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Nikkei Heritage

Sacramento – The Early Years

Prior to 1868, the Japanese people were forbidden to go abroad and foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan. In 1868 the change in the ruling party from the Tokugawa Shogunate to Emperor Meiji in the Restoration in 1868, changed the emphasis from isolationism to a broader view to enrich the nation.

Earlier, there had been isolated contacts between the Japanese and the Western World. In 1610, a group of Japanese reached the current location of Acapulco, Mexico. In 1613, another group of Japanese visited Mexico with some continuing on to Spain and the others remaining in Mexico. There were other Japanese who accidentally reached the North American continent when they were swept across the Pacific Ocean during a storm or who were rescued by American whaling ships and brought to America.

There were a few Japanese who ventured to California prior to 1868. It is reported that a number of Japanese men settled in Alameda County in 1868. A year later, a group of Japanese led by John Schnell arrived in California to establish the short lived Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony at Gold Hill, El Dorado County. The party, including Schnell’s Japanese wife, arrived in San Francisco on May 27, 1869 aboard the side wheeler S.S. China of the Pacific Mail Company. They were, in all likelihood, the first sizable group to arrive from Japan to settle in the continental United States. They arrived in Sacramento by riverboat and took wagons to Placerville and nearby Gold Hill. They brought with them mulberry trees for the silk farm, tea seeds, grape cuttings, and other plants from Japan.

The June 1870 Census of El Dorado County showed 22 Japanese names, including Schnell’s Japanese wife living at Gold Hill. The two daughters of John Schnell and his Japanese wife are listed by the census taker as having been born in America. If this is true, then Francis and Mary Schnell would have been the first Nisei in California. The names Okei, Matsunosuke Sakurai, and Kuninosuke Masumizu, prominent members of the Wakamatsu Colony do not appear on the Census Roll. The late Henry Taketa, the pre-eminent authority on the Wakamatsu Colony, believes that they probably arrived after the census month of June 1870. Okei, a nursemaid to the Schnell household, died of fever at the age of 19 in 1871. She is buried at Gold Hill at the Wakamatsu Colony site, making her one of the first Japanese women to die in America.

The ill-fated colony lasted for less than two years. Nevertheless, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony at Gold Hill signaled the coming of other Issei pioneers to California who would endure and persevere in the decades to come.

By 1910, the foundations were established for well-developed communities in Colusa/Marysville/Yuba City, Penryn/Loomis, Walnut Grove, Florin, and Sacramento. The majority of these Japanese were single men. In the period between 1891 to 1900, some 27,000 Japanese entered the United States and only about 900 were recorded as being female. Many Japanese women who came to America during this period were either wives or soon to be wives of the Japanese men. In 1908, the Gentlemen’s Agreement, made between the United States and Japan, limited Japanese laborers from entering into the U.S. The Agreement did not apply to Japanese women and there was a significant increase in Japanese women immigrants. The 1910 Census showed a dramatic increase in Japanese women over the prior decade from 985 to 9,085 females. By 1920, there still was a shortage of Issei women (109 females for 189 Japanese males), but the transformation of the family structure had begun.

Most of the Issei marriages were arranged. In some cases photographs were exchanged, between families in Japan. Some Issei men saved enough money to return to Japan to select a wife to bring back to America. The arrival of “picture brides” in America signaled a change from a single bachelor society to more stable family oriented farms and enterprises. The women assumed the double role of unpaid co-workers and house wives to maintain the household. The Issei women helped create and shape the intricate fabric of the economic and social character of community life and helped strengthen the meaning of a community.

With the coming of children to the families, a different flavor was added to the communities throughout the Sacramento Valley. Churches were started and Sunday schools and language schools were added. The Issei’s passed on their love for sports, especially baseball, sumo, and kendo to the Nisei generation. Their strong interest in organized recreation was one of the ways to cope with the hard economic times and their exclusion from American society.

Sacramento’s Japan Town became the cultural, religious, and commercial hub for the communities around the valley, with its own daily newspaper, movie theater, and bank. The settlements of Brighton, Broderick, Elder Creek, Elk Grove, Florin, Mayhew, Oak Park, Riverside/Pocket, Vineyard, and Walsh Station were the spokes of the hub.

An area of some six square blocks bounded by 2nd Street on the West, to 5th Street on the East, and “L” Street on the North to “O” Street on the South comprised the general Japan Town. The Japanese laborers were not welcome in white boarding houses and by 1891, a boarding house and two hotels opened for the Japanese. By 1896, four more hotels were established for the Japanese.

Boarding and Inn Keepers Associations were organized and restaurant, shop keeper, and carpenter unions soon followed. The first grocery store opened around 1893. By 1910, there were some 200 Japanese businesses in Sacramento which included grocery and general stores, fish and vegetable markets, restaurants, barber shops, furnishing stores, pool and billiard parlors, tofu shops, a bank, a movie house, doctors and dentists, and newspapers. Just prior to the outbreak of World War II, there were about 470 businesses that served the Japanese communities.

As long as the Japanese remained migrant farm workers, they were tolerated by the greater community. As they moved to sharecropping, to leasing the land, and to farm ownership, they became targets of sustained and organized anti-Japanese actions.

The development of Japanese communities in some parts of California can be viewed as a product of a process of exclusion from the social, political, and religious mainstream of the greater community. In the case of Sacramento County, there were four segregated “Oriental Grammar Schools” in Florin, Courtland, Isleton, and Walnut Grove.

In 1913, the first Alien Land Law was passed by the California State Legislature prohibiting the Issei from purchasing agricultural land. A more restricted measure, that forbade the leasing of land, was passed by the electorate of California in 1921. In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that Issei were aliens and ineligible for citizenship. The final blow to their status came in 1924 when the Congress excluded Japanese from immigrating to the United States.

It is quite clear that the Issei were more than mere victims of prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion from mainstream America. They had come to America with dreams for a better life; they settled here, established families here, and formed communities here. Their story, clearly, does not fit the pattern of those traditional European immigrants who were allowed to become a part of the “melting pot” of America. The Issei, nevertheless, survived racism and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With the beginning of World War II and the forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast, the Japanese communities would never be the same.


* This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. VIII, no.1 (Winter 1996), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

© 1996 National Japanese American National Museum

Sobre esta serie

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

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