LAH resident heads committee honoring Japanese immigrants' arrival in U.S.

Courtesy of Nobuko Saito Cleary
Dr. Gary Cleary, from left, Nobuko Saito Cleary and Chikamori Matsudaira, who is wearing attire from 150 years ago, celebrate in Gold Hill the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the U.S.

The American River Conservancy last month honored the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on U.S. soil, celebrating the U.S.-Japan relationship.

A group of colonists from Aizu-Wakamatsu, Japan, arrived in Gold Hill in California’s Nevada County June 8, 1869, to start a tea and silk farm.

They were samurai, farmers and craftsmen and their families, including a 17-year-old girl named Okei Ito. They brought from home thousands of mulberry trees (used for the cultivation of silk worms), tea plant seed, fruit tree saplings, paper and oil plants, rice, bamboo and other crops to establish the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony.

Unfortunately, the enterprise was destined to be short-lived, as there was a serious drought and circumstances led to water being contaminated with iron sulfate.

The fate of only a few Wakamatsu colonists is currently known, with some who may have returned to Japan and others who have descendants in the U.S. Okei-san is recognized as the first Japanese woman and immigrant buried on U.S. soil, where she still rests in peace today at Wakamatsu Farm.

Owners of the farm sold it to the American River Conservancy in 2007 to preserve the site.

Today, the site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony is Registered Historic Landmark No. 815 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was my honor to serve as the director of the American River Conservancy Japanese Committee. I was grateful for the help of the ARC staff and board – especially ARC Executive Director Elena DeLacy and communication manager Melissa Lobach – and Japanese Consul General in San Francisco Tomochika Uyama, among others.

The event also included a wonderful message from Taro Kono, minister for foreign affairs of Japan.

Over June 6-9, anniversary activities and events featured many dignitaries and guests from Japan. The full program included speeches, performances, the presentation of memorial plaques and introductions of a few descendants.

The sesquicentennial celebration welcomed Chikamori Matsudaira, a descendant of the Aizu Matsudaira clan lord; Iehiro Tokugawa, heir to the Tokugawa Shogun family; Shinji Oguma, member of the House of Representatives in Japan; and California State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley.

We prepared a printed program so that the large contingent from Japan would have a commemorative remembrance. I appreciated the many Japanese-Americans who attended, participated or volunteered to make this ambitious project successful.

Additionally, there were many supporters and sponsors, including the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, the Japan Society of Northern California, Hitachi Inspire the Next, Dr. Gary W. Cleary, Gekkeikan, Sakata, the Japan and America Community Foundation, and many more.

It was an exciting undertaking to commemorate the first Japanese immigrants who bravely traveled to a foreign country. Their actions left a legacy that was acknowledged by all in attendance, recognizing that this was a significant start to what we now celebrate as a successful relationship between the United States and Japan.

It was an honor to be a part of this sesquicentennial celebration, and I am grateful to everyone who attended this unique, historic event. I hope Wakamatsu Farm and its history will lead to greater understanding and peace among all.

Nobuko Saito Cleary is a Los Altos Hills resident and director of the American River Conservancy’s Japanese Committee.

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