For twenty-five years, Kichigoro Tanimura called San Juan Bautista home. Arriving in 1897, Mr. Tanimura (pronounced tah-nee-moo-rah) was an Issei, a first generation Japanese immigrant to the United States, who hoped the experience would improve his family’s dire circumstances. For the past several years, Fran Schwamm, Mr. Tanimura’s paternal granddaughter, has painstakingly researched and documented her grandfather’s life in an effort to cement his place in history. Among the first Japanese immigrants to San Benito County, Mr. Tanimura belonged to a community that shaped our county in a myriad of ways. In 1922, Mr. Tanimura returned to Japan, taking with him riches, both material and personal, as well as experiences and memories that defined his later years. As San Benito County left its imprint upon Kichigoro Tanimura, so too, did he leave an indelible mark on our county’s historical tapestry.
Born in 1866, Kichigoro (pronounced kee-chee-goh-roh) was the second son of a farmer in Hiroshima, a city in Japan’s agricultural heartland. As a young boy, Kichigoro attended school and learned the family’s trade.
The Japan of Kichigoro’s youth was one of transition. The arrival U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 forced open the doors of the isolated country. Meanwhile, the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for centuries saw its power and influence decline. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor received his mandate, taking Japan from a world carved by samurai swords to one defined by industrial and military might.
At twenty-six, Kichigoro married Hatsu Shimada, a girl from a neighboring village. As was typical for the time, the marriage was arranged. The couple soon welcomed a daughter, Yukino (pronounced yoo-kee-noh).
Kichigoro’s familial responsibilities took on additional weight when his eldest brother became ill, forcing Kichigoro’s parents to sell some of their land to pay for their ailing son’s medical expenses.
Hoping to alleviate his family’s situation, Kichigoro decided to emigrate. His decision was timely.
In response to growing anti-Chinese sentiment, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, effectively barring Chinese immigration. This was problematic for American employers who preferred the cheap overhead of Asiatic labor to the more expensive hands of American workers. Within a few years, Japan offered a glimmer of hope to distraught employers, especially those in agribusiness.
In 1886, Japan loosened its restrictions on emigration labor. Careful not to brand itself a nation of immigrant labor, the country protected its image abroad by developing a very selective process for would-be emigrants. First and foremost, one’s character mattered. Next, came skills and aptitude. And finally, came the understanding that the move was temporary. If one met the criteria, he could book passage aboard a steamer bound for America.
As Bill Hosokawa writes in his seminal work on the Japanese immigrant experience in America, “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” the majority of Issei were “ambitious youth of scanty means with wild hopes of gaining an education or making a fortune.” Kichigoro fit the profile.
Improving his chances to qualify under Japan’s new emigration policy, Kichigoro applied as a student, an indication of his desire to learn English, as well as an understanding that the Japanese government preferred scholarly pursuits to menial labor.
With his immigration card in hand, Kichigoro embarked on a journey that altered the course of his life, while shaping the history of a community thousands of miles away.
Stepping off the gangplank of the British, passenger liner the S.S. Doric, Kichigoro arrived in San Francisco on April 28, 1897. Fifteen days earlier he boarded the ship at Yokohama leaving behind Hatsu (pronounced hah-tsoo), Yukino, and the world he had known since his birth. His arrival to San Francisco didn’t mark the end of his sojourn, as he continued south for nearly 100 miles, eventually settling in the mission town.
According to Ms. Schwamm, Kichigoro initially found employment in a bakery, where he honed his English skills. Later, he tried his hand in other trades, like that of a labor contractor and, according to the 1900 census, a gardener.
As Kichigoro built his résumé abroad, his absence from Hatsu strained their marriage, and she filed for divorce. The break was soon mended. In November of 1907, Hatsu arrived in Seattle, Washington, Kichigoro making the trip north to remarry her. Yukino would eventually join her parents in San Juan Bautista.
Before reconciling with his wife, Kichigoro had opened a grocery store. According to Ms. Schwamm, the Vaché Adobe, located at the corner of Washington and Third Streets, served as the Tanimura’s place of business and its residence.
