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Japanese Texans

Filed Under: 
Culture and the Arts

 

The 15,172 Japanese-Texans counted in the U.S. census of 1990 represent less than one tenth of one percent of the state's population.

But through various fields, from architecture to agriculture, the physical and cultural landscape of Texas has been changed by their contributions.

Several metropolitan areas of the state have Japanese public gardens – some of them designed, planted and maintained by Japanese residents.

The famous "Sunken Gardens" of Brackenridge Park in San Antonio have been for generations of Texans a serene place to revive the spirit. And, in the state capital, the Japanese Garden in Zilker Park is visited by over 100,000 people each year. Isamu Taniguchi designed and built the Austin retreat in the late 1960s as a place of tranquility for his fellow Texans.

Japanese Garden in Fort Worth
The Japanese Garden in Fort Worth. Photo by Natalie Caudill.

Other Japanese have contributed in medicine, art and literature. Isamu Taniguchi's son, Alan Taniguchi, as one example, trained thousands of young architects in recent decades as dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas and director of Rice University's School of Architecture.

But, perhaps the most profound impact on the culture of the state has been the contribution made by Japanese agriculturists to the development of rice growing.

Rice has been cultivated in Texas from as early as 1853, and large-scale rice production was introduced from southern Louisiana into southeastern Texas in the 1880s. The rice seed used was from the rice first planted in the Carolinas in 1685.

Around 1900, the Houston Chamber of Commerce, with Japan's Consul General Sadatsuchi Uchida as intermediary, sought help in teaching Gulf coastal farmers better methods of rice-growing.

Consul General Uchida's interest was to develop more rice production for the crowded Japanese islands, with their growing population.

So, when Seito Saibara, a theology student in Connecticut, expressed an interest in staying in the United States, Uchida encouraged him to go to Texas.

In 1903, Seito Saibara and 30 other colonists from Japan arrived in Webster in southern Harris County. Rice seed was sent as a gift from the emperor, and within three years, area harvests almost doubled, from about 18 barrels an acre to 34 barrels an acre. Seito Saibara and his family, thus, have been credited with establishing the Gulf Coast rice industry.

Soon other families were arriving from Japan to engage in rice-growing. From 1903 through 1914 colonies were started in Port Lavaca (Calhoun County); Fannett (Jefferson County) and Terry (Orange County); Mackay and El Campo (Wharton County); and Alvin (Brazoria County).

Japanese also settled in Mission, San Juan and San Benito in the Rio Grande Valley to grow vegetable and citrus crops. A second wave of Japanese arrived around 1920, many from California where they faced increasing anti-Japanese agitation. Most of these Japanese families settled in the lower Valley, as well.

Generally, the California families experienced less prejudice in Texas, perhaps because of the small numbers. However, the American Legion post in Harlingen warned Japanese newcomers to stay away, and in January 1921 a group of Japanese families from California was met by a hostile crowd and turned away from the Harlingen train station.

In April of 1921, the Texas legislature, in the wake of similar legislation in California and other western states, passed a law restricting land ownership by Japanese. The legislation was blunted by the lobbying efforts of Saburo Arai, an entrepreneur in the Houston area community of Genoa. He led a newly-formed organization called the Japanese Association that successfully had the bill amended to exempt all Japanese already living in the state.

By 1940, there were 500 Japanese in Texas. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and war between Japan and the United States, hostility toward Japanese residents increased. Many Japanese men were questioned by federal authorities and some were detained, although only briefly.

In San Antonio, the Jingu family, who for two decades had maintained the Japanese Tea Garden, was evicted from the property and the site was renamed the Chinese Tea Garden. In 1984, the city of San Antonio restored the original name.

After the initial fear of the first few months of World War II and some federal raids on homes, most Japanese in Texas were under a kind of house arrest in which they faced restriction on travel, on financial transactions and on group gatherings. "Suspicious items," were confiscated: items such as cameras, binoculars ("spyglasses") and guns.

Under a federal policy at the beginning of the war with Japan, several thousand Japanese where brought to Texas to internment camps at Kenedy and Crystal City in South Texas and Seagoville outside Dallas. Many were Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and others were Japanese alien residents of Latin American countries. In all, some 6,000 persons were involved, the majority of whom were Japanese, although some German families from Latin America were also housed in the camps.

After the war most of the internees left the state, but a few elected to stay, including Isamu Taniguchi who began farming in the Rio Grande Valley.

Also following the war, many Japanese taken from their California properties and placed in relocation centers throughout the United States chose not to return to the West Coast and moved to Texas. This new Japanese-Texas population of the 1950s moved into the booming cities, finding employment in business and working in the professions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, businesses from Japan placed employees in Texas cities. However, most of these residents are temporary residents and return to Japan.

In 1990, the census bureau reported more than two-thirds of Japanese-Texans lived in the metropolitan areas of Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Gardens:

Austin – Japanese Garden in Zilker Park near Barton Springs. Designed by Isamu Taniguchi in the 1960s.

Fort Worth – Japanese Garden in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden was built in the 1970s. The tea house and massive entrance gate were designed by Albert Komatsu, a well-known Fort Worth architect. The city stages festivals each spring and fall with koto music, taiko drumming and calligraphy instructions.

Fredericksburg – Garden of Peace at the Admiral Nimitz Museum and Historical Center was constructed during 1976 at the boyhood home of the World War II hero. Designed in Japan, the traditional garden was built to honor Chester Nimitz and as a display of reconciliation between the United States and Japan.

Houston – Hermann Park's Japanese Garden was instituted in 1992 as a symbol of friendship between this country and Japan and was funded largely by the Japanese business community in Houston. The tea garden was designed by landscape architect Ken Nakajima and is the site of an annual Japan Festival each April. Festival activities include origami (paper-folding) and other Japanese art forms.

San Antonio – The Japanese Tea Garden was built in a former rock quarry in 1917-18 with the assistance of Kimi Jingu. The Jingus maintained the garden and raised eight children while living on the site. Known as the Chinese Tea Garden or Sunken Gardens from the 1940s, it regained its original name in a rededication ceremony in October 1984. At that ceremony, a new gateway designed by Alan Taniguchi was added.

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor,  for the Texas Almanac 2000–2001.

 

SOURCES

The Japanese Texans, by Thomas K. Walls, University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1987, 1996.

New Handbook of Texas, 1996. various: "Japanese," by Edward J.M. Rhoads. "Rice Culture," by Henry C. Dethloff. "World War II Internment Camps," by Emily Brosveen. "Wharton County," by Merle R. Hudgins. "Harris County," by Margaret Swett Henson.

Building the Lone Star, by T. Lindsay Baker, Texas A&M University Press, 1986.

Texas Highways, "Back to Brackenridge Park," by Howard Peacock, June 1997.

 

 

Texas Almanac

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