Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,326

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,326

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This is the grave of Kyutaro Abiko.

Born in 1865 in Suibara, Niigata, Japan, on Honshu’s western coast, Abiko grew up in the merchant class. His family ran a business and from the time he was a kid, he worked selling candy and paper around the area. In 1882, he went to Tokyo with friends. He wanted to come to the United States. This was the moment when Japanese migration was beginning. With the Chinese Exclusion Act placed into law that year, western employers looked for a new source of cheap Asian labor. Meanwhile, a rapidly growing Japan also had internal problems that immigration could help take of. On top of all that, many Japanese leaders at this time, now increasingly embracing an expansive nationalism, encouraged immigration to create settler forces in places around the world, including the United States.

Now, I think Abiko just wanted to move for adventure and opportunity. But he was serious about it. He learned English taking classes in Tokyo and the next year, he converted to Christianity. Missionaries to Japan were encouraging conversion and then sending these Japanese Christians to the United States and he was sponsored to move to San Francisco in 1885.

At first, Abiko had to take whatever job he could get in the U.S. while he learned more English. He worked in domestic service while going to school. He managed to save money and attend the University of California at Berkeley. He seems to have graduated and then he went into business. First he bought a laundry and then a restaurant. These businesses did OK, but he wasn’t getting rich. Then he bought a newspaper and that changed everything. Soko Nihon Shinbun would soon be one of the biggest Japanese language newspapers in the country and while that was a relatively small market, it gave Abiko significant capital within the Japanese community. He used it too. He was very active in spreading Christianity among his fellow Japanese and helped build the first Japanese Christian church in San Francisco, a Methodist church.

In 1899, Abiko merged his paper with another major Japanese paper and created Nichibei Shimbun, which soon had 25,000 subscribers and separate Los Angeles and San Francisco editions. Abiko had a strong editorial voice. Some of this was his strong pro-Christian agenda, sure. But he couldn’t push that too hard and still maintain his voice. After all, most of his readers were Buddhist/Shinto. He could however push related ideas. He was a big believer in the Protestant work ethic and he urged his readers to work hard, buy land, live in traditional family groups, and be good Japanese Americans, with an emphasis on both sides of that identity. Understanding that most of the Japanese coming over in the early 20th century were migrant laborers, he encouraged them to stay here and either bring their families or marry someone already here.

Now, all of this was naturally enough going to run into the racism of California whites. California whites HATED Asians. The historical racism of the American West is just as bad as the South. In fact, I’d argue all parts of the nation are basically all very racist and the only differences is how it manifests itself. Well, in California, they weren’t hiding it. The Chinese Exclusion Act came out of California workers and they were none too happy to see the Japanese replace them. Moreover, the Japanese did something else that drove the whites crazy–buy up marginal farmland on failed farms and make them into profitable enterprises.

Abiko was a big promoter of this actually. He bought his own lands. The Yamato Colony was 3,000 acres of land in Merced County that Abiko purchased in 1904 and then he recruited people from his part of Japan to come over and get a fresh start. They came too. The farmers were quite successful at producing produce for both the Japanese and white American markets. Abiko tried to get the Japanese farmers to fit in and build support by patronizing white owned stores and such. It ended up forming a cooperative and although a bank Abiko founded to fund the colony failed during the 1913 economic crisis, the farmers really did make it work. In fact, these people were so organized that when white American put all the Japanese Americans in concentration camps due to nothing but their race during World War II, they were able to hold onto their land and get it back after the war.

Well, this was the exact kind of thing that California whites hated. When San Francisco decided to create Jim Crow policies to segregate Japanese-American school children, the Japanese government, fresh off of kicking Russia’s ass and announcing itself as a global power, was furious. That forced Theodore Roosevelt to intervene and the Gentlemen Agreement was created between the U.S. and Japan. Most Japanese migration to the U.S. would stop and there would be no official segregation in San Francisco. This increasingly served the interests of the Japanese government as well, who now wanted labor to stay in the country to build its industrial capacity and serve in its military.

Not surprisingly, Abiko led the fight against all of this and other laws that would limit the Japanese, including the ban on non-citizens owning land, even if many farmers got around this by deeding the land to their children. In fact, Abiko had led the early resistance to the San Francisco law, using his significant connections with the Japanese government to raise a stink and force Roosevelt to get involved. This only served to increase his power as a leader of his community.

The Yamato Colony had some rough years in the early 1910s, but it made it through that and Abiko would spend the rest of his life running his newspaper and fighting for the rights of Japanese-Americans. In 1924, he added an English language section to his paper for the Nisei, who often did not read in Japanese. He had his son Yasuo run this part of the paper. He died in 1936 at the age of 71. His widow Yona took over and ran the paper until she was thrown into one of the American concentration camps in 1942. They had married in 1909, shortly after she came to the U.S. She died in the camps in 1944.

Kyutaro Abiko is buried in Japanese Cemetery, Colma, California.

This is not actually near Abiko’s grave, but at the front of the cemetery, there’s a huge monument to him and so I took a picture of that too.

If you would like this series to visit other prominent Japanese-Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Turns out Sessue Hayakawa is buried in Tokyo; wish I had known that last summer, would have been an amazing grave to visit. Fred Korematsu is in Oakland and Patsy Mink is in Honolulu. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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