On a scenic knoll in Gold Hill about 50 miles east of Sacramento lies the singular grave of Okei, the first Japanese woman and immigrant buried on American soil. After her untimely death in 1871, one or more of Okei’s fellow colonists procured her stately gravestone that has withstood the elements for over 120 years. If not for this precious gift, Okei’s life and the history of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony may have been lost in time. Their story would never have become the living history it is today.
Sometime after the Japanese centennial year of 1969, her gravestone was badly cracked and repaired. In 2011, a group of concerned citizens decided the stone was too vulnerable to remain on Okei’s grave. By then, the American River Conservancy (ARC) owned Okei’s gravesite and the surrounding 272-acre property now called Wakamatsu Farm. As Okei has no known family, ARC acted swiftly to replace the stone with a replica that remains on her grave. By then, her marker already had a kindred replica stone in Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan, created decades prior for a mountaintop memorial site in honor of Okei’s American pioneer story.
For over a century, Okei’s grave at Wakamatsu Farm has been a place of pilgrimage for people of Japanese heritage. Her life and death are representative of the first generation of Japanese immigrants and their struggles in pursuit of the American dream. Honoring the departed has deep personal and spiritual meaning in many cultures, and it seems, particularly for the Japanese.
What to do with a priceless, one-of-a-kind, vulnerable, and symbolic artifact removed from its original place, yet still so steeped in thoughts and prayers? The future of Okei’s original gravestone was bound to become a dilemma for its present caretaker.
Operating primarily as a land trust for over three decades, ARC acquires and preserves open lands in the American River and Cosumnes River watershed to protect in perpetuity. With a land portfolio of over 28,000 protected acres, ARC currently retains and manages about 11,000 acres, of which Wakamatsu Farm is but a tiny fraction. The Conservancy has no foreseeable funding nor mission-critical priority to display, secure, or protect a museum-quality item for the rest of time. Practical, infrastructural improvements, including a new Education Center, remain great priorities at the working farm. In fact, most Wakamatsu Farm visitors, including all disabled guests, have not seen Okei’s original gravestone since it was removed from her grave.
Discussions started about donating the artifact to a museum. The move would secure its preservation and slow its deterioration. Wider public viewing could bring other advantages. More broadly telling the first Japanese immigrants’ touching story may benefit communities in both America and Japan.
Yet, there remains a concept that some historians call “the power of place.” Worthy objects remain most significant where they originate.
Given hard facts and conflicting opinions, ARC decided to conduct a community dialog to determine the future of Okei’s gravestone. To provide an accurate context for the dialog, ARC documented the artifact’s history, published a survey, and hosted a live, recorded call. Anyone could participate in the dialog, and many joined.
ARC posed the primary question: to donate or not to donate the artifact to a third party? The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles was a proposed recipient. ARC also encouraged all suggestions, comments, recommendations, and any other proposed recipients of the artifact.
To communicate the dialog, ARC contacted over 500 individuals and news affiliates with particular focus on Japanese American communities. ARC also invited friends in Japan to join the dialog. Numerous news channels shared ARC’s invitation to the decision-making process. Only a topic of such extraordinary importance could attract such unique and widespread attention.
For many, the process and results of the dialog were surprising, even delightful. Some expressed disappointment or a dilemma in even considering the question. For others, it was an illuminating opportunity to appreciate and respect the dedicated work of ARC, its many supporters, and the ongoing challenges of managing the dynamics of a landmark farm. Many praised ARC for inviting community input while making a complex decision in such a conscientious and transparent way.
The survey gathered results for nearly two months and yielded 73 responses. Over 53% said the artifact should be donated while 32% indicated it should remain at Wakamatsu Farm. About 15% were uncertain. Respondents recommended more than 20 institutions that might accept the donation.
About 30 people attended the live dialog, and nearly all spoke passionately. Opinions aired on both sides. The prevailing sentiment, particularly among Wakamatsu Farm docents, favored keeping the gravestone at Wakamatsu Farm. Most who participated in the discussion and responded to the survey were Japanese or Japanese American
ARC’s board of directors met in June to examine the topic and evaluate the dialog data. They deliberated then unanimously concluded to keep the artifact at Wakamatsu Farm.
What happens now to Okei’s gravestone at Wakamatsu Farm remains to be determined. To make these decisions, ARC’s board also approved the formation of a special committee. The ideal committee will represent members of the Japanese American community and invite consultation from historians, curators, and spiritual leaders, among others. To inquire, volunteer, or make recommendations about Okei’s grave committee, please contact wakamatsu@ARConservancy.org or call (530) 621-1224. Contact the same to view the community dialog documentation, including the survey results and the recorded call.
ARC is very grateful for all who participated in this valuable community dialog. Special thanks are extended to helpful friends in service of California State Parks and the Japanese American National Museum. With community guidance, expertise, passions, commitment, and contributions, Okei’s gravestone will remain in peace at Wakamatsu Farm.
Melissa Lobach is the development manager at the American River Conservancy. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.