Hidden Ecologists: The Rise and Fall of Sustainable Agriculture in Japanese American Farming

Land and micromanagement and precision agriculture techniques are perceived as innovations by environmentalists in the late 20th century. Actually, Japanese American farmers implemented these techniques in the 1900s with remarkable success...until racism intervened. 

Some of us might associate the word  “micromanage” with helicopter parents, but for many farmers, is the secret to sustainability.[1] Land micromanagement and precision agriculture, including techniques like crop rotation (planting more than one crop on the same plot of land) and diversification (planting many different kind of crops) are more sustainable ways to farm the same land for longer periods of time. Often, these techniques are perceived as new innovations, presented as strategies were adopted in by the environmentalist movement in the late 20th century to save the world from the disastrous environmental and economic consequences of industrialized agriculture.[2]  However, Japanese American farmers actually implemented these techniques in the 1900’s with remarkable success...until racism intervened. 

To Build a Farm: Historical Formations of Japanese, American, and JA Agriculture 

Geographic, social, and economic differences in America and Japan produced significantly different farming practices during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which continue today. Non-sustainable agricultural practices in America are a product of dominating beliefs held by European colonists that American natural resources, particularly land, are untouched, unlimited, and divinely promised. An account by Robert Cushman, an early settler, perfectly expressed this conceptualization of America when he described it in 1622 as “spacious and void...a vast and empty chaos,[5] acknowledged [as] the right of our sovereign king.” [6] This culture of neverending abundance and consumption resulted in the development of industrial farming that relied on using “large amounts of energy, biocides, fertilizer...water, and farming machinery” to maximize short term production.[12] As the US continued to expand in the 19th century, there was no reason for white farmers to challenge or adapt these practices and philosophies.

This unsustainable way of using land developed in direct contrast to Japanese farming, history, and philosophy. Japan is a small island: 142,000 square miles of land in total (in comparison to America’s 3.7 million), only 16% of which is suitable for farming. [15] Because land was so limited in both quantity and quality, Japanese farmers were forced to innovate much earlier than their American counterparts. By the late 17th century, Japanese farmers had already started exploring non-synthetic renewable fertilizers (e.g. livestock manure, grasses, kelp), selective breeding, irrigation, and land reclamation.[16] Thus, Japanese immigrants were able to bring hundreds of years of institutional, widespread agricultural knowledge with them when they immigrated to America en masse in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. 

Most Japanese who migrated during this time were younger sons of farmers. Under Japanese land inheritance practices, the oldest son received all family property while younger children were left with nothing. In poorer families, this phenomenon combined with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the resulting need for new labor to produce a wave of Japanese agricultural worker migration. After they arrived, superior farming technology combined with strong community organizing[21] allowed Japanese farmers to quickly rise from day laborers to landowners. The Department of Justice estimated that by 1940, the value of the 6,118 farms operated by Nikkei was $72,600,000; the same study also calculated that the average value per acre of a Nikkei farm was $279.96, versus $37.94 for other farms in California, Oregon, and Washington.[22] 

Destroying a Community

The White American response was, of course, to successfully push for the implementation of anti-Japanese federal and state legislation and to ideologically discredit Japanese success. A well-known series of laws banned Japanese immigration, while farming success was attributed to racially inferior family values and practices. In one California Supreme Court case related to sharecropping, a white plaintiff argued that “[the Japanese] work their women and children while the white farmer has to pay wages for his help,”[25] implying that Japanese successes were only due to their exploitation of vulnerable family members and a disrespect for the sacredness of women and children. 

World War II served as the ultimate catalyst in the premature removal of Japanese American sustainable farming from American agriculture. Not twenty-four hours after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, a man named Austin E. Anson arrived in Washington D.C. demanding the immediate removal of all JAs from the West Coast.1 ] Anson was the secretary of the Salinas Grower-Shipper Association, a group of agribusiness corporations, and openly The Washington Post that he and the Association supported incarceration because they wanted to remove Japanese farmers from California. [3]

Anson had his wish granted when Executive Order 9066 forcibly incarcerated all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. In the camps, Japanese Americans were coerced into agricultural labor and development to fulfill a number of government agenda items related to agriculture and land reclamation. The federal government, who had long fought to undermine the success of JA farmers publicly, now banked on that very success to turn “isolated, godforsaken”[34] land into profitable farms so that White homesteaders and Native American tribes could settle there after the war ended.[35]  Government records prove that Tule Lake in particular was deliberately designed harness “agricultural expertise and readily available labor” to farm the former lake bed that the camp was built upon.[36].[37]The Japanese were successful in transforming deserts into farmland; however, due to policy missteps and the lack of interaction between the Japanese incarcerees and those who farmed the land afterward, sustainable farming techniques were not retained in these areas.

After World War II, most JA farmers returned to overgrown land, vandalized buildings, and stolen or broken equipment, if they still owned their land at all. While some managed to rebuild, JA farmers maintained “less than a third of their pre-war presence” in land owned and crops produced by the 1960’s.[43] Sustainable farming techniques seemed permanently removed from American agriculture.

