THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nikkei in Mobile, Alabama

bioline_Greg RobinsonI am endlessly intrigued by the discovery of new frontiers, both geographical and thematic, in Japanese American history. One largely unexplored area is the experience of Japanese Americans in the U.S. South. We have had a few glimmers of this history in memoirs, as well as a few books on the subject, such as Thomas K. Walls’ “The Japanese Texans,” as well as “Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow,” John Howard’s study of the Arkansas-based War Relocation Authority camps at Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas. Recently, a new book appeared on multiple aspects of the Asian American experience in the South, Raymond A. Mohl, John E. Van Sant and Chizuru Saeki’s “Far East, Down South,” (full disclosure: I am the author of one chapter, on Japanese Americans in Louisiana) which includes Chizuru Saeki’s essay on the reactions of whites in Alabama to Japanese between 1941 and 1953.

In fact, the presence of ethnic Japanese in Alabama goes back long before World War II, and the Nikkei history of Mobile is particularly remarkable.

Mobile, situated on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, was founded at the turn of the 18th century. Like New Orleans, Mobile was part of French Louisiana (one might call the two brother cities, as they were founded by brothers from Montreal). Even after Mobile became an American territory, it remained a cosmopolitan city with French-language newspapers, writers, and a small free black Creole population whose school attendance and civil rights were protected under the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. After the Civil War, its French-speaking population declined, and Mobile became more Americanized in character (though its citizens still continue their traditional Mardi Gras parade).

It is not entirely clear when the first Japanese came to Mobile. What is certain, however, is that the region was once a center for cultivation of satsuma oranges from Japan, long before orange-growing became concentrated in (and identified with) Florida. Thousands of acres of orange groves were established in the early 20th century. While the vagaries of the local climate ultimately made orange growing too risky, the history is reflected, among others, in the name of the city of Satsuma, Ala. in Mobile County.

Meanwhile, two notable Japanese families, the Sawadas and the Kiyonos, established themselves in Mobile. Kosaku Sawada, born near Osaka, the son of a satsuma orange grower, was still in his early 20s when he emigrated to the United States in 1906 as part of a group formed to grow rice in Texas. The experiment did not succeed. Instead, hoping to carry on his father’s trade, Sawada founded the Alvin Japanese Nursery Company (named for the Texas town where it was located). The Nursery offered satsuma orange and pecan nut trees imported from Japan for farmers to plant orchards. Four years later, after they lost their entire stock of satsuma seedlings during a hard frost, Sawada and his partners opened a branch in Grand Bay, Alabama (Grand Bay, interestingly enough, is adjacent to the creole fishing town of Bayou La Batre, which has become renowned in recent years for its Southeast Asian immigrant fishing population). By 1912, the Alvin Japanese Nursery, officially headquartered in Mobile, was advertising heavily in the region’s newspapers.

In 1916, Sawada left his partners and returned to Japan, where he met Nobu Yoshioka from Kanazawa. The two married and returned to Alabama, and Sawada resumed his work at the Alvin Nursery. However, three years later, a severe freeze and an attack of citrus canker destroyed the orange plants, and the other partners returned to Texas. The Sawadas decided to move to Mobile and start a plant nursery. According to legend, Mrs. Sawada’s dowry included a few seeds of the camellia flower. The climate in Mobile proved ideal for the flower, and within a few years the camellia became the center of the Overlook Nursery, the Sawadas’ business. The couple developed hybrid varieties for the nursery’s seed catalogues. The “K. Sawada” and the “Mrs. K. Sawada” were the best known. Their nursery became the center of a network of flower production that included large deliveries to New Orleans markets. Mrs. Sawada died in 1929, but the couple had four children, all of whom attended college. Tom Sawada studied at Spring Hill College, a local Jesuit institution (Father James Yamauchi, a Nisei Jesuit, studied at Spring Hill around the same time, and would later join the faculty). Tom Sawada afterward joined the family firm, as did brother George, who attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Sister Lurie attended Huntington College. After graduating Emory University, the Rev. Ben Sawada became a Methodist minister and worked as a missionary in Japan.

(Another family, the Imuras, moved to the region along with Sawada, and Mr. Imura worked at the Overlook Nursery. During the 1930s, the family’s daughter Sara Imura, writing from Crichton, Alabama, served as a correspondent for the New World Sun newspaper in San Francisco.)

According to legend, the Overlook Nurseries was threatened with seizure by the government after Pearl Harbor, but local nurserymen and other influential citizens testified on behalf of the Sawadas’ loyalty, and their ownership was not disturbed. Kosaku Sawada died in 1968, but his sons continued the business, and today his grandson George Sawada continues to run the Overlook Nurseries.

The Kiyonos had a parallel story. In 1907, at the age of 19, Tsukasa Kiyono immigrated from Okayama, Japan to the United States. With help from his wealthy father, he hired a private tutor to teach him English and opened a satsuma orchard near League City, Texas. In 1914, following a frost, he closed his business and moved on to Semmes, Ala. in the Mobile area, where he bought a 40-acre farm. There he again produced satsumas and pecans, though without great success (he also married a local white woman, but the marriage did not last.) In 1921 Kiyono returned to Japan and met his wife Tomoe. After returning to Alabama, the couple had two children — their daughter, Mary, later attended Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Penn. Mrs. Kiyono brought funds from her dowry, and also made money through small-scale flower growing and chicken farming. Eventually, she persuaded her husband to use the $3,000 proceeds to invest in flower growing. He bought an additional 80 acres, and planted camellias and azaleas. Business boomed so greatly that by 1935 Mr. Kiyono could estimate his net worth at $325,000.

Around this time, the couple established a formal partnership, and Mrs. Kiyono assumed control of one-third of the business. The couple made enough money — $100,000 per year according to their partnership tax return — that they were able to have hired staff to perform much of the work. Mr. Kiyono travelled to Japan and Europe, where he searched for plants and shrubs for the Kiyono Nurseries. He and his camellias were even featured in an article in LIFE magazine in 1939.

The Kiyonos’ success, however, came at a price. Based on a tip from a secret informant (perhaps inspired by envy) in 1939 the Internal Revenue service opened an inquiry into the Kiyonos’ taxes, charging them with fraud and deliberate under-declaration of income. The Kiyonos’ shoddy bookkeeping practices did not aid their case. The case was still pending in the U.S. Tax Court when the Kiyonos travelled to Japan on a buying trip in mid-1941. They had their return tickets and were ready to board in August 1941 when diplomatic conflict between Japan and the US caused travel between the two to be suspended.

The Kiyonos remained trapped in Japan during the war years. In early 1942 the Kiyonos’ property was seized by the Alien Property Custodian and sold at auction. Most of the proceeds were turned over to the Internal Revenue Service. The Kiyonos returned to the United States in 1945, following the end of the war. Stripped of his lucrative property, Mr. Kiyono took a job as manager of the Cottage Hill Nursery, near Mobile. He hired an attorney to pursue the case in the U.S. Tax Court. Finally, in fall 1949 the Tax Court made its ruling. The judge found that while the Kiyonos had understated their income, and thereby owed back taxes and interest, they were also owed money for legitimate expenses that they had not known enough to claim. More importantly, they were not guilty of any deliberate fraud. This meant that the Kiyonos could not be subjected to fines for fraudulent activities, and also that the government could not recover back taxes for the period before 1935, which was barred by statute of limitations. I have been unable to locate information on the fate of the Kiyonos after this settlement — perhaps readers can give me information.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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