Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

Nihon Bunka/Japanese Culture: One Hundred Years in the Pajaro Valley
by Jane W. Borg and
by Kathy McKenzie Nichols

Chapter 1:
Tradition Dictates Tomorrow: The Pioneers


The first generation. The Issei were born in Japan. Most immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1915.


The second generation, the children of the Issei. American citizens by birth, almost all Nisei were born before World War II


The third generation of Americans with Japanese ancestry, most Sansei were born during or after World War II


The fourth generation, the children of the Sansei.


The fifth generation.

No records are known to exist that precisely pinpoint the date that the Japanese came to the Pajaro Valley. It is known that twelve Japanese laborers came to the area sometime in 1892, first to work at a sawmill and later at an hops farm.There is no way to know their thoughts, their dreams or their fears. We don't even have their names. But just imagine for a moment what it must have been like for them in a beautiful, rich land filled with promise - but completely alien in every aspect, for until 1885, few Japanese had ever set foot in America. But Japan's emigration restrictions were eased that year, and young men came seeking their fortune here - as so many did from around the world.

Those laborers were the start of the Japanese community in the Pajaro Valley, which would go on to influence every aspect of life here, even as its people fought discrimination and adversity to settle in this land.

The California Gold Rush, beginning in the late 1840s, attracted people of all nationalities to the port of San Francisco. Among them were the Chinese, who worked in the Sierra gold fields, and who later provided the lion's share of the labor for the transcontinental railroad (1869), the dykes of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers delta and to complete the Southern Pacific Railroad Coast Line connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

As these monumental projects were finished, the Chinese turned to agricultural work - again providing a vast labor force needed to support expanding California markets.

Upon the 50th anniversary of the Watsonville Japanese American Citizens League in 1984, historian Sandy Lydon wrote: "After Japan relaxed laws prohibiting emigration in 1885, Japanese farm laborers began to replace the aging Chinese in the fields of Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington. The number of Japanese living in the Pajaro Valley grew from a handful in 1890 to over four hundred in 1900, and the young, energetic men soon filled the slots being vacated by Chinese in agriculture as well as finding employment as domestics, laundrymen, woodchoppers and railroad workers in the Monterey Bay region."

Kazuko Nakane, author of Nothing Left in My Hands - an outstanding reference for the history of the first Japanese settlers in the Pajaro Valley - believes that the early settlers had a high degree of literacy, the vision to become landowners with the ambition to work toward this goal and a high value placed on mutual aid, all of which led to their future success.

Sakuzo Kimura is believed to be the first Japanese labor contractor, bringing twelve men to work in an Aptos sawmill and in the Pajaro Valley at an East Lake Avenue hops farm. Kimura, a man of about 40, made contracts quickly, aided by his fluency in English. He had learned the language while working for the U.S. Navy, according to Nakane.

As the number of Chinese agricultural workers declined, the number of men emigrating from Japan steadily increased to work in crops, especially strawberries, on the Central Coast.

In the beginning, the vast majority of Japanese immigrants to the Pajaro Valley were men. Due to unfamiliarity with language and customs, and to the continuing anti-Asian policies which created a climate of discrimination, these newly arrived agricultural workers joined together in "labor clubs," "employment clubs" and "societies" for contract labor, living arrangements and mutual aid.

Photo of the Japanese Club
"Japanese Club", an early Pajaro Valley
labor club, 1896-1910

Kimura established the earliest known labor club in 1893. After the clubhouse was destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt in 1897 as the Shinyu (good friends) labor club. The Japanese "labor boss" system was similar to the Chinese boss system - for an annual fee, the contractor secured work for the members and acted as a mediator between the employer and the workers.

In times of unemployment, the workers would also lodge and cook meals at the club. The clubs naturally became early social centers for the growing Japanese community. Japanese boarding houses soon followed, and by 1910 there were ten establishments in Watsonville that provided lodging, meals and employment information.

Despite being strangers in a strange land, the early Issei men enjoyed the carefree life of bachelors. Many men traveled light, with just a buranketto (blanket) over their shoulders.

As bachelors are wont to do, some Japanese men spent their money foolishly. Across the river in what is now Pajaro, the Chinatown there offered gambling and paid female companionship. The Chinese gambling houses were nicknamed "Shanghai banks."

But as time went on, the men began longing for family life, and they also found ways to increase their profits in order to support a wife and children.

As the agriculture of the valley changed from grain and sugar beet cultivation to fruit production some of the Issei became half-share strawberry farmers. In this arrangement, the landowner provided the land, plants and equipment, and the Japanese farmer raised the crop. The profits and risks were shared equally between the two. In the "History of the Japanese People in Watsonville", written for the 60th anniversary of the Buddhist Temple, it is noted that the first sharecropper was Senzaemon Nishimura, who worked on the Hopkins Farm.

