Florida’s Yamato colony

In the first years of the 20th century, a small group of Japanese immigrants settled in Florida.

Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

In 1903, a 29-year old man named Jo Sakai arrived in Jacksonville FL. Sakai had studied at Doshisha University in Kyoto, and had come to the United States several years previously from the Japanese city of Miyazu to attend New York University, as part of the Meiji Restoration’s efforts to modernize Japan by importing as much Western knowledge and technology as possible. Once in the US, Sakai decided to stay, and after graduating in New York, he made his way to Florida.

He had grand plans. At this time Florida’s economy was largely based on agriculture, and Sakai hoped that he could encourage other people from Japan to settle here and make a living by introducing new crops and farming techniques.

As it happened, Sakai’s vision overlapped with that of Florida’s state officials. Henry Flagler’s railroad lines had just connected the peninsula to the rest of the country, and the economy was booming. Local governments were eager to attract as many new settlers as possible to expand the local economy. Using money from Flagler’s railroad company, they had established the Model Land Company and the Bureau of Immigration as a way of selling land to new arrivals, especially to the massive wave of immigrants that were beginning to enter the US from Europe and Asia.

After looking at several potential locations, Sakai reached an agreement to obtain a tract of 1,000 acres in what is now Boca Raton FL. Under this deal, the state would grant him the land, and he would help establish a new settlement which would then use taxes to pay for it. Sakai sailed back to Japan to recruit farmers who would be willing to relocate to America. He was hampered by the Sino-Japanese War which had just broken out as well as the Imperial policy of discouraging emigration from Japan, but Sakai arrived back in Florida in November 1904 with around 20 Japanese settlers. They named their new Florida colony “Yamato”.

At first, the little village did well. Some of the farmers planted rice fields, while others grew tropical fruits like pineapples. There were also efforts to grow Chinese tea, and at least one homestead set up mulberry trees to raise silkworms. A Post Office was established, and a railroad station connected Yamato to Flagler’s network and allowed them to sell their produce in the cities. In 1907 a member of the Japanese Imperial family, Count Masakuni Okudaira, bought 40 acres of land at the settlement though he never lived there (and in gratitude the farmers of Yamato sent two crates of Florida pineapples and oranges all the way back to the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo). Over the years, men from Yamato would travel back to Japan to find a wife, who they would then bring back to Florida. The little village grew to around 75 residents. For a brief time, the Japanese were also joined by a few settlers from the Bahamas.

But then the community ran into difficulties. Most of the Japanese crops that they attempted to grow, failed, and the group was soon reduced to growing pineapples as a cash crop. Then a fungus blight struck their pineapple fields, and newer pineapple plantations in Cuba appeared which soon dominated the market. The farmers then turned to less-profitable tomatoes, beans or onions. Although Florida’s economy continued to boom and Boca Raton grew, fed by the rapid influx of wealthy northern vacationers brought in by the railroads, Yamato struggled, and when the “land boom” of the 1920’s brought inflated prices for local real estate, most of Yamato’s farmers took the opportunity to sell their land, cash out, and leave. The school closed in 1922. Sakai himself retired and moved to Asheville NC, where he died in 1923.

By the time the Second World War broke out, there were only four Japanese families remaining at Yamato, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor they became the victims of racial hatred. On the Pacific coast, Americans of Japanese ancestry, although they were US citizens, were rounded up and confined in “relocation camps”. On the Atlantic coast, they were classed as “enemy aliens”, and their assets were frozen and their movements restricted. With its year-round good weather, Florida became a favored place for the War Department to train new pilot recruits, and in May 1942, backed by a Federal Court order, the War Department confiscated almost 300 acres of land from two of the Japanese families still living at Yamato, the Kobayashi and the Kamiya farms, as part of the newly-built Boca Raton Air Field.

By the end of the war, only one resident still remained in Yamato. George Sukeji Morikami had arrived from Japan as a young unmarried man, planning to stay only a few years. By selling parts of his land during the real estate bubble, he managed to amass a small fortune of several hundred thousand dollars, but despite this he continued to live alone in a modest mobile home. As other residents of Yamato moved out, Morikami bought some of their land, and soon owned about 200 acres of valuable Florida real estate.

In 1970, Morikami, now an old man, tried to donate his land as a public park, but his offer was not taken up until 1977, when Palm Beach County established Morikami Park. Today it is the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens.

There are 16 acres of traditional Japanese gardens, in five areas. Each of them recreates a style that typified a specific period of Japanese history, including the Shinden Garden of the Heian Period, a Paradise Garden replicating the Kamakura Period, a Muromachi Period Karesansui Rock Garden, a Hiraniwa Garden from the Edo Period, and a Modern Romantic Garden representing the Meiji Period. The Yamato-Ka Museum, originally built in 1977, displays art and other objects representing Japanese culture, as well as a bonsai garden and a statue of the Buddhist God of Happiness, Hotei. A newer building from 1993 contains a theater, more display galleries, and an Asian café. The grounds also exhibit a traditional Tea House, bamboo groves, koi ponds, stone lanterns, and waterfalls.

One thought on “Florida’s Yamato colony”

  1. The horror of it was that, particularly for young Japanese men, it was probably safer and better to spend the war in an American internment camp than in Japan itself…

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