Imagining a Harvest: Sustainability Today

The discovery that American agriculture has contributed to widespread environmental degradation that harms both the farming industry and the planet as a whole has caused a resurgence of high-yield, space-efficient farming. Many environmentalist groups and farming organizations (such as the USDA and the EPA) currently advocate for the use of techniques such as crop rotation and cover crops to reduce soil erosion, using natural pesticides/integrated pest management instead of harmful chemicals such as DDT, and no-till farming,[44] all of which were employed by Japanese American farmers in the early 20th century. We can only wonder, then, what our planet might look like today if the answer to America's agricultural crisis had not been locked up in Tule Lake so many years ago.


[1] "Agriculture." GPS.gov: Agricultural Applications. March 8, 2018. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.gps.gov/applications/agriculture/.

[2] Jacques, Peter, and Jessica Jacques. November 7, 2012. “Monocropping Cultures into Ruin: The Loss of Food Varieties and Cultural Diversity.” Sustainability (11): 2970. doi:10.3390/su4112970.

[3] Krebs, A.V. "BITTER HARVEST." The Washington Post. February 02, 1992. Accessed April 30, 2018.

[6] Warren, Louis S “Colonial Natures”. American Environmental History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. 95-97

[8] "United States History." U.S. Population, Land Area and Density, 1790-2000. Accessed April 30, 2018. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h986.html.

[9] United States Historical Maps - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/histus.html.

[10] "Boundless US History." Lumen. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/chapter/manifest-destiny/.

[11] O’Sullivan, John L. “The Great Nation of Futurity” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. November 1839, Volume VI No. XXIII, 426-430

[12] Jacques, Peter, and Jessica Jacques “Monocropping Cultures into Ruin” 2973

[13] Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 24-25

[14] Asamen, Tim. ""What Made Them Such Good Farmers?"" Japanese Migrants and Their Descendants | Discover Nikkei. March 07, 2017. Accessed April 30, 2018. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2017/3/7/what-made-them-such-good-farmers/

[15] Heinrich, Amy Vladeck. "Japan's Geography (1)." Geography: Japan's Geography. Accessed April 30, 2018. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/japan/japanworkbook/geography/japgeo.html.

[16] Asamen, Tim “What Made Them”

[17] "The U.S. Mainland: Growth and Resistance." Japanese - U.S. Mainland - Immigration...- Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources - Library of Congress. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/alt/japanese3.html.

[18] “The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented all Chinese immigration for a moratorium of 10 years” Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources From the National Archives. [Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.] pp. 82-85.)

[19] Asamen, Tim “What Made Them”

[20] libd

[21] Such as buying land for each other, informally loaning money and supplies, and supporting visas for family members and friends

[22] Inouye, Ronald K. Personal Justice Denied: Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. US Department of Justice, December 1982, June 1983. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/justice-denied, 122-124

[23] libd 123

[24] Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of Its People. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1999. 15.

[25] Tsu, Cecilia M. "Garden of the World." Oxford University Press, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2018. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199734771.001.0001.

[26] Tsu, Cecilia M. "Garden of the World."

[27] In the aforementioned Webb v. O’Brien case, Webb himself stated that “ the American farm which is in competition with the Oriental farm will cease to be cultivated, or will be cultivated by Orientals.” (Tsu, Cecilia M. "Garden of the World”)

[28] Inouye, Ronald K. “Justice Denied…” 176

[29] libd 177

[30] libd 178

[31] Krebs, “BITTER HARVEST”

[32] Inouye, Ronald K. “Justice Denied”, 17

[33] Morehouse, Lisa. "Farming Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-Americans Remember WWII Incarceration." NPR. February 19, 2017. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/19/515822019/farming-behind-barbed-wire-japanese-americans-remember-wwii-incarceration.

[34] "Japanese American Relocation and Internment Camps." July 20, 2016. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/japanese-american-relocation-and-internment-camps.

[35] The latter seen in most prominently the case of Poston, Arizona, where Japanese American incarcerees created not just farms, but houses, schools, power lines, and irrigation systems for the Colorado River Tribes in a government effort to relocate tribes from Colorado to Arizona. (Mastropolo, Frank. "An Internment Camp Within an Internment Camp." ABC News. February 19, 2008. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=4310157&page=1.)

[36] Schmidli, Michael David, ""Railcars Loaded With Crisp...”, 2

[37] Schmidli, Michael David, ""Railcars Loaded With Crisp”, 66-94

[38] View of barracks with Castle Rock in the background, October 1941. Tule Lake concentration camp, California.," Densho Encyclopedia https://encyclopedia.densho.org/sources/en-denshopd-i37-00239-1/ Accessed May 1 2018.

[39] Tule Lake Segregation Center, Newell, California. A Field of Cabbage on the Tule Lake Center Farm., 9/1944. Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority, 1942 - 1945, National Archives Catalog, College Park, MD. In National Archives Catalog. Accessed May 1, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/539576.

[40] Lyon, Cherstin M. "Loyalty Questionnaire." Densho Encyclopedia. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Loyalty_questionnaire/.

[41] Morehouse, Lisa “Farming Behind Barbed Wire…”

[42] “$3 billion in 1980 values”, according to “Personal Justice Denied”...which translates to around $6 billion in 2017 values, according to the Google Inflation Calculator

[43] libd

[44] "What Is Sustainable Agriculture?" Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://www.ucsusa.org/food-agriculture/advance-sustainable-agriculture/what-is-sustainable-agriculture.

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