsj. photo by Erin Yasuda Soto/Nichi Bei Weekly

Director and curator Jimi Yamaichi, who was once a vegetable farmer, said, “We wanted to show how the farm was. It’s been a labor of love.”

Yamaichi, who oversaw the team that organized the exhibit, said, “I grew up on the farm during the Depression years.”

He explained that the exhibit’s purpose is to educate others about Japanese Americans’ history as farmers. “I felt we needed something to leave behind. It’s for the next generation.”

Gary Okihiro, co-author of the book “Japanese Legacy: Farming and Community Life in California’s Santa Clara Valley” and a JAMsj founding member, said, “One of the Japanese Americans’ greatest contributions to the valley is the fact that we persisted and survived. We preserved our culture and sense of identity.”

Okihiro, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said that the Naturalization Act of 1790 was a significant part of the history of Japanese Americans. Only immigrants who were white could obtain naturalization under the act.

“Asians were ineligible for citizenship. They were valued as laborers and not as citizens,” Okihiro said, adding that the Japanese and Koreans were the last to receive the privilege of citizenship.

The Issei came to the Santa Clara Valley to work in the agricultural industry. They used “intensive” farming techniques, which led to high yields. Additionally, many laborers established their own farms. Their achievements led to a backlash against Japanese immigration and land ownership, resulting in the Alien Land Act in 1913. The act prevented Issei from owning land.

“The farming experience was painful (for the Japanese) in that it institutionalized racism,” Liccardo said.

Okihiro said after the 14th Amendment passed in 1868, Japanese received equality under the law and citizenship by birth.

Okihiro explained that his grandfather came to the United States as a migrant laborer and his grandmother arrived as a picture bride.

“The picture brides helped to anchor (the laborers) here,” he said, adding that many Japanese developed permanent roots in the Santa Clara Valley.

He added, “It was a hard life for Issei in terms of their work in the field and building families. Women also worked in the fields.”

Significantly, Okihiro said that the Japanese farmers pioneered leveling equipment and found financial success in growing celery.

“They developed special co-ops in which they would get together and maximize the sale of their crops,” he said.

Besides Okihiro, Joyce Oyama also spoke about her memories as the daughter of a farmer. Her father came to the United States in the 1890s.

ALL SHAPES AND SIZES — A machine that sorted pears by size. photo by Erin Yasuda Soto/Nichi Bei Weekly

Oyama, who was born in Fresno, Calif. before moving to the Santa Clara Valley, recalled, “We grew different types of lettuce and spinach. During the summer, my mother used to send us to the neighbors’ home to cut apricots and pick peppers.”

Okihiro said that the museum serves as a way to tell the story of Japanese farmers and their struggles.

“The museum demonstrates the farmers’ ability to stay and prosper. The museum and exhibit will contribute to helping future generations develop a sense of who they are. It creates a sense of community and presence. It shows that we have contributed a great deal.”

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose is located at 535 North Fifth St. in San Jose’s Japantown. The museum is open Thursdays through Sundays, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free for members. Adults pay $5, seniors (65 and older with valid ID) $3, students (with valid ID) $3, children (under 12) free.  For more information, call (408) 294-3138, e-mail mail@jamsj.org or visit http://jamsj.org.

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