THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: NIKKEI IN NEW YORK: A selection of immigrants’ unique and diverse accomplishments

This week’s column is the start of a series that focuses on the history of Japanese Americans in New York, specifically those outside the city. I realize that this statement immediately leads to some confusion. As a native of the Big Apple, I myself am used to hearing the label “New Yorker” used to refer to those from New York City more than those from other parts of the state of New York. (There are also those who consider themselves New Yorkers, but are located in northern New Jersey, like the New York Jets and New York Giants football teams, but that is still a different question). Worse, there is no true collective term that encompasses all of New York state outside the five boroughs. Even as Canadians commonly refer to the English-dominant areas outside Quebec as the “Rest of Canada” or “R.O.C.,” perhaps we could speak of the “R.O.N.Y.”!).

In fact, there are at least two distinct regions. First, there is Long Island — meaning not the entire geographical island, which includes parts of New York City, but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, which are the largely suburban areas that lie east of the city limits (my Brooklyn-born father used to jocularly refer to this region as the “Gisland” because in the borough’s classic brogue, “Long Island” is pronounced almost like “Lawn Gyland”). Then there is the bulk of the state’s territory that lies between the city and the Canadian border, the part that is usually referred to generally as “upstate New York.” Even that definition is fluid, as “upstate” sometimes includes Westchester County, the suburbs immediately north of the city, whereas at other times it is grouped with Long Island as “downstate.”

Whatever term we use, there is a historic division between New York City — urban, noisy, and heavily Democratic — and the largely rural and historically Republican remainder of the state. Yet if the R.O.N.Y. lacks the cosmopolitan diversity of Gotham, it has nonetheless been home to a startling variety of intriguing Issei and Nisei.

Although Japanese immigrants began congregating in New York by the 1880s, few settled upstate. There were a handful of students at Cornell University in Ithaca, and scattered others, mainly agricultural laborers and domestic servants. In 1910, Sotero Chafl (sic) was listed as the family butler of Barnes Compton in Millbrook, Dutchess County. (Another Dutchess County family later had a more difficult time with their domestics — in 1932, Gentaro Akiyama of Poughkeepsie was convicted of murdering his employer, J. William Smaltz and sent to the electric chair, though in early 1933 the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, just before he left Albany for the White House. Meanwhile, a maid, Sadako Otsuka, was sentenced for 20 years to life in prison for the crime).

A handful of Japanese migrated to other cities in and around the state. H.C. Parks, a fine arts dealer, hired Isaburo Nagahama, who first arrived in New York in 1885. After marrying Parks’ daughter Gertrude, Nagahama relocated to Schenectady at the turn of the century, where he taught art embroidery at Emma Willard School and opened his own shop to sell art embroidery. The Nagahamas’ daughter Augusta studied nursing, then married Brooklyn-based physician Dr. Kanzo Oguri.

During the 1930s, Nagahama apparently gave up the shop and moved to California. Caught in the wartime removal of West Coast Japanese Americans confined at Heart Mountain, Wyo. during World War II, Nagahama taught embroidery in camp. He returned to New York after the war, and died in 1968 at the age of 101.

One outstanding Japanese resident was Yonezo Okamoto, Japanese businessman (he owned the Japanese textbook publisher Okamoto & Co.), author and art collector, who moved to New York from Washington state around 1914 and settled in Yonkers and then Tuckahoe, NY. Okamoto was patron to the Japanese modern artist Takeuchi Seiho and author of the book “Bara no Kaori” (“The Scent of Roses”), an account for Japanese readers of leading Americans in business, art and philanthropy.

Yonezo’s son Yoichi Robert Okamoto (known as “Oke”) was born in 1915. He went back to Japan as a boy, and was caught in the giant 1923 Kanto earthquake. Oke attended Colgate University in the 1930s, and then joined the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps during World War II. He was subsequently appointed photographic officer for Gen. Mark Clark’s command in Austria, and later joined the State Department information program in Vienna.

