A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 1997

Issei in the White River Valley
Early Japanese American Experiences

By Stan Flewelling

In 1889 Washington Territory became Washington State. By then, the pioneer era of European American settlement in the Pacific Northwest was winding down, and a number of long-term residents had a stronghold on land and business interests. The new Washington State constitution prohibited land ownership by aliens, except those who had declared their intention to become citizens. The catch for Asian immigrants was that US naturalization law judged them ineligible for citizenship, and therefore unable to own land.

Despite these restrictions, Japanese workers gradually arrived in ports like Tacoma and Seattle and filled demands for cheap labor in railroad maintenance crews, sawmills, salmon canneries, farming, and domestic service. For several decades, Chinese immigrant laborers had been dominant in these occupations. But a hostile movement to oust the Chinese swept the West in the mid-1880s, creating a labor void. For the most part, early Japanese immigrants had no intention of establishing permanent US residency, but hoped to make a good income and return home. The vast majority were young men, some of whom left wives and children in Japan.

Like the Chinese before them, Japanese laborers usually joined work groups, or "gangs." Newcomers were often brought into the gangs by Japanese "bosses," or contractors, who already knew the territory, knew where extra hands were needed, and, at least to some extent, could speak English. Cultural customs of mutual helpfulness and group responsibility sealed the role of work gangs in the lives of Japanese workers.

Many Japanese immigrants came from farming backgrounds. Most of those arriving in Washington were from the southern prefectures of Japan, where agriculture dominated the economic landscape. Inevitably, many sought out farm work wherever opportunities appeared. For workers based in Seattle and Tacoma, those opportunities were most visible in the nearby White and Puyallup River Valleys.

In the early 1890s, some of the first Japanese farm workers in Washington State were hired by White River Valley farmers. Typically, they lived in camps organized and controlled by labor bosses. They earned a dollar for a ten-hour work day, less in the wintertime.

In the off season, some were able to contract with farmers to clear land. Much of the valley was still heavily wooded, riddled with stumps, or swampy. Japanese workers set about cutting timber, dynamiting stumps, and digging ditches, often in exchange for the temporary rent-free use of the land they were clearing. It wasn't long before they built a reputation for confronting work no one else would do.

1913, shortly after Natsuyo came from Japan to marry her childhood friend, Utaro. Mr. Shimasaki come to America in 1902 at the age of 17, taught himself English and acted as an interpretor for many families in the Auburn area.
[WRVM #1044]


"A Story by I.K.T., an Old Farmer in O'Brien" (told around 1925)
I was born in a village of Hiroshima prefecture fifty-two years ago. When I was twenty-four years old, Mr. F., one of my countrymen, came back from America and told of its advantages, promising work to anyone who would return with him, and also free lessons in English. I was much interested and finally decided to go with him.. The first English I learned from Mr. F. was "water". "This word is of first importance," he said, "because when you work on farms you soon get thirsty and cannot get along without water. In that case you must cry 'Water'. So learn this word and save your life." The other two terms he taught me were "Go home" and "All right". "These words are also very important," said Mr. F. "If the boss says 'All right' when you are working, he is satisfied and you may continue, but if he says 'Go home', it means you are no longer wanted. Then you must give up your work and go back to camp immediately." He taught me other words which I forgot, for English is a very difficult language. I wonder why Americans do not speak the easier Japanese.

The next year I came to America with Mr. F. and was taken immediately to his camp in the White River valley at O'Brien, where there were six other Japanese. We were mere casual laborers waiting for calls to work on nearby farms. Seldom were all six of us wanted, so we worked in turn that our monthly pay might be nearly even. Our work was clearing land to open new farms or raising potatoes on these newly-cleared farms.

On the first day of my work I made up my mind not to hear the phrase "Go home", because it would shame me and my family to be discharged for inefficiency. When I reached the farm where I was to hoe potatoes, I set to work with all my strength and was greatly relieved to hear the big American boss say "All right" when he came along. Being encouraged, I worked still harder and soon became hot and unbearably thirsty. At this moment I remembered the English word I learned first, so I cried "Water! Water! Water!", but nothing happened. By this time I was almost fainting from lack of water so I threw down my hoe and ran to a nearby ditch. I found only stagnant water with many worms in it, and at first refrained from it, but soon thirst overcame all scruples. I put my handkerchief on the surface of the water and drank thru it; never has water tasted so sweet. At this moment the boss, alarmed by my cries of a few moments ago, hurried to me, and understanding the situation, laughed and was greatly amused. He brought me fresh water which did not taste half so sweet as the ditch water, but which refreshed me so that I finished my task by eleven o'clock. When the boss came again he said, "Go home." I was discouraged; I could not understand; I had done my best and he was dissatisfied. Expecting the derision of my fellows, I walked drearily home, only to be cheered by Mr. F.'s words, "T., you worked too hard and finished a day's work in three hours. The boss is well satisfied and said to give you some rest and a full day's pay."

