Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony

After about a year and half of being in Japan, I finally came home for a short trip to see my family and close friends. During that time, I was able to make a day trip to Sacramento/Placerville to finally visit the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, believed to be the first Japanese settlement in America that I had heard so little about, and was mind-blown once I learned of its connection with Aizu-Wakamatsu.

I did some research to see who could best advise my friends and I on the best way to tour the area. I found an article about a festival at the site in the Florin JACL newsletter, and I contacted the president, Mrs. Marielle Tsukamoto, of the Florin Japanese American Citizen’s League, as well the daughter of  Mary Tsukamoto. Mrs. Mary Tsukamoto was one of the first Japanese-American teachers, and helped schools and institutions, such as the Smithsonian, in educating the American public of the internment of Japanese-Americans. She created Time of Rememberance, a program that connected elementary school students in the Elk Grove school district with internees as well as educate them on the Japanese-American experience, which recently turned into a museum installation called Uprooted! at the California History Museum in Sacramento.

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Through our correspondence, Mrs. Tsukamoto did way more than I expected by connecting us with a docent for the exhibit. Mrs. Christine Umeda, who was only 4 when she was interned at the Tule Lake camp, took us through life before the internment, which included artifacts such as picture bride photos, food labels, and even a kimono that was made in Ginza and shipped all the way to America. Once we got into the internment period, we realized that much of the museum artifacts were actually hers and her husband’s families’ possessions, so she would endearingly touch and open items with familiarity. At one point, I followed suit and touched a chest that she had just opened the drawers to, only to realize there were Do Not Touch signs all over!

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Mrs. Umeda talked fondly of her time in the camps, that it almost didn’t seem so miserable. With all the free time, people tried to keep busy, and built things, made crafts, and made the best of the situation. One photo was of an ikebana “flower arrangement” group, which had vases filled with weeds and dry desert flora. Mrs. Umeda talked about how the family unit broke down in the camps because the US government would disseminate information directly to the younger second generation, while the first generation parents were left out due to language barriers. The younger generation suddenly had authority and power to assert their freedom that their parents couldn’t keep them from. Viet-Am kids, sound familiar?

I went to the exhibit with Japanese nationals, and I couldn’t help but think how different their grandparents’ experience is from Japanese-Americans, especially with movies like Grave of the Fireflies, or the most recent Eien no Zero. One of my friends has lived in America since she was 19, but not so much in Japanese-American communities, so she was interested in life back then for people of Japanese descent. But she also tells me that her family doesn’t often talk about their memories of the war, as it was a not something pleasant to remember. I can understand this as there are some stories that I can’t get out of my own parents about their experience during the Vietnam war.

After the museum visit and lunch, we headed out to Gold Hill, 45 minutes east of Sacramento. Mrs. Tsukamoto had also contacted the American River Conservancy to try to get us a tour, and they hooked us up with a volunteer docent at the last minute (I had been too pre-occupied, and forgotten to set up a tour weeks in advance…). When we drove up to the site, the Matsudaira family crest appeared on a signboard, and it was just “wow”. I was already impressed and amazed by the richness of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s history during my first year in Japan, but this feeling just never stops, even across the Pacific Ocean!

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We were met by Mr. Herb Tanimoto, who gave us a tour of the farmhouse that was originally built by a German family, which was then occupied by the Schnell family and their cohort of about 30 people from Aizu. There used to be Japanese style homes around the farmhouse for all those people, but those are no longer there. A huge keyaki tree that was brought from Aizu stands on the side of the farmhouse.

The colony was successful in its first year, and even made an appearance at the state fair. By the second year, so many things went wrong: there was a drought, and possibly turf wars with the miners and ranchers that their water was dammed, Matsudaira Katamori was no longer a lord and had no money to fund the settlement, and the Schnell family left to supposedly bring back additional help, but they never returned. Eventually, everyone scattered from the colony, except for Okei, a girl who was selected to take care of the Schnell children, and Matsunosuke Sakurai, a samurai who stayed with Okei, possibly as a promise to her family that he would take care of her. The two stayed on as employees for the farm’s new owners, the Veerkamps. Okei-san fell ill and died at 19, and was buried at the hill where she often went and faced west toward Japan. A headstone was eventually made to mark her grave, and a replica of it also sits on Mt. Seaburi in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

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Knowledge of the colony was only revealed in the 1930s, when the Veerkamps discovered that people from Japan were visiting their farm to see the site where the colony once stood. The Veerkamps then reached out to the Japanese-Americans in the area to tell them of their family’s connection with Okei and Matsunosuke. The Veerkamp family finally sold their farm to the American River Conservancy, to which the ARC still owes $800,000, in order to preserve this piece of history.

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On this blustery day, we drove up to the hill where Okei is buried. I left a 1000 yen bank note, so she would have company with another Aizu resident, Hideo Noguchi.

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