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Hard Row to Hoe: Japanese Farming in the Santa Clara Valley

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The Yamaichi family of Berryessa circa 1926. Jimi Yamaichi is second from the right.  (Courtesy: Jimi Yamaichi)

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Japantown in San Jose. To celebrate, the neighborhood will host a festival called Nikkei Matsuri this coming Sunday.

San Jose is one of only three historic Japantowns still thriving in the United States, and the only one rooted in the history of California agriculture. In a time before semiconductor chips and suburban housing, the region in and around San Jose was largely farmland, much of it farmed by Japanese-American families.

The city’s Japantown was the heart of the community, and that’s where you’ll find the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. Jimi Yamaichi, 92, is one of the curators of the museum’s exhibition on Japanese farming. But more than that, he himself used to work the fields northeast of San Jose.

At 92, Jimi Yamaichi remembers row crop farming in Berryessa before World War II. "It was hard living."
At 92, Jimi Yamaichi remembers row crop farming in Berryessa before World War II. 'It was hard living.' (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Yamaichi vividly remembers what it was like to grow up on his dad's row crop farm in Berryessa during the Great Depression.

"Beans, cucumbers and squash and other bell peppers, and tomatoes, and other things. But the beans and cucumber, that’s what he was known for," Yamaichi says.


In addition to supplying local markets, the Yamaichis sent 200 boxes to Los Angeles on Tuesdays, and another 200 on Saturdays. They shipped produce as far as Denver and Seattle.

Jimi was the fourth child out of 10. It was a working childhood.

"We'd get up early in the morning, at 6 o'clock, and we'd cut lettuce for about two hours," he recalls. "Around 8:30, my dad says, 'Well, go and clean up.' " You can listen to him tell his story here.

His dad drove them to elementary school in time for the 9 o'clock bell, then picked them up when school was out at 3 to return to the fields.

"We’re not the only ones doing it," Yamaichi says. "Everybody else was doing it."

Well, not everyone. The non-Japanese farmers, he admits, didn't work quite so hard, and they didn't necessarily take kindly to the Japanese-Americans who did.

A produce crate from the exhibit 'Yesterday’s Farmer: Planting an American Dream,' at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
A produce crate from the exhibition 'Yesterday’s Farmer: Planting an American Dream,' at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Today, there are just a handful of Japanese-owned farms and nurseries in the region. But at one time, before World War II, the area around San Jose was dotted with hundreds of Japanese farms growing vegetables for local and regional markets. The story of why they were here, and how they were here, is one of sorrow and suffering, but also success against the odds and the weight of fierce prejudice.

Sometime around 1890, Japanese laborers escaping the grim plantation work of Hawaii began to settle around San Jose. Especially after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, white farmers were eager for alternative sources of cheap labor to pick crops. Some Japanese immigrants saved enough money to buy their own farmland, but California changed the law, several times, to make it close to impossible.

Columbia University Professor Gary Okihiro co-wrote a history of Japanese farming in the Santa Clara Valley.

"The land laws were called alien land laws," he says, "because they were directed at aliens ineligible for citizenship, which meant only Asian people."

Many Japanese had no choice but to work as sharecroppers. Others set up land trusts, or began to have American-born children in the hopes that the first to reach maturity would be able to own the farm for the family.

"Many of the farmers were farming on land that did not belong to them, in fact, but to some other person, a white landowner," Okihiro says.

In 1929, Jimi Yamaichi’s father, Kaneichi Yamaichi, found a way around California law: a white man willing to own 21 acres for him -- in exchange for a “royalty,” which today would amount to more than $27,000 a year, staked on nothing more than a handshake.

At the start of World War II, roughly 4,000 Japanese lived in the Santa Clara Valley. They were just beginning to bounce back from the Great Depression when the federal government forced them into internment camps away from the West Coast.

This short film from the United States Office Of War Information -- produced as part of the government effort to justify uprooting 120,000 people of Japanese descent -- puts a somewhat sunny spin on Executive Order 9066.

But Japanese sent to camps in 1942 had to liquidate everything they couldn't carry with them, and at fire-sale prices: farms, homes, cars, businesses. Japanese-Americans left $22 million of crops in the ground across California. The government saw to it that those crops were harvested, but not that the farmers were compensated.

When the war was over, many of them returned home destitute and demoralized. They converted buildings in San Jose’s Japantown into makeshift barracks while they figured out what to do next. KTEH broadcast a compelling documentary about that period in history, called "Return to the Valley." Jimi Yamaichi is one of the people featured.

Yamaichi's family spent the war years in the internment camps at Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Tule Lake in California. Jimi’s dad was better off than most. A sympathetic insurance agent he'd worked with offered to guard his farm. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to start all over again when the war was over.

“ ’Course, he was quite a heavy drinker," Yamaichi says. "They were all drinkers, you know. Got to the point where it pickled him to death, I think!"

Like many in the Japan-born generation known as issei, Kaneichi Yamaichi kept a lot of feelings about his life bottled up inside.

"Sake was his drink of choice, and when the war broke out, couldn’t get no more," Jimi Yamaichi says. "He turned to whiskey. One fifth a day. That’s a lot of whiskey to drink, hunh?"

Even before the war, American farming was growing increasingly mechanized, moving from horses to tractors, requiring bigger farms to turn a profit.

Many of the American-born nisei, like Jimi Yamaichi, wanted out of farming. But younger children followed their parents onto new fields, raising labor-intensive crops they could produce on small plots of land.

Today, there's almost no evidence how prevalent Japanese farms once were in and around San Jose. A map from the exhibit 'Yesterday’s Farmer: Planting an American Dream,' at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose highlights Japanese American farms in the area around 1958.
A map from the exhibition 'Yesterday’s Farmer: Planting an American Dream,' at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose highlights Japanese-American farms in the area around 1958.

Leon Kimura was one of those children, back in the 1950s. "I picked 10 crates of strawberries to get money to buy my first Timex watch," he says.

And where did Kimura go to get the watch?

"I came to here to Japantown to Jackson Jewelers [now defunct]," Kimura says. "There always was a feeling that this was home for the JA community."

Eventually, as the rise of Silicon Valley made land more expensive, the strawberry industry moved south to Watsonville and Salinas. The flower business moved overseas.

With each passing generation, it became easier for Japanese-Americans to find work outside of agriculture -- and to buy homes in neighborhoods previously closed to them. More and more of the community in the Santa Clara Valley dispersed across the Bay Area, California and beyond.

Japantown San Jose is still a cultural center, with churches, restaurants, shops and, of course, the museum. But it doesn't have quite the vibrancy that Kimura remembers from his childhood. "Maybe it’s a function of, if you will, at becoming too successful integrating into mainstream America."

That said, the love cuts both ways now. Japantown San Jose has become a fond focal point for the whole city, one locals proudly point to as part of their collective heritage.

On April 26th, Japantown San Jose hosts a festival called Nikkei Matsuri, to celebrate its 125th anniversary
On April 26, Japantown San Jose hosts a festival called Nikkei Matsuri, to celebrate its 125th anniversary (Takahiro Kitamura)

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