Another milestone in Kichigoro’s life was marked in 1907.
In response to growing anti-Japanese sentiment across the U.S., especially in California, Congress passed the Gentleman’s Agreement. Always careful not to insult a fledging world power, the administration of President Teddy Roosevelt steered the landmark legislation through the Capitol.
Under its provisions, the Gentleman’s Agreement prohibited further Japanese immigration to the U.S., but allowed former Japanese immigrants to return anytime. Another clause permitted immediate family members of those already here to immigrate, too. Thus, President Roosevelt placated both his anti-Japanese constituency and American business interests dependent on Japanese labor. Moreover, the U.S. recognized the importance of maintaining a relationship with a rising empire that saw itself and its people on equal footing with the West.
Back in Japan, Eijiro Kimoto, the son of Kichigoro’s half-sister, was eager to join the Tanimuras in America. But because Eijiro (pronounced eh-ee-jee-roh) was not an immediate family member, he didn’t qualify under the Gentleman’s Agreement. As result, Kichigoro decided to adopt Eijiro as a yooshi, a male heir.
In their book, Japanese Culture: Its Development and Characteristics, Robert J. Smith and Richard K. Beardsley state that the concept of a yooshi (pronounced yoh-oh-shee) was rooted in “family maintenance and continuity,” ensuring both a family’s biological succession and social order within the community. As Smith and Beardsley explain, a yooshi was either adopted by a couple that didn’t have a son or “[i]f the couple had a daughter and no son, a man was selected to marry the daughter.” Eijiro initially became yooshi for the former reason, but later he married Yukino, becoming both a son and son-in-law.
Now eligible under the Gentleman’s Agreement, Eijiro left Japan, and arrived in San Juan Bautista as the newest member of the Tanimura household.
The family expanded in 1910 with the birth of daughter Kazuko (pronounced kah-zoo-koh), who died in infancy. Tragedy struck again in 1911 following the birth of daughter Misato (pronounced mee-sah-toh), who survived for little over a month. Both Tanimura daughters are buried next to each other in the Japanese section of the San Juan Bautista Cemetery District.
In 1912, the sorrow permeating the Tanimura family was somewhat lifted, as Kichigoro and Hatsu welcomed another daughter, Fusae (pronounced fu-sah-eh). Two more children, a son Noboru (Ms. Schwamm’s father) and another daughter Misao (pronounced mee-sah-oh), joined the Tanimura brood in 1914 and 1916 respectively.
Her growing family forced Hatsu to reevaluate her husband’s business practices that sometimes included issuing credit to cash-strapped farmers then later pardoning their debt. According to Ms. Schwamm, such altruism was part of Kichigoro’s character, evident years earlier, when as a labor contractor, he “paid the [employees’] wages out of his pocket” when the company couldn’t.
Despite being uneducated, Hatsu had a keen memory and understood how to balance a ledger—a trait and skill that shaped Kichigoro’s new business model and kept food on the family’s table.
As an aspiring entrepreneur, Kichigoro supplemented the family’s income by operating a boardinghouse and farming, a trade that he passed on to his sons Eijiro and Noboru (pronounced noh-boh-roo).
Appreciative of the opportunities presented to him, Kichigoro always understood that his time in America was temporary. But it was a global pandemic that hastened his return home.
As World War One drew to an end, the 1918 Influenza struck with a fury. Sweeping through the trenches of the Western Front and spreading globally, killing nearly 40 million people. In cities across America, citizens wore surgical masks as protection against infection. But despite the precaution, over 500,000 Americans died, many of under the age of 65.
Kichigoro watched as the deadly flu suffocated its victims, attacking the lungs and then filling them with fluid. Infected by day, a person could be dead by nightfall. Aware of his own mortality, Kichigoro decided that if he succumbed to the virus, he would want to “die in the old country,” according to what Noboru told his daughter, Ms. Schwamm.
In 1922, Kichigoro finally had the means to return to Japan.
Before departing, he closed his grocery store and transferred ownership of his farming business to Eijiro, who was now married with several of his own children.
