PLACERVILLE, Calif. — “For Japanese Americans, we often pilgrimage, together we go on a community journey to a sacred place to remember what has been forgotten. We come to Wakamatsu to remember the first settlement of Japanese immigrants in the United States,” said Wendi Yamashita, a professor of Asian American studies at California State University, Sacramento.
“We remember their hopes and dreams that they had when they left Japan and embarked on a journey to an unknown place,” she added. “And when we come together to remember, it is a political act of resistance. We honor our ancestors with gratitude and love, and we honor ourselves. Japanese American history is important, and we matter.”
Yamashita, a Nichi Bei Foundation board member, gave the opening remarks at the Oct. 7 pilgrimage to the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony in El Dorado County, in the hills above Sacramento. Perhaps it was fitting that the first settlement of Japanese in America was located literally only two miles down the road from Sutter’s Mill at Coloma, where in 1848, gold was discovered, setting off the California Gold Rush.
Prussian John Schnell and former samurai and their families from Aizu Wakamatsu, present-day Fukushima Prefecture, founded the Wakamatsu settlement in June 1869 in an attempt to establish a refuge and economic outpost.
On the third biennial pilgrimage organized by the Nichi Bei Foundation, 150 participants filled buses from San Francisco, San Jose, the East Bay and Sacramento or ventured on their own to pay tribute to the Japanese pioneers and their legacy. The grave of Okei, who arrived with the colonists as a nursemaid to the Schnell family, is located at the farm.
She died in 1871 at age 19, the first Japanese woman to die and be interred in U.S. soil. Pilgrimage participants were able to pay their respects at the gravesite as the Rev. Yuki Sugahara of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin bestowed a blessing upon it.
John E. Van Sant, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, spoke at the event. A Placerville native and University of California, Davis alumnus, Van Sant said he knew little about the Wakamatsu colony while growing up.
Now a specialist in 19th-century Japan, Van Sant gave his view on what exactly drove the colonists here. “They didn’t wake up one day and decide to come to Northern California,” he said.
It was due to the fact that Matsudaira Katamori, the samurai lord of Aizu Wakamatsu and the colony’s financial backer, was on the losing side of the war between the Tokugawa shogunate and imperial forces. The defeat of the Aizu domain ended up pushing refugees to the California frontier.
“The colonists had minimal direct influence on the course of relations between the United States and Japan, but their departure from Japan as refugees, their intention to settle permanently in the U.S., and their establishment of an agricultural colony would soon be imitated by thousands of Japanese and lead to the creation of Japanese America,” Van Sant said.
Herb Tanimoto, docent with the American River Conservancy, gave a talk on newly found descendants of Wakamatsu colonists Matsugoro Oto and Sakichi and Nami Yanagisawa, who have been discovered in Japan in recent years. These add to descendants of Kuninosuke Masumizu, the only known Wakamatsu Colony descendants in America. Masumizu’s great-great-great grandson, Aaron Gibson, attended the tail end of the day’s event.
Before and after visits to Okei’s grave, participants were able to consult genealogy experts. One of them, Grant Din of the California Genealogical Society, explained what they could do for those curious about their lineage: “We do a really quick check trying to find out general family history, things that can be found out online, like when their grandparents first came to the U.S., what (World War II concentration) camps they were in.”
He added that they can provide guidance on how to further pursue roots research, such as acquiring koseki (family registers in Japan).
Arianne Hodges, 42, of San Francisco, whose husband is a Japanese Canadian Yonsei, said of the pilgrimage: “I didn’t know about this place until I learned about this event, and everything I know about it now, I learned today.”
Her husband, Kevin Tom, also 42, who is half-Japanese and half-Chinese, said, “It’s a connection to the past. It looks like a harsh place to live, even today. I can’t imagine how hard it was at the turn of the century or earlier.”
The summer heat in the mid-90s, which taxed 2023 pilgrimage attendees, also perhaps fittingly mimicked drought-like conditions that the Wakamatsu colonists faced in 1871, which caused the collapse of the farming project.
“I’d never heard of the Wakamatsu colony so it was interesting learning about the history,” said Cathy McCaughey, a 73-year-old Sansei/Yonsei from San Jose. “Rather than (World War II) internment camps, I would rather come here to pay respect to our ancestors because they emigrated to a country where they didn’t know the language, didn’t have any idea what was in store, and they were brave.”
Drumming groups Koyasan Kongo Gumi of Sacramento and UC Davis’ Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan provided entertainment. A Bon Odori was held for the first time at the pilgrimage, led by Helene Nakamura of the Placer Buddhist Church.
The pilgrimage was presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the American River Conservatory and the California Genealogical Society. The event was sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the George and Sakaye Aratani C.A.R.E. Award and the Wayne Maeda Educational Fund.
Michael Hatamiya writes from Yuba City, Calif.