Japanese Americans throughout Northern California rediscover their roots

The Rev. Ronald Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco leads a ceremony at the grave site of Okei Ito, the first Japanese woman buried in the U.S., during a pilgrimage to the former Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony in Placerville, Calif. Oct. 7. Lindsey Yamamoto, a Yonsei, was among those to offer a prayer for Ito, who passed away in 1871.

On Oct. 7, some 160 people throughout Northern California boarded buses from San Francisco, Emeryville, San Jose and Sacramento to make a trek to the site of the former Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony — the first sizable settlement of Japanese in America — located in Placerville, Calif. The pilgrimage, led by the Nichi Bei Foundation, toured the historic site and gave participants and opportunity to do genealogical research with the California Genealogical Society.

Attendees learned about the history of Japanese immigration to California, first attending a program emceed by Rina Nakano, a reporter for Fox40 news in Sacramento who was recently nominated for an Emmy award for a story on the site. Placer Ume Taiko provided opening and closing entertainment under the leadership of Kristy Oshiro. Christen Sasaki, a professor at San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department, discussed the history of Japanese migration to the United States, including the challenges to their civil liberties that would ensue.

“In 1869, one year after the first group of immigrants were sent to Hawai‘i and Guam as plantation labor, 22 Japanese immigrants from Aizu Wakamatsu, including the young 17-year-old woman named Okei-san, said to be the first Issei woman buried in California, traveled from Yokohama to San Francisco and finally ended up here in Gold Hill,” Sasaki said. The colony, however, failed after about two years due to a devastating drought and financial troubles.

“It, nonetheless, represents the beginning of permanent Issei immigration and settlement on the continental United States, and the legacy of Japanese American farming communities in California,” Sasaki said.
Alan Ehrgott, executive director of the American River Conservancy, spoke about the history of the land his organization purchased from the Veerkamp family in 2010.

The conservancy worked to have the National Register of Historic Places recognize the site as a place of national significance. “This was the first Japanese colony in the United States. (It) was the birthplace of the first Japanese Americans. It was the only colony outside of Japan that was started by samurai. And, lastly, it was the burial place for the first Japanese American woman buried on American soil. We had thought that was making a very good case, but State Parks came back and said, ‘you know, you need to really talk about the Wakamatsu colony in terms of later history. How did it blend in with Japanese immigration to the United States?’” he said.

Okei Ito’s grave.

Further research uncovered a greater role Okei Ito, the 19-year-old woman buried on the farm, played after her death and helped garner the recognition. “It turned out that the Japanese government was encouraging immigration to the United States, as well as Hawai‘i (in the 1910s). The figurehead they used for that campaign was, lo-and-behold, Okei-san,” he said. “Okei-san was used as a figurehead for immigration, she was the first, she was the vanguard of Japanese immigration to the United States.”

Despite the colony’s failure, Ehrgott said one element of it survives today. “The only last living element to the colony is this wonderful … keyaki tree,” he said. “It is a Zelkova or Japanese elm, and it was planted in 1869 by the colonists when they came over. Fortunate to say, the tree is very healthy.”

Ehrgott went on to say that he hopes the tree will continue to stand for centuries to come.

Attendees at the pilgrimage reflected on the significance of the settlement and the courage the initial settlers must have had to leave Japan to find a new life in America. Leading the pilgrimage groups with a blessing at Okei’s grave, the Rev. Ronald Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco spoke about what it much have been like for the settlers in 1869. “We came up on an air conditioned bus,” Kobata said. “I’m trying to imagine what the pioneers experienced as they just arrived in a foreign land, … the risk, the spirit of taking a chance for not just their individual benefit but for the sake of future generations.”

Members from the East Bay and San Jose buses trek to the Okei grave site.

Keiko Allen, a Shin-Issei attendee, said she joined the pilgrimage to learn about Japanese American history. “I moved to California 12 years ago, and I don’t know much about American Japanese history here in California, so this was good for me,” she said. “Japanese came here to this country without any family or anybody, or support system, but they came and began their journey, and that’s tremendous bravery.”

The pilgrimage drew support from student volunteers from San Francisco State University, as well as the University of San Francisco. While many of the students were tired at the end of the day, they came away with a valuable experience.

“To be honest, I don’t think I knew what I was expecting,” Troy Shinjiro Kondo said. Kondo, a Gosei, said he had not heard of the colony until the pilgrimage came up during his class with Prof. Sasaki. “I think I took away that, it is pretty special, because it is the site where the first Issei lived and died … I think it’s pretty important to remember how far it goes.”

Ehrgott said the conservancy is working on restoring and improving the property in time for the sesquicentennial celebration of the colony in June of 2019. His organization has so far received a half million dollar grant to stabilize the historic Graner House, but said the next step is to further improve the property to enable the organization to host more events and visitors, including weddings by installing a new commercialp kitchen to allow for on-site catering services.

Melissa Lobach, the campaign and communication manager for the American River Conservancy, told the Nichi Bei Weekly her organization is hoping to attract more than 4,000 attendees for the 2019 celebration.

The site currently offers several tours a month, averaging around a thousand visitors a year.

“This is the site where the first Japanese colony settled in America, and it is the site that we feel is the most appropriate to celebrate 150 years of that legacy, so we are reaching out to our Japanese American community with the hope that they will come on board, and we invite them to do so,” Lobach said. “We hope that we have a giant turn out and a wonderful experience to share and truly exalt our Japanese American heritage in America and we’re happy to be in the place where that’s going to happen.”

The pilgrimage was led by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the American River Conservancy and the California Genealogical Society. It was sponsored by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.

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