Years later, Eijiro’s sons formed Tanimura Brothers, a produce company operating out of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties. In the 1980s, Tanimura Brothers formed a partnership with the Antle family, a long-time presence in the fields of the Salinas Valley.
Today, the Tanimura & Antle company, which is headquartered in Salinas, “farms over 30,000 acres of rich, fertile farmland and ships a full line of premium fresh produce throughout North America, Europe and Asia,” according to the company’s website. Its produce trucks can be spotted in San Benito County, making their way to and from the company’s Hollister cooler shed located on Fairview Road.
In his final days in San Juan Bautista, Kichigoro paid a visit to the gravesites of his daughters, scooping up two handfuls of dirt in a symbolic gesture that Kazuko and Misato would not be left behind.
With financial and personal business attended to, Kichigoro readied his family (Hatsu, Fusae, Noboru, Misao and two granddaughters, Chisato and Tamae) for the trip. The family headed to San Francisco, and while waiting for its steamer found time to pose for a picture. In the photo, Kichigoro stares into the camera, either waving a final farewell to the country that was his home for a quarter-century or tipping his hat in appreciation for the opportunities presented to him during that time.
The Tanimuras settled in Hiroshima (pronounced hee-roh-shee-mah). Kichigoro then purchased acres of land on which to farm and build his family’s home.
The Japan of the 1920s was a country reminiscent of his Kichigoro’s youth—a land full of change. The democratic forces exercised their will, while the voices of the nationalists and militarists demanded to be heard. Ultimately, democracy unraveled under the weight of the global depression. And those who dreamed of an Asia for Asians led by Japan seized their opportunity and cast the die that plunged the country into World War Two.
The Tanimura household was also in a period of transition. For two of Kichigoro’s children and for one of his granddaughters, the stay in Japan was temporary. Fusae and niece Chisato returned to the U.S. in 1931. Noboru followed in 1938.
On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. For the next four years, the two countries fought over the swath of land, air, and water comprising the Pacific Theatre. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order, 9066. Overnight, tens of thousands of individuals of Japanese ancestry became public enemy #1 and were relocated to internment camps with very little besides the clothes on their backs and what they could individually carry.
For the duration of the war, many in the Tanimura clan, including Ms. Schwamm, called Poston, Arizona home. The ubiquitous military style barracks and barbed wire underscoring their lost freedom.
By 1945, Japan stood alone against America and its allies. Realizing that an invasion of the island country was a costly endeavor, the decision was made to unleash a “rain of ruin” upon Japan in hopes of expediting its unconditional surrender.
On August 6, Hiroshima fell victim to the first atomic bomb used in wartime. Nearly 100,000 died instantly. Others died slowly from radiation poisoning. The city proper was reduced to rubble. Located inside the bomb’s epicenter but protected by a small hill, Kichigoro and his family remained safe.
Following the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, Japan finally capitulated. Under the terms of surrender, Japan fell under the yoke of Allied occupation. Its laws rewritten in the spirit of democracy, while its war making machine was dismantled.
The Tanimura’s weren’t immune to the fallout. The occupying force confiscated and redistributed landholdings, including those belonging to Kichigoro. What had taken him years to build simply disappeared the minute the decree was issued.
After the loss, Kichigoro confided one evening to his daughter Misao that he was heartbroken and no longer wished to live. He retired that night never to wake again. It was January 8, 1946. Kichigoro was 80 years old.
Kichigoro Tanimura remains a vital piece of our history—one that we can ill afford to forget. Mr. Tanimura’s legacy is etched in the adobe walls that supported the roof of his business and home and in the very soil he once tilled as a farmer in San Benito County. His life is also a reminder that dreams fuel hope, even in our darkest hours, and that success is never measured through a single metric. And thanks to his granddaughter Ms. Schwamm, Kichigoro Tanimura’s story lives on for the sake of all of us.
*Please visit my blog, an unread chapter: The Little Known History of San Benito County (http://anunreadchapter.com) to see additional photos related to this piece, as well as to read additional articles about our local history.