Japanese Americans In The Lone Star: Descendants gather to honor pioneers

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Only the older ones among them have muddied their hands and ankles in the Japanese rice fields of Texas. That’s right, partner. Texas. The Japanese rice fields and truck farms of East Texas and the Rio Grande Valley to be exact.

More than a hundred of the descendents of early 20th-century Japanese Texan pioneers gather on a brilliant March Sunday afternoon in the small cemetery of League City, Texas. They have come to this oak-lined cemetery in to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Seito Saibara.

&nbspenedictions are aired, stories are told, prayers are made and only once does a passing train drown out the participants’ voices. These descendants have come from across the country, conversing with Texan, Californian and Hawaiian slang. But together, t6ey sing “God Bless America” with all-American pride.

Eddie Saibara, Seito Saibara’s grandchild, is the oldest one here today. He worked the rice fields with his father, Kiyoaki Saibara, until the mid-1960s.

“That was a dirty business,” Eddie says with a molasses-thick East Texas accent. “You work like dickens to get the crop in and everything, and the market’ll go down.”

Indeed, in the years before the Japanese farmers arrived in East Texas, many farmers in the area had lost their farms to market collapses and terrible weather. The most catastrophic of these troubles was the Great Storm of 1900, which literally flattened the then-major city of Galveston, Texas. According to local historians, the influx of nearly 300 Japanese rice farmers in the space of seven years revitalized the East Texas economy.

Although East Texas is known today as the place where African American James Byrd was killed by white racists, in the early decades of the 20th century the area was relatively welcoming to the Japanese. There were no anti-Japanese movements as there were in California, and it was much easier for Japanese in Texas to purchase land.

The right to own land, explains Hiroko Tanamachi Edwards, is precisely why her father, Kumazo Tanamachi, first moved the family here. After working in East Texas, the Tanamachi family in 1921 established a truck crop farm around San Benito, near the southern tip of Texas. Just one month after their arrival, two hurricanes blew away their home and the homes of other Japanese American farmers.

While the Tanamachis struggled to survive, the Kishi family of Orange County (on the Louisiana border) ran a 10,000-acre farm on which they eventually discovered oil as well. Husband and wife Kichimatsu and Fuji Kishi, first planted rice, but not long after rice prices collapsed after World War I, they began raising primarily cabbage and other vegetables and fruits. In 1921, the Kishis introduced Texas A&M University in College Station to the school’s first Asian Pacific American student, son Taro Kishi. Taro Kishi, in turn, introduced Texas A&M University to the dust behind his football shoes.

Taro began his Texas A&M football career as a place-kicker, but in a game against Rice University (at that time a much more formidable football force), he replaced the starting running back and scored two touchdowns.

Nephew John Hirasaki explains, “Football was more of a rough and tumble game back then,” and his exceptionally swift and tough uncle excelled. “We’re quite proud of him.”

Taro Kishi helped Texas A&M win a Southwest Conference championship and was one of the early great APA athletes.

Despite a relatively small population (about 500 before World War II), Japanese Americans in Texas produced numerous athletes. Eddie Saibara, a former Golden Gloves boxer himself, tells of two of Taro Kishi’s cousins playing football for UT Austin and neighbor Henry Kagawa representing Texas in national Golden Gloves competition.

Despite the abundance of athletes, the most famous Japanese to have attempted farming in Texas is a man whom few would ever associate with the conservative home-state of George Bush, Jr. Sen Katayama left Japan for Houston, Texas in 1904. He had been e&ampcouraged to immigrate by a longtime friend and benefactor who hoped that coming to Texas and establishing a rice farm might distract Katayama from his socialist organizing activities in Japan. Instead Katayama placed his socialist cohorts on the board of directors of his Texas farm. Katayama’s benefactor withdrew his investment, and Katayama returned to Japan to become the “Father of Asian Communism.”

In the first two decades of the 20th century, many Japanese Americans left California for Texas, and many of them settled in the Rio Grande Valley to establish farms in its fertile soil. But as the Japanese population increased, some local residents feared that the Japanese might “take over.”

In 1920, the American Legion post in Harlingen warned Japanese immigrants to stay away. And in 1921, the Texas state government passed an alien land law to prevent Japanese ownership of Texas land.

After that there was little exodus of Japanese Americans from Texans, and those from Californians may have been discouraged from immigrating to the Rio Grande Valley. Diana Tanamachi, granddaughter of Kumazo Tanamachi, recalls how some of the Japanese Americans in the Valley hoped to prevent “too many” other Japanese from migrating there.

World War II and Beyond

World War II was a terrible time for many Japanese Americans in Texas, but they did not suffer as greatly as the Japanese Americans in California. Few in Texas spent any time at internment camps, and those who did were mostly heads of households detained temporarily for questioning. The FBI, however, did ransack their homes and at least one young man, Henry Kawahata, felt compelled to announce after Pearl Harbor, “I’m ready to fight for the United States against Japan, even if I have to kill some of my cousins.”

John Hirasaki, grandson of Kichimatsu Kishi, recalled at the memorial that the government let his family stay in Orange County on the Louisiana border to grow food for the war effort.

“As a child, I do not recall a lot of adverse effects [of World War II],” he says. “I think we were far enough removed from the West Coast, where most of the concern and hysteria was.” The Kishi family even utilized German POW’s as farm laborers.