While working as a staff photographer for the United States Information Agency in 1961, his work was noticed by then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon reaching the presidency, Johnson invited Okamoto to serve as official White House photographer. He had unlimited access to the president, and managed to capture the highlights of the Johnson administration: meetings with civil rights leaders, conferences on Vietnam, speeches, and so forth. In the end, he compiled a dossier of some 1,500 photos. Thanks to Okamoto’s efforts, the Johnson administration is perhaps the best-documented of presidencies in visual terms. Sadly, Okamoto ended his own life in 1985, when he was 69.

An interesting trade taken up by Japanese immigrants was the roadhouse restaurant or speakeasy. Oscar Levant wrote that in his youth, circa 1924, he was employed at a Japanese-owned roadhouse in Harmon (i.e. Croton-on-Hudson) New York, called the Mikado Inn. Oddly enough, there was a rival restaurant, the Nikko Inn, close by. “Japanese restaurants were comparatively scarce,” Levant later remarked, “so it was ironic that the leading proponents of Japanese cuisine should have been within a short distance of each other. Consequently, the rivalry was keen.” Levant played piano in a duo with a violinist (plus a cello on weekends), alternating between classical and popular music. He added, “I shared sleeping quarters with 20 or 30 Japanese waiters in the cellar.”

According to Levant, staff addressed the proprietor as “Admiral Moto,” but was himself commanded by his dictatorial Irish wife. They originally had a Japanese chef, but after the chef quarreled with the management and departed, a local Italian American was recruited to make sukiyaki. In addition to the establishments referred to by Levant, there was the one owned by Kin Hana (Kenneth Hanada) and his wife Elizabeth, and located in the small Adirondack village of Jay, New York.

In 1930 the Hanas, their two daughters, and Mrs. Hana’s father Matt Cobb, were held up by a group of four men, who severely beat Cobb when he tried to resist. Seven years later, celebrity golfer John Montague was arrested on charges of being one of the robbers, though a sensational trial ended in his acquittal.

One remarkable story was that of the Asai family of Ithaca, New York. The patriarch, Matsujiro (aka Monroe) Asai, first moved to New York in 1892, but stayed only a year before enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where he served on the USS Chicago, commanded by Adm. Henry Ashburn, in its tour of Europe (Asai served as messman and got to wait on the future King George V and on Kaiser Wilhelm).

After returning to Japan, Asai moved to the United States again in 1903. He settled near Houston, where he worked alongside the Saibara family creating the historic community of Texas Japanese rice growers. In the succeeding years, he and his wife had nine children.

In 1918, the Asais decided to move to Ithaca New York, so that his children could get an education at Cornell University, with its celebrated agriculture school. (According to a family story, Asai could not drive, so the eldest son, 14-year-old Joseph, drove a truck with the family belongings, while the eldest daughter, 13-year-old Lillian, piloted the Model T car with all the passengers).

Monroe opened a fruit store, but his ambition paid off. In the end, all nine of the children attended Cornell, and went on to notable careers. The eldest child, Joseph Byron Asai, received a degree in business administration and was employed by Fujiyama in New York. Lillian Isabella Asai (later Mrs. Vincent Raymond) received a diploma in domestic science, joined the city’s welfare department as a caseworker, and then ran the Nippon Gift Shop. She later became a local Democratic Party committee member. Tazu Elizabeth Azai (Warner) and Hannah Nightingale Asai became experts in floriculture — Tazu became a stenographer in the College of Home Economics at Cornell. Sim Lincoln Asai took a degree in hotel management. After a stretch in the army, he was hired as chef at the Statler Hotel in Boston. Mary Victoria Asai specialized in entomology. Kito Kaiser Wilhelm Asai joined the Army.

Brother George received his Ph.D. in horticulture in 1943, then enlisted in the Armed Forces. He was detailed to the Military Intelligence Service and studied Japanese at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. After serving in occupied Japan, he was promoted to major during the Korean War, and later served as a civilian in the Defense Department. He died in 2006, just before his 90th birthday.

The youngest child, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Asai, like his sisters, received a degree in floriculture. After spending World War II in the U.S. Army, he moved to New York, where in 1951, he was hired as a gardener by the New York City Housing Authority, and worked in the city for 30 years. Following his retirement at age 63, he took up a second career as an actor. He won roles in several films, notably “Zoolander,” before his death in 2005.

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 a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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