The Otero County Historic Preservation Board hosted a presentation on Japanese-American history at the Rocky Ford Depot last week. The presentation followed a research project into the role the Japanese-Americans played in the history of the Arkansas Valley.

At the meeting, archaeologist Michelle Slaughter shared how she and architectural historian Kathleen Corbett interviewed descendants of Japanese-American families in Otero County, to contribute their oral histories to the record. Gene and Jerre Hirakata, as well as Sandie Konishi Dell, were among those interviewed.

The first wave of Asian immigrants to travel to the United States in the 1800s were Chinese, Slaughter said at the presentation.

As more Chinese laborers began to populate along the Kansas Pacific Railway, which ended in Denver, some Colorado community members began to harbor beliefs that Chinese immigrants were taking white people's jobs, a sentiment that persists today regarding some migrant workers, according to Slaughter.

The resentment for Chinese laborers became strong enough that, in 1879, Leadville banned Chinese immigrants from entering the town. Aspen, Cripple Creek and Creede followed suit. Slaughter said it wasn't until 1952 that resident aliens were allowed to become naturalized citizens and own land.

However, this job-centric xenophobia wasn't as fervently directed at Japanese immigrants, said Slaughter.

"The individuals that make up the first group of Japanese immigrants are known as the Issei, meaning first generation," said Slaughter. "Most of the immigration of the Issei into the United States occurred between 1890 and 1924."

Because Colorado never had specific laws against noncitizens owning land, as many other states did at the time, Japanese immigrants who were financially able to do so could buy land, explained Slaughter.

"By 1933, the number of Japanese-American farmers in the state was 725," she said.

One Japanese individual recorded as first immigrating to the United States in 1872 earned an engineering degree in 1878. Records from Colorado College in Colorado Springs reportedly show that the school accepted Japanese students as early as 1885 and graduated both its first Japanese and international graduate, Taizo Nakashima, in 1893.

"By 1910, the census documented the Japanese-American population of Colorado at 2,300," said Slaughter.

By 1909, an estimated 3,000 Japanese-Americans were working as farm laborers in Colorado, she said.

The earliest Japanese immigrants to arrive in Otero County came during the first two years of the 20th century, Slaughter said.

Slaughter said Otero County resident Mary Bukata - known as Nisei: a member of the first generation of children born in the United States to Japanese parents -  told her, "I can't see how our parents made it, coming with nothing from Japan. It must have been a struggle just to latch onto almost anything."

Records indicate that in 1902, at least 20 Japanese laborers were brought to Rocky Ford for work in the sugar beet fields. Slaughter said they proved themselves to be able workers with a strong work ethic, and this gained them favor with the local farmers.

By the end of the first season, local farmers were willing to rent as much land to the Japanese as they desired to work, according to Slaughter.

Slaughter said he reviewed several newspaper articles from the early 1900s that captured in time the cultural happenings of the Japanese-American community.

A 1905 news article mentions Japanese individuals east of Rocky Ford celebrating both the American holiday Independence Day, as well as the victory of Japan over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War.

"Another article from 1907 advertised a Japanese wrestling match to be held during 4th of July festivities," said Slaughter.

The articles provide another glimpse into how well the Issei (first generation), and later Nisei (second generation), integrated with the established communities of Southeastern Colorado - and, to an extent, how those communities adapted to their newest neighbors.

"The tradition of celebrating the Japanese New Year was an annual event in the Rocky Ford area beginning in 1915 and lasting at least through the early 1960s," said Slaughter. "The celebration was attended not only by Japanese-Americans, but also community members of other ethnicities."

It was also custom for Japanese-American families to annually celebrate Emperor Hirohito, although that tradition stopped with the coming of World War II.
 
The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, sparked contention between Japanese-Americans and their American neighbors. The attack prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066.

"The order authorized the military to remove both noncitizens and citizens of Japanese ancestry from 'sensitive areas,'" said Slaughter. "Those sensitive areas were the southern half of Arizona, all of California, the western half of Oregon and Washington, and all of Alaska."

Following the issuance of EO9066, Colorado's Republican Governor Ralph Carr declared that Colorado would willingly take in law-abiding individuals of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry who were affected by the order, said Slaughter.

"As an aside, I'll just add that he was very outspoken about all of this, and it cost him, ultimately, his political career," Slaughter said.

The Granada Relocation Center, otherwise known as Camp Amache, was located in Southeastern Colorado. It was one of 10 major camps across the western United States and, according to Slaughter, there is evidence that suggests Amache experienced the least amount of unrest during its existence.

Slaughter attributed the presumably milder atmosphere to the camp's proximity to the community of Granada and the "relative kindness" of the locals there.

"Residents of the Arkansas River Valley had been sharing communities with the Japanese-Americans for years and had found them to be good neighbors," said Slaughter.

In addition, many of the Japanese interned at Amache responded to requests from local farmers seeking help harvesting their crops, Slaughter said.

"Amache was closed Oct. 15, 1945, and Japanese-American families returned to their homes on the West Coast after restrictions were lessened after the war," said Slaughter.

The Hirakata family, who to this day own Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford, began their farming operation in 1950. The Yagami family bought their farm in 1944, Slaughter said.

Slaughter related comments made by Jerre Hirakata, who said he remembers Japanese farmers working with Hispanic farmhands, and that the Japanese and Hispanic communities often got along well together, and that Issei farmers often spoke Spanish as well, if not better, than English.

"Bill Takeda also remembers the Japanese-American community having athletic events including baseball or basketball," said Slaughter. "Gene Hirakata remembered playing baseball on a Japanese-American team growing up, and his brother, Jerre, who was too young to play, remembers watching games with Japanese-American teams from Las Animas, Crowley, Rocky Ford and Swink."

Slaughter said that, for some time, the Japanese-American community was well-established in the Arkansas Valley, with markets and Buddhist churches common in communities that dotted the Arkansas River.

The earliest Japanese businessman in Otero County started a restaurant around 1906, said Slaughter, and Kichimatsu Taguchi co-owned Manzanola Farming Company, which was in business from 1909 to 1935. He was also instrumental in the development of shipping Rocky Ford cantaloupes to other areas, said Slaughter.

"Kichimatsu also combined his farming endeavors with the operation of a grocery store in Rocky Ford," Slaugher said. "The store specialized in Japanese products ... and sold medicines, grain, rice, soy sauce in kegs, and dried and fresh fish that they could get from Denver. It was in business for roughly 70 years."

Corbett, an architectural historian, shared how details of the shops and storefronts in Rocky Ford and other Arkansas Valley communities owe at least a piece of their history to the Japanese-Americans who settled here years ago.

The presentation was the culmination of the first phase of research spearheaded by the Otero County Historic Preservation Board and funded by History Colorado. The report will be made available at the public library for any history buffs to peruse at their leisure.

Specific locations of some of the historic sites discussed in the report will be redacted in the final version because they are on private property.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the presenters gave special thanks to Gene Hirakata, who passed away not long after providing his oral history and recollections to the research team.

cburney@ljtdmail.com