Ironically, these farmers could have also utilized the labor of Japanese Americans interned in Texas. The federal government operated three internment camps in Texas during World War II. Unlike most of the internment camps, which were “war relocation centers” run by the War Relocation Administration, the three “internment camps” in Texas were smaller and run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Kenedy camp, located on the southern coast of Texas, housed men considered “potentially dangerous,” such as Minoru Okabayashi, who was interned because he was a Houston community leader.

The Crystal City camp, located along the lower Rio Grande Valley, housed mostly Japanese American families and German POW’s. The Seagoville camp, southeast of Dallas, was a former women’s prison; it was considered the least bleak of Texas internment camps.

Among the 3,000 to 4,000 Japanese interned in Texas at any given time, only some hundreds were Japanese Americans. The majority were Japanese Peruvians. Ginzo Murono of Lima, Peru recalls how, after having dinner with his wife and children, Peruvian agents in plainclothes arrested him “by order of the United States.” He along with thousands of other Japanese Peruvians were shipped to the United States, labeled “illegal aliens” and interned in Texas internment camps. Peru was ridding itself of its Japanese, many of whom ran successful businesses, under the guise that their presence endangered Latin America.

Kikuko Nakao was a teenager living in Long Beach, Calif., when her entire family was sent to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark. It was there that she met Jerry (Jiru) Tanamachi of Texas. He was visiting family members in the Rohwer relocation center, when relatives of the two families arranged for Kikuko and Jerry’s marriage. Kikuko was then allowed to leave the relocation center and return with Jerry to his South Texas farm.

While Kikuko’s family, still interned in Arkansas, worried about her, she worried about them. Her younger brother, Sadao, depressed by life in the relocation center, committed suicide before the end of the war.

Some time after their arrival in South Texas, the newlywed Tanamachis were reminded of their status in wartime America. They were eating at a hamburger joint when “a whole bunch of white people” began yelling at Jerry, “Get out, Jap! Japanese, you don’t belong here.” Remembering the scene, Kikuko explains that Jerry was “an American citizen and a real successful farmer growing food for the troops, for America, but he was treated like that.” Fortunately, five Mexican Texan soldiers on leave, who had once worked for Jerry, “really got mad” at the group and prevented further violence.

One of Jerry’s brothers, Saburo Tanamachi, served as a soldier in the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the campaign to seize France from the Nazis. Around Bruyéres, the Nazis isolated a Texas-based battalion of troops and were slowly wearing them down. The 442nd was sent to rescue them.

During this mission, Saburo Tanamachi, while attempting to help a fallen comrade, was killed by Nazi gunfire. He was among 200 Japanese Americans of the 442nd who were killed in action while saving 211 mostly-Texan soldiers from certain death. For his ultimate sacrifice, Saburo Tanamachi was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart and was one of the first two Japanese Americans buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The rescue of the Texas “lost” battalion bolstered the status of Japanese Americans among their neighbors. As the war drew to a close, Texans learned of another Texas “lost” army battalion, the Second Battalion of the 36th Division, which had been captured in the South Pacific soon after Pearl Harbor. The now-famed battalion was forced into slave labor by the Japanese military, and many perished as a result. They were not liberated until days before V-J Day. Among the tortured troops was Texan Frank “Foo” Fujita, who described himself as “half-Jap, half-American” and claimed that the Japanese Army hated two things most: the B-29 bomber and himself.

The final blow against Japan came when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Kikuko Tanamachi’s voice quiets among the din at the cemetery when she says simply: “It was very devastating.”

On the day the war ended, Texas celebrated. Crystal City sounded the city’s siren, and residents spilled onto the streets to hang an effigy of Japanese military commander Tojo. Although the Japanese Peruvians within the Crystal City internment camp could hear the siren, they had mixed feelings at best. Many had no place to go, as Peru refused to accept their repatriation. Some remained in the internment camp for another year before being deported to war-torn Japan or found jobs in the United States, Texas included.

Almost all of the Japanese American families at the memorial first arrived in Texas at least 80 years ago. Since the war, this original Japanese American community has become immersed, but not lost, among a larger community of post-war migrants from the West Coast, immigrants from Japan, military wives and Japanese nationals working for multinational corporations.

Unlike the accents of more recent immigrants, the pleasant easiness of the Texas twang has completely replaced the Japanese language of these Americans. John Hirasaki explains that when his oldest brother, Henry, began school around the time of World War II, his father told the family that they were in Texas “to make our homes here.” From that day on, the family spoke English.

Within three generations of arrival, many or most Japanese Americans married white women and men, and all of the young Texans at the memorial are hapa. In this Texan community, assimilation is fully realized. Nevertheless, the community remains cohesive. After 100 years, they still meet, and sansei Sandra Tanamachi even leads a campaign to rename two road signs in East Texas that read “Jap Lane” and “Jap Road.”

Past the cemetery, Kobayashi Road and Mykawa Road still exist, even though the Japanese pioneers are long gone.

Eddie Saibara says most of the descendents of Seito Saibara still live in Texas. But there is only one male of the youngest generation who carries the Saibara name. Asked how he feels about the great responsibility of carrying forth this great Texas name, the young boy smiles shyly and sticks his adhesive name tag on his forehead: Andrew Saibara.

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