Yamato Colony – Pioneering Japanese in Florida

morikami_farmsWhy do we find the name Yamato, an ancient name for Japan, here in Palm Beach County? Because the Yamato Colony was once a small community of Japanese farmers in present-day northern Boca Raton. The story of the Yamato Colony begins with Jo Sakai’s visit to Florida in 1903. Sakai hailed from Miyazu, Japan, and was a recent graduate of New York University. He signed an agreement with the Florida East Coast Railway to locate a proposed colony of Japanese farmers in the Boca Raton area. Shortly afterward, he returned to Japan  to recruit settlers and bring them to Florida. At first, young, single men joined the Yamato Colony. For several years these settlers grew pineapples for shipment to markets in the north. By the end of the century’s first decade competition from Cuban pineapples caused many area growers, including Yamato colonists, to turn to winter vegetables. Few of the settlers remained in Yamato for very long, but those who did sometimes returned to Japan briefly to marry and bring wives to the colony. Families soon grew. Ironically, prosperity during World War I and the land “boom” of the 1920s resulted in many of the settlers leaving. By the beginning of World War II, few Japanese remained. In May of 1942, farmland in the Yamato area still owned by Japanese settlers was confiscated by the U. S. government for a military installation. While the pioneering community of Japanese settlers is gone forever, Yamato’s name lives on today.

Yamato Colony – Pioneering Japanese in Florida:

The exhibition, now housed in the Yamato-kan, has been financed in part with Historical Museums Grants-in-Aid Program assistance provided by the Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, Secretary of State.

Part I – An Idea is Born

The story of the Yamato Colony begins with the visit to Florida in November and December of 1903 by a 29-year-old Japanese man named Jo Sakai. Sakai approached the Jacksonville Board of Trade with the idea of establishing one or more Japanese agricultural colonies in Florida. The reaction to his proposal in both business and political circles was immediately enthusiastic. Sakai soon found himself on a whirlwind tour of the state to inspect possible sites for the first of the proposed colonies.

Portrait of a Colony Founder
Jo Sakai, founder of the Yamato Colony, was born October 10, 1874 in the castle town of Miyazu, Japan. Given the name Kamosu, he was the fourth of seven children born into a former samurai household. He traveled to the United States in 1895 upon completing the equivalent of a high school education in Japan. After visiting Florida in 1903, he returned to Japan early the following year to recruit settlers and investors for his colony project. He finally established the Yamato Colony on a permanent site early in the summer of 1905. He promoted the colony effort tirelessly throughout the remainder of his life. On August 21, 1923 he died of tuberculosis in Asheville, North Carolina, where he had gone to retire. He was 49 years old.

Nothing Less than the Transformation of Florida Agriculture
Florida business and political leaders supported Sakai’s plan for a Japanese colony because they believed that the project would introduce new crops and farming techniques to the state. They expected the Yamato Colony to provide a model that farmers could emulate to improve the profitability of Florida agriculture. In the decades since the Civil War had devastated the South’s economy, agricultural interests experimented with Japanese crops to help revitalize the region. It was only natural that the assistance of the Japanese themselves would eventually be sought in such ventures.

The Colony Site
The Japanese colony was established in early summer of 1905 on lands previously occupied by an enterprise called the Keystone Plantation. It was located in the tiny community then known as Wyman, situated midway between Delray Beach and Boca Raton. Access to the plantation, and later the colony, was available from Dixie Highway by a primitive railroad crossing at what has since become known as Yamato Road. Plantation lands extended north and south of the future road about one mile in either direction. The western boundary of the property was in the vicinity of present-day Interstate 95. The colonists soon built homes on the property, west and south of the crossing into the colony land. Later a railroad station and a school were established nearby.

Part II – Diary of a Colony

sakaiDiary of Henry Tamemasu Kamiya
Henry Kamiya kept a diary from June 1, 1914 to June 25, 1941. He began it some ten years after his arrival in the Boca Raton area, and continued it until just before he left south Florida to join the family of his eldest daughter in California. Entries are typically terse, but give a brief glimpse of the kind of life he led in Yamato. One of the most dramatic events to be recorded in the diary occurs on its first page, when fire swept through the Kamiya family home on June 3, 1914.

