By Ryusuke Kawai, author of Yamato Colony: The Pioneers Who Brought Japan to Florida
This article first appeared in the Shukan NY Seikatsu. It is translated into English here by John Gregersen.
The image that many Japanese have of Florida, situated at the southern end of the Atlantic coast of the United States, is of a place where the brilliant rays of the sun pour down like rain on luxury resorts. I too was captivated at first by such an image when, thirty years ago, I selected Florida as the site of my journalism internship with a local newspaper.
As it is completely different from the West Coast in terms of its connections with Japan, I thought that Florida would have almost nothing that was Japanese in nature because of its tremendous distance from California. Moreover, if I could use my time in Florida to search out “grass-roots America,” then that is what I would do. Since that was my expectation, I did not have much interest in anything connected with Japan, anyway.
My attitude eventually changed, however. By chance I happened to see a highway sign in Florida that read, “Yamato Road.” Afterward I learned that a community of Japanese settlers called the Yamato Colony had existed in southern Florida in the early twentieth century. One of the colony members, a man by the name of Sukeji Morikami, was the last of the colonists to remain in the area. He donated extensive land holdings that he had acquired little by little to the county government, and thus was born the Morikami Museum and its splendid Japanese gardens.
I was attracted to the story of this unique colony, the details of which had never before been revealed in the history of Japanese-American immigration. What kind of place was this Japanese community, in which men of means and tradesmen alike invested while trying to develop it? What was life like for the settler who chose not to return to Japan once the colony no longer existed, but continued to live a modest lifestyle on his land?
My discovery of the masterwork of Japanese American literature, John Okada’s No-No Boy, encouraged in me an interest in Japanese American history, and though it had been twenty years since my first visit to Florida, I began the usual gathering of research materials [for a possible book on the Yamato story]. Starting in the area where the colony had once been located, I searched out descendants of the individuals who figured most prominently: the educated young man from Miyazu in Kyōto Prefecture named Jō Sakai who planned out the colony, and the farmer named Sukeji Morikami who [later] donated his land. From Florida, I followed the footprints of those who had played key roles in the colony to such states as California, where relatives still lived; Virginia; Texas; and New York. In Japan, beginning with Miyazu, I went to the Tango Peninsula, Nakatsu in Oita Prefecture, and other places.
After carrying out my research for a period of about ten years, Yamato Koronii: Furorida ni “Nihon” o Nokoshita Otokotachi, was published at last in 2015 by Junpōsha. This being the case, former Morikami Museum cultural director John Gregersen and former education director Reiko Nishioka, both of whom had lent their assistance during my research, took it upon themselves to translate the book with little instruction from me. Their aim was not to be published necessarily, but to learn more about the Yamato Colony. Because of the language abilities of the two translators, though, the University Press of Florida agreed to consider the final English-language version, and in March of this year it was published in the United States.
The story of immigration from Japan to the United States is the history of two nations. Since the English-language version of the book was just recently released, the fact that this work of nonfiction can now be read on both sides of the Pacific is as happy a circumstance as I could have hoped for as an author.
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Ryusuke Kawai is the author of Yamato Colony: The Pioneers Who Brought Japan to Florida. Kawai began his journalism career with the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in 1980 after earning a B.A. degree in political science from Keio University. In 1986, he left Japan for an internship with the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida. A member of the Japan Writers’ Association, Mr. Kawai currently works in a freelance capacity. In 2016 he published a Japanese-language translation of John Okada’s novel, No-No Boy, a milestone in Japanese American literature.