[from "Japanese Farms in Washington," unpublished thesis by John Isao Nishinoiri, University of Washington, 1926]


According to University of Washington researcher John Rademaker, the first Japanese-operated farm in the White River Valley was established near Kent in 1893. It was the second Japanese farm in the State of Washington, following one begun in the Yakima Valley in 1892. Rademaker did not mention the name(s) of the proprietor(s), so it is unknown how long that farm remained in operation.

The Kent farm, however, represents the inconspicuous start of a new Japanese posture in the Valley. Some of the itinerant farm laborers around the White River Valley in the 1890s certainly felt a growing motivation to try independent enterprise. For those skilled in agriculture, that meant leasing and running their own farms.

Matajiro Sakagami was one of the first Japanese to settle near Auburn. According to census records, Sakagami entered the United States in 1897. He was from Shiga Prefecture (in Japanese, Shiga-ken), near the city of Kyoto. By 1900 he was part of a work crew located in Christopher, north of Auburn. Soon afterwards, he leased a farm southwest of town, grew potatoes, and employed a number of Japanese laborers, including Chiyokichi Natsuhara, who also hailed from Shiga-ken.

The 1900 Federal Census identified 118 Japanese people living in the White River Valley. Details of the census ledger suggest some of the stress early Japanese immigrant work patterns must have placed on family life. 115 of the 118 Japanese were men, all between the ages of 14 and 50. Nearly all were listed as "farm laborers." One of the women of Japanese descent was 33 year-old Tomo Kora, who lived in the Orillia area with her husband of ten years ("K. Kora"). Their neighbors were "C. and E. Tonika," (23 and 17 years old respectively), who had been married for two years. The Koras, noted the census taker, had a child, still living, but not living with them. In 1900, about a quarter of the Japanese men in the valley were married.

Some laborers who came to the United States before the turn of the century made their money and returned home. Others found their financial ambitions thwarted, but were still gripped by visions of better economic opportunity in America. In time, married men who remained in America were usually able to bring wives and children over from the old country. As for bachelors, marrying a non-Japanese was considered unacceptable, and few could afford a round-trip fare to Japan to seek a wife. Arrangements were begun with extended families in Japan to send brides.

Before that could happen, they had to meet certain qualifications. Until 1915, the Japanese government did not allow common laborers to summon brides out of the country. But farmers and businessmen could do so, as long as they could verify minimum income and savings levels. It was an added incentive to leave itinerant jobs and lease a farm, or launch some other kind of personal enterprise.

1910 census records reflect the early development of these trends. In the White River Valley in 1910 there were 432 residents of Japanese heritage, nearly four times the number in 1900. But now over half (222) were living in family units-adults with their spouses and/or children. The great majority of men living in families now counted themselves as "farmers" rather than "farm laborers."

All of the 71 Japanese women in the valley in 1910 were living in families. All had arrived in the United States since 1900, most of them between 1903 and 1908. Only 17 of the 284 men, for that matter, had immigrated prior to 1900. Few of their names had appeared on 1900 White River Valley census rolls, confirming the transitory nature of farm work for immigrants before the turn of the century.


Sen Natsuhara Memoirs

My husband, Chiyokichi, was a cousin of my step-aunt, but even though he was related to me, I had not previously known him. I felt slightly uneasy to marry a person I never knew except through a picture, but my grandparents had seen him once, and as they said he would be all right, I believed in them and so decided to marry him. Before we had the wedding ceremony, his parents and mine made all the arrangements, and before I left for the States I recorded my married name in Japan, taking the name of Natsuhara.

First, Mr. Natsuhara had written a letter to his parents from America saying, "I have opened a restaurant. Would you find a bride and have her come to me." The parents asked an uncle of his to take care of the matter, the only condition being that the girl should be healthy and tall in stature, and able to read and to write letters. . . .

