by John Gregersen
The Morikami Museum recently acquired a rare historic artifact to add to its collection, an early photograph, printed as a post card, that depicts Yamato colonists gathered at the beach on New Year’s Day, 1907. The date of the photograph appears on the reverse side, written by an unknown person many decades ago who also thought to identify the individuals appearing in the photo. The fact that we can match names to faces makes this a particularly exciting find. The unusual manner in which the photograph came to light also adds to its interest.
The photograph shows twenty serious-looking Japanese men either standing or sitting in three rows beneath a shelter constructed on the beach. They appear before the flags of the United States and Japan, and are dressed mostly in dark suits, although one appears to wear a military uniform and two others school uniforms. They have gone to the beach to celebrate the New Year, perhaps the most important observance of the Japanese calendar, but no one appears to be contemplating a swim.
On the reverse side, a notation written in neat, precisely formed Japanese characters, states that the photograph was taken on January 1, “Meiji 40” (1907), at “Yamato-mura” (Yamato village), Florida. Although the Japanese sometimes used the name, “Yamato Colony,” they just as often used “Yamato-mura” to identify their settlement in documents written in Japanese.
What makes this document especially valuable is the list of names that also appears on the reverse side as a key to the identities of the young men in the photo. The museum has in its possession a similar, earlier photograph of Yamato colonists, possibly taken at the Dade County Fair in 1905, on which someone decades ago inscribed a numeral beside each individual pictured. Maddeningly, the key to which the numerals refer was lost before the photo came to the museum, permitting staff to identify only four of the colonists pictured. Few individuals appear in both photographs, confirming the high turnover rate among settlers that is suggested by other documentation.
Several of the settlers appearing in the recently discovered photo are known to Morikami staff even without the key. Colony founder Jo Sakai (front row, far right) and his brother, Tamemasu (“Henry”) Kamiya (middle of the second row) are both seen here, as is 19-year-old Sukeji (“George”) Morikami (front row, far left). As one of earliest photos to capture Morikami’s likeness, it was taken just seven months after his arrival at the colony in May, 1906. Conspicuously absent from the gathering, though, is Mitsusaburo Oki, Morikami’s sponsor and Sakai’s and Kamiya’s brother-in-law, who died of malaria just two weeks before the New Year’s excursion to the beach.
Some settlers who are known from other documentary sources are seen for the first time in this photograph. The shadowy figure appearing in the back row at far left is a settler known only as Murakami, who is mentioned several times in the diaries of Boca Raton pioneer Frank Chesebro. Murakami is also identified in a 1908 issue of the Japanese American Commercial Weekly, published in New York, as head of one of the seven colony “units” (kumi, literally, groups) that farmed its own land in Yamato. Chesebro may have known Murakami better than he did other colonists because his wife and Mrs. Murakami, who was not Japanese, were friends. In his diaries, Chesebro never spelled “Murakami” the same way twice, but always did so in a highly creative fashion.
Seated just in front of Murakami is Masuji Sakai, the older brother of Jo Sakai and Henry Kamiya. While his interest in the colony effort was known and his presence in Florida for a time suspected, no documentary evidence was known to confirm it until the appearance of this photograph. One wonders what Sakai is thinking about as he absently gazes to the left (his right), the only one of the group not looking at the camera. His brother, Jo Sakai, would leave Florida in a few weeks to return the ashes of his brother-in-law, Mitsusaburo Oki, to Japan. It is not implausible that Masuji Sakai left with him, since his presence otherwise seems to have left no impact on the historic record.
Also seated in the middle row are the settler known as A. Ninomiya (second from right) and Count Masakuni Okudaira (third from left). Nininomiya’s first mention in any document is in the 1910 Census. Ninomiya created more of a stir in death that he did in life. Like Oki, he passed away while residing in Florida, his cremation in 1915 the last performed by the Yamato colonists. A problem in shipping his ashes to Japan, which exceeded the weight limit for parcel post, was reported in the local press. At least one paper outside of the state picked up on the news item, but chose to handle the incident facetiously.
Count Okudaira’s title led to the widespread rumor that he and other colonists were related to the imperial family. The museum owns one other photograph of this individual, a gift of his daughter, Takako Okudaira. It portrays him in uniform as an employee, ironically, of the Imperial Household Agency, which he joined after leaving the colony and returning to Japan. This is the only image of Okudaira during his years as a colony member. A Yamato colonist whom he recruited from Nakatsu, the castle town in Oita Prefecture where both were from, is Ryuzo Oshima, seated in the front row, third from left. On the passengers’ manifest for the Shinano-Maru, the ship on which he had booked passage to North America, Oshima is quoted as saying that his final destination and reason for travel is “to join my friend Jo Sakai, Yamato Colony, Wyman, Florida.” Wyman was the name of the post office that served the colony before Jo Sakai sought to have its name changed to Yamato. Like Okudaira, Sakai, Kamiya, and Murakami, Oshima was also identified in 1908 by the Japanese American Commercial Weekly as head of one of the colony’s self-sufficient units, or kumi.
The photograph came from a completely unexpected source. While most historic photographs of the Yamato Colony in the collection of the Morikami Museum derive from the descendants of the colonists, if not from George Morikami himself, the ownership of this photo over the century since 1907 is unknown (it may have belonged to the individual seated beside Jo Sakai, whose name in the key is treated with a degree of familiarity unknown to the others). The existence of the photograph was “discovered” on-line by Ryusuke Kawai, a Japanese writer who recently published a book in Japanese on the colony, George Morikami, and the Morikami Museum. He found the photo on a Japanese website offering antique photographs for sale. The person making the photo available found it at a flea market, and was unaware of who it depicted other than what he could gather from the notation written on the back.