The real deal on the first Japanese colony in the U.S.

The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America

By Daniel A. Métraux (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & LIttlefield, 2019, 158 pp., $85, hardcover)

There are books that I feel all members of the Japanese American community should have in their personal library: Michi Nishiura Weglyn’s “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps,” Yuji Ichioka’s “Issei,” John Okada’s “No-No Boy,” Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto’s “Seventeen Syllablesand Other Stories,” Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s “Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers,” and any book written by Yoshiko Uchida or Toshio Mori.

I’d recommend that people also add “The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America” to their libraries. Written by Daniel A. Métraux, a professor emeritus and adjunct professor of Asian studies at Mary Baldwin University. The academic book is a carefully researched work that eliminates any romantic notions about the first Japanese agricultural colony in mainland United States, which was established in Gold Hill, California, in 1869.

Métraux’s nonfiction account is neither fanciful as Yoshiko Uchida’s imaginative middle-grade novel, “Samurai of Gold Hill,” nor empathetic as Japanese-language accounts of Okei, the 19-year-old “Japanese girl” whose recreated gravestone marks the colony site. Okei is believed to have died shortly after being abandoned in the U.S. after the colonists dispersed. While much of the ill-fated colony’s history still remains a mystery, Métraux is able to present select facts about the colonists that defy common knowledge about the Issei.

For example, the colonists came to California under the leadership of a Prussian arms dealer, John Henry Schnell. They originated from the north, Fukushima Prefecture. While their need to escape the Aizu-Wakamatsu area was due to the Meiji imperial takeover of the samurai, most who came over, Métraux explains, were probably farmers and carpenters — not samurai warriors. I was very interested to see that quite a few of the colonists were women and also children.

While much has been made of Okei being the first person of Japanese descent to have died in the continental U.S., what I found even more fascinating was the birth of Schnell’s daughter to his Japanese wife, Jou, during their time in California. Thus the first person of Japanese descent to be born on the mainland soil could have been a mixed-race girl. And while the colony only lasted two years due to the unsuccessful cultivation of tea plants and mulberry trees, necessary food for silkworms, at least two other members besides Okei remained in California: Kuninosuke Masumizu, who eventually married a woman of African and Native American ancestry, and Matsunosuke Sakurai and his wife, who would go on to have three children.

Métraux synthesizes the travails of the colony in overlapping chapters. Early ones provide the Japanese political context while later ones examine agricultural challenges that the colony faced. Information comes from newspaper articles and other academic work.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from reading Métraux’s work is that we can’t make broad generalizations of Japanese immigrant pioneers. As researchers dig deeper, we may discover surprises that challenge how we view ourselves and even our larger ethnic community.

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