It was March 18, 1904, when I registered my name as Natsuhara, and it took a year and two months to process the legal matters before I left Yokohama on the "Kamikawa Maru." Eleven of us stayed at the Taisei Inn in Yokohama and took the optical examination. However, only one person going to the States and one going to Canada passed the tests. I was one of the two, and so I alone was ready to leave for the States. It was just in the period of the Russo-Japanese War, and they said the voyage was dangerous because of Russian naval boats at sea. I hesitated somewhat, but, thinking that I would die whenever my time came anyway, I put my fate in the hands of the gods and boarded. . . .

June first, 1905, the boat docked at Smith Cove and four of us girls on board were kept in a second-class cabin for four days waiting to land. Though we picture brides had brought a copy of our family record, and our passport, since we did not have a United States marriage license, the immigration officers did not allow us to land. So we decided to marry on the boat with the husbands who had come to welcome us, having the missionary minister on board conduct the services. In addition to myself there was Mrs. Yamauchi from Kumamoto prefecture. The wedding ceremony was held in the parlor of the first class cabins. About ten Japanese and whites were in attendance. There I presume that the minister prayed for us all, and after delivering a sermon he asked us to promise to share our happiness and pain until we were parted by death. When I bowed my head to his words, he joined my hand to my husband's for the first time, and we finished the ceremony smoothly.

I talked with Mrs. Yamauchi and we both contributed $5.00 as a gratuity to the minister. I forget whether it was $1 or $2 for the marriage license, but anyway we paid for that and had it sent to us later.

Following our method, many others began having their wedding ceremonies on board after arrival, using both Christian and Buddhist styles. Spending the first night in a hotel in Seattle, before we left for Auburn my husband bought me a white blouse with lace and a long green skirt, and shoes and so on, at a white's clothing store downtown. He also bought me a couple of everyday cotton print dresses, at that time called "trumpet dresses." It seemed very strange to me that unmarried girls wore very short skirts and married ladies wore long skirts sweeping the floor.

In Auburn a new house was waiting for us. It was a humble house which my husband built with the help of three or four friends, using about $50 worth of materials. It had only two rooms, bedroom and kitchen.

I had to carry the water every day, in buckets or oil cans, as the well was about 200 feet from the house, on the landlord's property. We heated the water outside of the house for washing and bathing. The toilet was about 100 feet behind the house. As to our new abode, there were many open spaces between the boards in the wall. One cold night I burned the stove and burned the stove, and yet the house didn't warm up, so I got plenty of old newspapers from the landlord, and making a flour paste I papered double over the worst places. When I was burning some home-made charcoal in the room to dry the newspaper, I got a headache so I immediately opened the door and, feeling the cold wind, I went outside and ate snow. After that I felt easy again. Apparently I had been about to die from the carbon monoxide in the room. In this way my life in America began.
[from Issei by Kazuo Ito, 
Japanese Community Service, 1973]


According to the 1910 federal census, there were 77 children of Japanese heritage in the valley, only ten of whom were over six years old. Nine of the ten were Issei-first generation immigrants born, like their parents, in Japan. The rest of the children were Nisei-American-born members of the second generation-the earliest American citizens of Japanese ancestry to live in the White River Valley.

The oldest of these Nisei children was eight year-old James Okimoto, whose family had leased a farm in the Orillia area north of Kent. Sadaichi and Yae Okimoto had come to Washington in 1904 by way of Hawaii, where James was born. Three younger children had been born in Washington. James was the first Japanese American enrolled in the Orillia School (in 1908), and he later graduated from Kent High School (1920), the first Nisei to receive a diploma from a White River Valley secondary school.

Long before Okimoto reached school age, several Issei young people attended White River Valley public schools. Almost invariably, they were years older than their classmates and they enrolled for relatively short periods of time, mainly to boost English skills.

The earliest known Japanese student to attend school in the White River Valley was Shizuichi ("James") Higashida, who came to the United States in 1901 at age 16. Three years later he was employed as a laborer at the John Ham farm in Thomas. Higashida was so eager to improve his English ability, he enrolled in the 1st Grade at Thomas Grade School. Soon he moved on to Oregon, attended college and married. The family returned to Seattle, where Dr. James Higashida built a respected dentistry practice.

In June, 1905, a student named "Rio Ichi Muraoka" presented an essay during the Auburn Public Schools graduation program. It was the first clue of a Japanese presence in the district. Who Muraoka was, or how long he attended school in Auburn, remains a mystery. Also in 1905, 18 year-old "Tseojo Sato" (name certainly misspelled) was the first Japanese person logged in Kent school rosters. He was placed in the 5th grade, but attended only one month.