Daily Life in a Small Florida Town
Yamato was principally a farming community, with a few of the settlers branching out into other commercial endeavors. Leisure activities included family and community gatherings like shooting pool, playing hanafuda (a card game), and making ice cream at one of the settlers’ homes. Japanese influence on the lives of the settlers was slight. Meals were a combination of Japanese and American fare. The Japanese language was spoken at home only by the adults. Only one of the homes had a Japanese-style bath. Japanese annual events were ignored or were pale shadows of observances in Japan.

One Woman’s Story
The first woman known to have traveled from Japan to join the Yamato Colony was Sada Sakai, wife of the colony founder. Theirs was an arranged marriage, the wedding taking place within weeks of Jo Sakai’s return to Japan early in 1907, when the two met face-to-face for the first time. Several of the marriages of colony settlers occurred in the same manner. Sada Sakai later confided to her daughters that, on first meeting, their father did not quite match her image of the ideal mate. Furthermore, she had no desire to leave Japan, but her brother convinced her to accept Sakai’s offer of marriage. Arriving in Florida, she found the colony a disappointment after Sakai had apparently described it as larger and more settled.

Young Americans
By the end of the century’s first decade, families were growing in Yamato, but only with difficulty. The first child born in the colony, Jo Sakai’s son Hiroshi, died before the age of two, and the only family known to have joined the settlement, that of F. Tahara, his French-born wife Claire, and their two children, did not remain for long. Other children, however, soon followed. At last it seemed as if Sakai’s hope for a stable community would be realized. In fact, Yamato families were hardly more likely to remain rooted than its single men. Of the seven Japanese families known to have resided in Yamato, only two stayed long enough for children to reach adulthood.

Part III – George Sukeji Morikami

george_morikamiIn many ways George Sukeji Morikami was typical of the settlers recruited by Yamato’s organizers. He joined the colony at a young age, was unmarried, and did not plan to remain in South Florida for more than a few years. Far from Jo Sakai’s ideal, this profile held little promise for the long-term stability of the colony. Paradoxically, Morikami would become the last of the original colonists to remain in Palm Beach County. Ultimately, his is the classic immigrant’s story — an ambitious young man, seeking opportunity, travels to America to make a better life for himself. Through hard work and ingenuity George Morikami found prosperity here, achieving a personal worth in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Despite this, he was a man of simple tastes for whom the trappings of wealth meant little. He preferred to live out his life simply, finding pleasure in his closeness to nature. Toward the end he lived reclusively in a mobile home on land he had purchased in the closing days of World War II —land that would become Morikami Park.

A Timeless Gift
George Morikami acquired much of the land that would become Morikami Park in the closing days of World War II. Almost 20 years later he began what would become a 10-year campaign to give the land away, first to the city of Delray Beach, and later to Palm Beach County. The county finally accepted the elderly farmer’s generous gift in 1973.

Part IV – The Diminishing South Florida Community

people_trainAlthough property was still owned by some former residents, only three Japanese households existed in the Yamato area by the early 1940s. The dream of a noble experiment that would revolutionize Florida agriculture had long been forgotten. As the United States went to war with Japan, Federal Judge John W. Holland signed the order that emphatically ended Yamato’s existence. His action awarded immediate possession of nearly 6,000 acres in the Yamato area to the federal government for the creation of an Army Air Corps technical training facility.

Neighbors of the Japanese
The Yamato area was previously called Wyman, home to the families of other settlers before the arrival of the Japanese. These families remained in the area as neighbors of the colonists, their children attending school at the one-room Yamato schoolhouse, and playing with the children of the Japanese. By the 1920s a community of Bahamian immigrants also grew up adjacent to the Japanese colony. During the war years, the Bahamian neighbors of the few remaining Japanese were moved at government expense, houses and all, to Delray Beach, where they formed a new neighborhood still called New Town today.

The Spanish River Papers
The Boca Raton Historical Society has reprinted historical newspaper articles and published original correspondence from Jo Sakai, and others, on the founding of the Yamato Colonly in The Spanish River Papers, Volume VII, no. 2 and Volume VI, no. 1. To read these newspaper articles, please click here.