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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,176

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This is the grave of Keisaburo Koda.

Born in 1882 in Ogawa, Japan, in Fukushima Prefecture, Koda came from the samurai class. His father was active samurai but when that ended with the end of the Tokugawa period, went into milling and rice flour brokering. So his son had that advantage of becoming a food capitalist in the early period of Japanese capitalism. Initially, he was going to go into education. He graduated from college early and became a principal of a school in 1902, even though he was only 20 years old. So he had the opportunity to just become a respectable member of Japanese society.

But this was a period of adventure and Koda was still a very young man. He wanted some of that adventure. This was the great period of Japanese settler colonialism, when the country was urging Japanese to move to different parts of the world to establish Japanese communities and maybe Japanese power there. In the U.S., we usually don’t think of Japanese migration this way. The way we usually tell this story is that mostly poor people came to the U.S., they faced racism and exploitation, California whites freaked out, the Roosevelt administration stopped the migration with the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907, continued resentment against Japanese-American communities continued, and then the concentration camps of World War II became of the most shameful periods in American history. There is definitely a truth to all of this. But like most of the ways we think about America’s relationship to the rest of the world, we don’t think about it from the other nation’s perspective.

However, Eiichiro Azuma’s brilliant In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan’s Borderless Empire tells this story from a much more Japanese perspective and notes that Japanese leaders had big plans for these communities that appeared throughout the Americas in this era that could mean a serious expansion of national power. So someone like Koda, who decided to go to the U.S. and try his hand over there, makes sense because Japan itself might be losing a promising young man, but it could potentially gain something much greater if a community leader migrated.

Koda was able to come to the U.S. in 1908, despite the recently implemented Gentlemen’s Agreement. I imagine this had to do with his social status and class. After all, despite the unbelievably aggressive racism of west coast whites, American institutions had many burgeoning relationships with Japanese institutions during these years. Koda went into the food business. The first thing that immigrant communities often want–before decent housing, before labor rights–is access to their own food traditions. That was harder for the Japanese, with a very particular food culture that had little in common with anywhere else in the world and with a lot of unique ingredients. Koda and others helped fill that gap. At first, Koda tried to find oil, but that went nowhere. So he went into tuna, getting partners together to process the catch of the few dozen Japanese-American owned ships. That was reasonably successful. He sold his share of the business to go into a vegetable canning operation after he made a good profit. That did pretty well too.

But Koda’s real expertise was in rice, as his father had taught him the business. So eventually, Koda settled himself in the San Joaquin Valley and went into the rice business. This remains good rice country. Koda could not own land–no Japanese could in the U.S. thanks to the monstrous racism of California whites–but he had gotten married and had children and so could register his small children as the landowners. Nothing the whites could do about that one, at least not before World War II.

Koda became a huge rice capitalist and a very wealthy man. He pioneered new ways of making money on rice, such as dropping seed from airplanes rather than the traditional labor-intensive way of planting. The Japanese community wanted his rice and he wanted to sell it to them. He engaged in a vertical integration of the rice process so that he controlled the entire process from seed to shipping and could ensure the quality and of course the low prices and maximum profits.

None of this protected Koda from the concentration camps. The family farms in the San Joaquin Valley had to be disposed of immediately when the order came to move out in 1942, to Amache in Colorado in the case of the Koda family. There was nothing they could do. They asked their neighbors to run it for them. The neighbors were certainly interesting in using the land to create profit but they were not at all interested in seeing their neighbors return and so they let the house and all the facilities go to pot during the war, if not flat out dismantled and sold off. Koda was devastated when he returned to the lands at the end of the war. Many Japanese did not return to the west coast. He and his grown sons restarted the rice business.

By this point, Koda gave functional control of the company to his sons and went into a semi-retirement to engage in political work. He was furious about what had happened to his community and as a rich leader of said community, he led the fight to fix it. One of the first things to do was to repeal the notorious Alien Land Law that stopped Japanese in California from owning land. That finally succeeded in 1948 when the courts ruled it unconstitutional. He was a major supporter of the Japanese American Citizens League, both financially and in active roles within the organization. He started a new insurance company that would work specifically with Japanese-Americans who had trouble getting insurance otherwise. He also helped opened the first branch of the Bank of Tokyo in California in 1952. He also worked hard to help with the reconstruction of Japan after its World War II destruction and developed programs to bring Japanese farmers to the U.S. to learn modern American agricultural techniques. For all of this, Koda was honored repeatedly by Emperor Hirohito. He also became an American citizen in 1954.

Koda Farms is still a family concern and major rice producer.

Koda died in 1962, at the age of 82.

Keisaburo Koda is buried in Japanese Cemetery, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other food capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. There’s no particular reason why the last three posts have all been immigrant food-based capitalists, but it’s interesting to think about them as a group. Gustavus Swift is in Chicago and Frederick Pabst is in Milwaukee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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