For most of the Japanese, sharecropping paid far better than contract wages. Eventually, many Issei farmers became cash tenants, leasing land with an annual payment and retaining all the crop proceeds. One source reports that in 1900, Ueda Tao became the first Japanese farmer to lease a strawberry farm. The following year, individuals named Nishimura and Tetsutaro Higashi also leased land.

The next step in the improvement of farming conditions was the organization of cooperatives in which individuals pooled their money to lease land in the Pajaro Valley. Among the earliest such arrangements was the Y.Kosansha Company. Some of those associates were Kumajiro Murakami, Taroichi Tomioka, and three Yamamoto brothers - Matasuchi, Heitsuchi, and Taneichi.

Photo of a group of picture brides
"Picture Brides," circ 1910

At the same time, more Japanese women began to arrive in the Pajaro Valley, many of them as brides for arranged marriages. (California and other states had laws preventing interracial relationships.) For some, the arrangements were made in Japan between families from the same village who knew each other well; for others, the bride and groom met only after arrival in San Francisco. They were called "picture brides" since most had never met their husbands-to-be, but had exchanged photographs and letters.

According to the book Japanese American Women: Three Generations 1890-1990, by Mei Nakano, the women were especially hard-hit by culture shock in an alien land. Few learned to speak any English at all. Farm laborers' wives had to set up house in dirt-floor shacks that contained nothing but a bed, a table and a wood stove.

Although some picture brides deserted their husbands because of the hardships, most stuck it out, compelled by the strong cultural values of gaman (perseverance in the face of adversity) and giri (a sense of duty). When times were tough, Issei women would shrug and say, "Shikata ga nai" (It can't be helped).

By 1910, there were 168 Japanese women in the Pajaro Valley. These women not only enabled the establishment of families, but fostered the growth of community life, businesses and cultural organizations. As children were born and raised, the entire family worked in the farming operations, increasing the family's economic security. Children were taught at a young age to pull weeds and do other field chores. Wives worked in the fields and also took care of the home and children.

According to Nakane, women also acted as midwives, set up boarding houses and ran restaurants. Some men also looked for other lines of work, such as Bunkichi Torigoe, who established a watch and bicycle repair shop in Watsonville in 1909. Others were Yasutaro Iwami, who set up a barber and billiards shop in 1900; and Keizo Atsumi, who opened a tailor shop in 1901.

Watsonville's Japantown began to appear at the south end of Main Street around 1905. By 1920, there were public baths, groceries, shoe stores, photographers, a tofu factory, an opera house, a Japanese school, a stagecoach company and doctors. Peddlers also made trips between labor camps to sell their wares.

In addition, a Japanese Presbyterian church and a Buddhist temple were established, as was the Japanese Association, which was founded to fight anti-Japanese laws.

As the population of the Japanese community increased, so did the number of agreements and laws that restricted their citizenship as well as ownership, and eventually leasing, of land. Under the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907, Japan continued to allow the departure of wives and children of men already in the United States, but stopped issuing visas to laborers. In 1911, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization decreed that only Caucasians and people of African descent could apply for citizenship.

Resentment against the West Coast's Japanese communities had been building for some time, perhaps due to envy of the immigrants' business success. Nakano reported that newspapers fanned the flames by printing headlines like:


California's Alien Land Law of 1913 denied ownership of land to Japanese aliens and restricted leasing to a maximum of three years. Subsequent legislation in 1921 denied the right to even lease land. Finally, in 1924, all immigration from Japan ceased under U.S. legislation that prevented entrance to anyone who was not eligible for citizenship.

The Japanese devised a number of ways to get around the restrictions. Sympathetic lawyers would draw up land deeds in the names of children, who could own land because they were born in the United States and thus given automatic citizenship. Older Nisei also bought land for others, such as Ichiro Yamaguchi, who recalled his life for Nisei Christian Journey: "After I was 21, I had to buy land for other people ... I would sign the papers and they would make all the payments."

Even though later legislation prevented minors from owning land, some individuals were able to hold land in the name of an American citizen. For the most part, however, the land laws reduced the number of independent Japanese growers.

As a result of the land laws, followed by the Great Depression, many Issei never regained their former economic stature. However, the community they had established in the Pajaro Valley continued to persevere, until anti-Japanese feeling reached its height at the beginning of World War II.

Continue with Chapter 2-- 100 Years of Agriculture: The Land of Blossoms

This chapter is from a booklet titled, Nihon Bunka = Japanese Culture; one hundred years in the Pajaro Valley. It was published by the Pajaro Valley Arts Council in conjunction with the Council's 1992 exhibition of the same name. The text is published on the Library's Web site with the permission of the Council. Photographs are courtesy of Bill Tao.

Copyright 1992. Pajaro Valley Arts Council.

View similarly tagged articles:

agriculture, immigrants, internment camps, Japanese Americans, Pajaro Valley


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