Issei youth continued to appear in valley grade schools over the next couple of decades. There were often humiliating and hilarious dimensions to their experiences. Issei schooled in America as young adults usually had a story or two to tell about bungled English.

In 1899 entrepreneur E. B. Stuart opened his Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company plant in Kent. Later known as the Carnation Milk Products Company, the operation provided a new frontier for farmers. A few dairies were already operating in the valley before the turn of the century, but the advent of the condensed milk plant revolutionized the market for a very perishable product. Dozens of White River Valley farmers turned their fields over to pasture. In 1903 the demand for milk redoubled when the Borden Company opened another condensery in Auburn.

Japanese farmers were slow to turn to dairying. Coming from a culture where dairy and beef products were seldom used, most were unfamiliar with this kind of agricultural enterprise. And though dairies were proving to be more profitable than other kinds of farms, the initial investment plus the amount of pasture land needed for a feasible operation were prohibitive.
Chojiro Fujii was said to be the first Japanese person to begin a dairy in the White River Valley. Fujii was already well established as a labor "boss." His dairy opened in 1899, but he soon moved from the valley and found a new niche in the Seattle hotel business.

After the turn of the century, a number of Japanese farm laborers learned dairying skills on the European American farms where they were employed. Beginning around 1909, some of them were able to start their own dairies, or fund a joint operation by pooling resources with one or more partners. Zentaro Arima in Christopher (near Auburn) and Gentaro Ikeda in Orillia (near Kent) were among the first Japanese to convert their farms to dairies. Both were from Hiroshima Prefecture.

The 1910 census identified 13 Japanese-operated dairies in the White River Valley. The number grew steadily over the next several years, then soared during the boom years of World War I. In 1920, a survey by the Japanese Association found 83 dairy farmers in Washington State who owned nearly 5600 milking cows and whose investments exceeded $1 million. Over 95% of them were operating in the White River Valley, predominantly near Kent. In 1922, Japanese dairy farmers were supplying 50% of Seattle's milk.

Johnny and Mary Itabashi [as told by Frances Itabashi Nishimura]

Buichiro "Johnny" Itabashi was born on April 20, 1874 in Hiroshima Prefecture. Kuni "Mary" Itabashi was born June 3, 1882. Buichiro received a high school education in Japan. Kuni was educated through the 4th grade. Buichiro and Kuni were married around 1901-02. A year or two later, he left for the United States. After landing in Seattle, he worked at different jobs which he said paid $1 a day. Kuni came to the US in 1907.
The Itabashis farmed in Christopher for two years. They came to Auburn in 1909 and leased 80 acres of Mr. James Faucett's land. They lived in a house situated close to Mr. Faucett's house where he was living with his mother. Kuni did housework for them while Johnny helped clear the Faucetts' land, put up fences and helped with the haying, etc. There was a big barn where Mr. Faucett raised cattle, pigs, chickens, etc.

Later Johnny decided to go into the cattle business himself. There was an old large barn and houses on the land located on the end of a road leading from the main street of Auburn, and running northward along the east side of the Northern Pacific Railroad track. Johnny started a dairy from a few cows purchased in Wisconsin. I think he hitchhiked to the midwest,
and he said they had never seen Japanese before, so it was like a ringside circus. People used to come and take a look at him while he was there in Wisconsin.

He sent for his two brothers. One was Koichiro ("Frank"), my father. They only stayed with him a few years-the work was not to their liking. Nevertheless, he built his dairy up to over 100 cows. . . .

Scene from the 160 head, dairy farm of Bichiro "Johnny" Itabashi, c1919.

Johnny Itabashi was taking his milk to Borden's, but when he learned he could make more money elsewhere, he changed over, picking up Gordon's, Evans', and Hayes' milk with him. Because of it, a few workers lost their jobs. Before long there were large footprints leading to the fire set in his barn during the night. Most of the cattle were destroyed. When I think about it, I can still smell the stench. It happened in January, 1926.

Johnny had a Buddhist funeral for his cows. Someone I know heard that and laughed, so I said, "Well, he nourished a lot of them. He raised them as calves, so they were really dear to him, and he was just really heart-broken." I remember his speech at the Buddhist Church. Tears were flowing.

There was a Japanese organization-Nihonjinkai-and he had a box lunch for them, and they all came out and dug holes. In those days they didn't have bulldozers. They dug holes and helped him bury the dead. He had to sell the severely burnt cattle to the slaughter house. It was a great loss, but he rebuilt his barn soon after. . . .

[excerpts from an interview with Frances Nishimura,
September 25, 1995]


Stan Flewelling