If you look up Japanese immigration to the United States, you’ll find that farming is a huge part of the story.
Even within the JA community, this is an aspect of our cultural history that is often overlooked. Many Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. and could only find labor-intensive work like farming. Despite anti-Asian discrimination, the Japanese skillfully cultivated their fields, saw extraordinary hard-earned success, and became a central part of the farming community. In fact, almost two-thirds of Nikkei on the US West Coast worked in agriculture by the early 1900s.
At the invitation of Mr. Glenn Tanaka of Tanaka Farms, I joined the Issei Nisei Farm Legacy Project team, along with members of some of the oldest farming families in Southern California, including Arlene Kato, Daryl Sadakane, Lillian Sasaki, Roger Kinoshita, and Joyce Mebed. We had two goals: collect as much firsthand history about JA farming families as we could, and showcase it in an accessible way to preserve our cultural history and educate others.
We sent a questionnaire out into the community and were overjoyed to see the trickle of initial responses turn into a flood of photographs, stories, names, and locations of JA farms from all over the country. Families replied with their immigration stories full of fascinating details. I was excited to receive the story of Fujishige Farms from Kristine Yada, our newly-crowned Nisei Week Queen.
Most of the farms were in California, some were in Hawaii, and a few were sprinkled in states like Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Arizona. Many grew produce like celery, strawberries, cabbage, chili peppers, and green beans.
My favorite part was seeing all the photos. It was amazing to see such intimate, candid snapshots of this important cultural history. As I looked at each one, it felt like I became a part of their family for a bit. I could picture myself as one of the kids, playing on the big wooden crates until it was time to help my parents pick strawberries again. I could hear the rumbling of the tractors as the farmers collected the harvest under the burning sun.
However, it was also sad to see a tragic parallel running through almost every one of these stories. Most families were forcibly removed from their land and incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. In just a few days, they lost all of their equipment, homes, and fields they'd cultivated for years. Many were unable to continue farming afterwards, or they had to completely rebuild.
For example, when the Hoshi family from Hoshi Farm came back from Tule Lake and Minidoka, they “returned to a changed estate; every greenhouse pane was broken, the family’s prized plants were stolen or lost.”
But rebuild they did. It’s so inspiring to see how they restarted from the ground up and once again created thriving farms.
We made these pictures and stories easily accessible on the brand new Walk the Farm website. We also created personalized collages for each farm that were displayed at the Walk the Farm event at Tanaka Farms. The response was so great, we hung them up on a permanent display wall at Tanaka Farms.
Every time I go to Tanaka Farms, I see people standing in front of the wall, reading and absorbing the history. One such visitor, about my age, came up to our committee. As she talked with us, she swelled up with emotion and started to cry. She expressed her sincere thanks for making sure the contributions of the Japanese Americans are known and for giving her great pride in her heritage.
It’s incredible to see the impact that sharing this history has had on her and so many others. A lot of submissions come from younger generations, youth who had to ask their Ojiichans and Obaachans their story. Many of them told us that this was the first time they had heard about this part of their family’s history.
Our project has become a multigenerational effort, and we are excited for it to continue to keep teaching the next generations far into the future.
Throughout this project, I’ve made a connection with Japanese Americans who came before me. Farms have been places of the Japanese American community since long before my time, and they continue to bring us together. These days, the JA community comes together for Walk the Farm which is held every summer at Tanaka Farms in Irvine, California. My identity is shaped not only by walking the farm, but by preserving the history of all the farms Japanese Americans cultivated before me.
Check out the legacy of our Issei and Nisei farmers at walkthefarm.org/jafarms, where you can see all the farms on an interactive map, read firsthand accounts from farming families, and get a glimpse into the perseverance and grit that they had.
We're always adding to our collection! Our hope is to become the largest repository of JA farm history. If you come from a farming family or you know friends who do, please submit your story here: https://www.walkthefarm.org/submitinfo
For those interested in joining our fun group, please contact us for ways you can volunteer and help preserve JA farm history!