What Led To The Decline Of Japanese-American Farmers In California | AJ+

Before California was the land of bits, bytes and binary, it was filled with fields and people growing fruit, vegetables and flowers.

My family's history in this area dates back to pre-World War II, [I] had my great-grandfather in the area and my grandfather and my dad, and now myself.

And the early stars of California agriculture were Japanese-Americans like Haruo Hayashi, whose family owned a farm in Arroyo Grande.

But even though Japanese-Americans put food on the nation’s table, they still faced discrimination from their neighbors and their government.

Next day, after Pearl Harbor, the FBI came in and took all the heads of the family.

Hey guys, I’m Shreen, and this Sunday we’ve traded the studio for the fields to talk about how Japanese-Americans helped feed America and the struggles they faced along the way.

This is what you will see in a grocerystore, wrapped in plastic wrap.

Four generations of this Japanese-American family have been farming in Arroyo Grande for decades.

My grandfather came from Japan early 1900s.

He was 15 years old.

He's farmed up and down the California coast, and he came here in the 1920s to this area.

The Kobarras were just one of thousands of Japanese-American families that historian Donna Graves says were instrumental in shaping California agriculture in the early 20th century.

California became the breadbasket for the United States in the early 20th century, and immigrant labor was incredibly important to that, especially the work of Japanese-American farmers Japan had been closed to trade with the West from the 1600s until the late 1800s.

The country’s custom of leaving an inheritance to the eldest son meant there were many young Japanese men who were ready to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

And the U.

S.

was in need of laborers.

Japanese immigrants had a chance to lay their roots after the U.

S.

implemented a discriminatory policy aimed at curbing Chinese immigration.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act cut off a really important source of labor for California, and Japanese immigrants stepped in to fill that gap.

Japanese immigrants took many paths to the U.

S.

Some came through South America, others through Hawaii (at the time a U.

S.

territory).

Japanese-Americans really exploited the possibilities for intensively farming small pieces of land that were near urban areas.

They were willing to do the hard work of creating a really robust crop on a plot of land and then getting it to market.

My grandfather actually came over to Hawaii first on a contract to harbor sugarcane.

Once that contract was up, he came over to California and harvested, I think, sugar beets for the Holly Sugar Company, then also kind of became somewhat of a migrant farm worker, traveling up and down the state with the crops.

Japanese-Americans quickly became involved in all aspects of agriculture, from preparing the fields to sowing seeds and bringing produce to market.

During the] recession time in the 1930s, we were growing a lot of peas.

They’ve grown pretty much every type of vegetable.

Different types of lettuces, iceberg, green leaf, Romaine lettuces, green cabbage, red cabbage, spinach, cilantro, parsley, celery, broccoli.

Asian vegetables, Chinese Napa, cabbage, bok choy and baby bok choy.

Despite being in demand as workers, Japanese farmers faced major obstacles.

Japanese-American farmers were both admired and reviled for their success.

White farmers needed them on their farms to make them productive, but they resented the success that Japanese immigrant farmers were beginning to enjoy, and it fed into a long-standing tradition of anti-Asian sentiment on the West Coast.

A 1913 Alien Land Law blocked first-generation Japanese immigrants from owning land, because they couldn't become U.

S.

citizens.

My grandfather, they had money when the peas were good, and during the Depression and people were selling some of their ground, and at that time he bought it, put the name in his oldest child, which was my aunt who was 8 or 10, something like that, but she was still achild.

After the 1913 Alien Land Law, anti-Japanese sentiment didn't decline, and by 1920 a new law was passed that restricted the ability of American-born children of Japanese immigrants owning property.

So the vice on Japanese-Americans owning property was becoming more tight.

But Japanese farmers still grew nearly 40% of the produce in California by 1940, despite the anti-Japanese legislation.

Then came World War II.

President Franklin D.

Roosevelt issued an executive order that authorized relocating Japanese-Americans to internment camps.

The evacuation of more than a 100, 000 men, women and children, all of Japanese ancestry, removed from their homes in the Pacific coast states to wartime communities.

It wasn't a good feeling, because there are three or four of your best friend was white friend.

[They] was over here and, you know, they didn't get moved out or anything.

We were pretty good friends.

Farmers had to abandon their crops.

$22 million worth of produce was left in the field.

But it didn’t go to waste.

The government stepped in to harvest the needed produce, but the farmers weren’t compensated.

The very large proportion of Japanese-American tenant farmers who didn't own their property were subject to a new program that was run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration that took their land, their farms, their equipment, and transferred it to the hands of white Americans who were not being rounded up.

Japanese workers continued to farm even after they were incarcerated.

Inmate labor was used to keep camps running, doing everything from growing food to teaching children.

We furnished all the labor to keep the thing going.

And got paid $7 a month.

The average wage in 1942 was $156 per month.

During the latter years of being in camps, college-age people were allowed to go to college in the interior [of the U.

S.

].

My father finished up at Tulsa, my mother in Chicago so Japanese got spread all over the place.

The people that didn't have things to come back to basically stayed where they were.

After the war, many Japanese had no homes to return to.

And most that had owned land had sold it before being incarcerated.

But a few were able to resume farming, thanks to the generosity of neighbors who had cared for their property and returned it after the war.

My grandfather, he was a very sharp man 'cause he said that if we left everything to one person, he didn't know what would happen.

So he left the trucks with one person, the farming equipment and the land with our neighbor here and the animals, the horses that they use for some other work, to another person.

When they came back, they had everything except the horses .

Even those who came back faced an uphill battle.

My grandfather was actually the first person back here in the San Luis County And they had sleep in this house that we’re at now, in the hallways, because they were afraid of being too close to a window in case bullets came through the window.

Because there were shots being fired up in the air.

They had it a little tough.

When they came back, they were cash-poor.

And so it was good people in the community that extended credit that allowed our families to establish themselves again.

The Ikedas, Hayashis and Kobarras, along with others, relied on this collective to continue their farming in an often hostile climate and compete against larger farms.

Meanwhile, corporate agriculture was swallowing up small farms, and the state was losing farmland to urban development.

These days, many Japanese-Americans are far removed from farming, choosing instead to pursue professional careers.

Brycen Ikeda is continuing his family’s legacy.

I do have two kids of my own, and I’d love to see them have the opportunity to have the farming lifestyle.

I'm really family centric.

Family breakfastes, spending time with the family, and if the farming [is] something they enjoy, I'd push them in that direction but I'd hate to have them do something that they don't love.

And most family farms don't make it past three generations.

For you to be in an area for this long and put down roots in the same industry, I think we've been very fortunate.

Thanks for watching.

This story is really about resilience in immigrant communities in America, And we'll be following other immigrant groups for the next few weeks.

Let us know in the comments what you want us to cover, and don't forget to like, share, and subscribe on YouTube.

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