by Mary Lowers

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century Japanese have been part of the ethnic and cultural fabric of the San Luis Valley (SLV).  The Japanese ventured to new homes in the US, Canada, Hawaii (not a state until 1959), Mexico, and South America for economic reasons, as with many immigrant groups.  A need for new cheap labor was created in 1882 when Chinese workers were excluded by law from America. From 1890 the number of Japanese in this country increased, and as of the 1910 census, there were 72,000 Japanese in the US. Ten of that number resided in Conejos County in the southern SLV.

Between 1900 and 1910 most of the Japanese in Colorado worked for the railroad, as coal miners, in Pueblo’s steel mills or in the sugar beet industry. The Japanese Association of Colorado estimates 400 Japanese worked for the railroads in 1909. According to Japanese Settlement in the SLV, by Morris C. Cohn, “At all times the Japanese received the lowest wages paid by the rail companies, except the few remaining Chinese. In 1900 Japanese received from ten to twelve cents per hour.”

Around 1925 Japanese farmers from California and elsewhere in the state of Colorado began arriving in the valley.

Land promoters draw Japanese farmers to the SLV

Two decisive factors motivating these Japanese farmers to immigrate to the SLV were the federal Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (which disallowed most Japanese immigration to the US) and the State of California’s Alien Act of 1920, (a blatantly racist piece of legislation) designed to end competition from the Japanese in agriculture. By 1926 Japanese farmers in California controlled several crops including strawberries, celery, asparagus, and tomatoes.  Much of the prejudice the Japanese experienced in that state was caused by their success in farming and was fueled by publisher William Randolph Heart’s crusade against the so called “yellow peril”. The climate in California was increasingly hostile to Japanese agriculture.

Land promotion and real estate companies were big business in the SLV. Eager to sell land and hearing of the problems Japanese farmers were facing in California, developers and their agents brought Japanese in contact with the SLV. Salesmen did present a rosy picture of agricultural bliss, but the land companies were responsible for numerous improvements benefitting agriculture: railroad access to fields, reservoirs, roads and canals. A pamphlet put out by the Conejos Land and Investment Company in 1911 said, “Do Not Rent but Own a Farm in the San Luis Valley.”

As Morris C. Cohn points out, “the forces and conditions culminating in Japanese settlement of the SLV were complete by 1924. On the one hand the availability of land and promoters eager to locate new sources of people willing to settle this land. On the other hand, there existed a large number of excellent farmers living under conditions hostile to their well being and therefore, desiring new land and farms.” Roy Shahan of the Gibson Land Company located in Alamosa, along with a Richard Blakey and C.B. West of the West Real Estate Company, travelled to California and met with Yoshie Inouye who was the chairman of the Stockton, CA Japanese Association (Kyudokai).  He subsequently made two trips to the SLV. An association member, Eiichi Yoshida brought his family by train to settle in the valley. They were put up in Alamosa in the brick house that is now home to Porter Realty.

The Yoshida family in Alamosa & La Jara

In July at a fascinating talk at the Saguache County Museum, Bessie Miyeko Yoshida Konishi of Alamosa, the daughter of Eiichi Yoshida and wife of respected Alamosa veterinarian Ben Konishi, gave a personal perspective on being Japanese in the SLV.  As Konishi described it, Japanese immigrants were “not greeted by a friendly Statue of Liberty,” because of racial prejudice. Her father, Frank Yoshida, came to California in 1909 and her mother, Isayo Kiyonaga immigrated as a “picture bride” in an arranged marriage. She had never met her husband but only seen his picture before taking the long voyage from Japan to America, in 1917.  The match was quite successful. There were twelve Yoshida children, ten girls and two boys. Since Konishi’s mother never spoke English, Japanese was the language at home.

“All the children had Japanese as well as English names.”  Konishi was born in the valley where her father was a share cropper. She described the family’s successful farm which featured cauliflower as a major crop. She told how the crops were carefully tended and her job as a little girl before school was to cover the young plants with mats her sisters wove from cattails. Later in the season the cauliflower leaves were laboriously sewn shut so the vegetable would go to market the preferred white color instead of the yellowish shade it would turn if left to its own devices.

The Japanese in the SLV often worked together on projects. In June of 1927 the Alamosa Journal reported: “Japanese growers let contract for packing shed. The SLV Vegetable Packers, INC was organized several months ago by the election of a Board of Directors, of which K. Ono is president. The company is promoting and developing the vegetable industry in the Alamosa and La Jara districts.” According to Agriculture Department records of the Denver Rio Grande Railroad, as of May 16, 1927, over 7,500 acres of vegetables were being grown in the SLV. The Alamosa Journal reported later in June 1927 that “the corporation is composed of Japanese and Korean growers who have about 480 acres of vegetables in this vicinity, which will be shipped to eastern and western markets.” Bessie Konishi remembered the SLV Vegetable Packers Inc. packing rail cars, and later semi trucks, packed with produce out of the valley.

The Yoshida family moved to La Jara where they were very active in the Japanese-American community. They lived in La Jara for thirteen years.  Frank Yoshida was pictured with his brother and a friend on the front page of the Denver Post for raising a tremendous potato crop in 1930. The thriving Japanese communities in the SLV established Japanese language schools and Buddhist congregations.  These institutions help preserve and promote culture.

The rise of the Buddhist Church of La Jara

Buddhist achievements were an important part of Japanese settlement in the SLV. Although free to worship, the practices were strange to the valley. The nearest Buddhist priest, in Denver, agreed to make monthly trips to serve the SLV community. Japanese Associations or Kyudokai were founded in La Jara/Alamosa, Blanca, and San Acacio. Buddhists in the SLV organized clubs and social events. The San Luis Valley News reported on July 23, 1938: “The Wakaba (Youngleafs) baseball team defeated the La Jara Buseii (Young Buddhists) team 10 to 6 in Alamosa Saturday Morning.”

By 1931 the Alamosa-La Jara Kyudokai began to talk of building a temple. A drive to raise building funds began in 1936. The $4000 building expenses came from all over the valley. The largest donation of $50 came from the Murphy-Rivera Hardware in La Jara. The Moloney Seed Company of Monte Vista contributed $45 and by far the most unusual contribution was a ¼ ton of coal given to the Buddhist Church by George Wilson of La Jara.

The group incorporated the project with the state as the Buddhist Church of La Jara. Membership was limited to Buddhists contributing to the maintenance fund at least six months. The men of the Kyudokai laid the foundation to save money, using gravel hauled from the Conejos River in vegetable trucks. The Conejos Lumber Company built the structure located three blocks east of Jack’s Market in La Jara from a plan drawn by the company manager on a piece of brown paper. The congregation completed the interior on nights and weekends. This was a labor of love.

The Buddhist Church was completed in 1937. It was the first Buddhist temple in the SLV. On February 6, 1937 Japanese residents of the area and their neighbors, friends and Buddhists from all over the state participated in all-day ceremonies, a parade and festivities to dedicate the building. The Alamosa Daily Courier reported: “Saturday morning will be given over to the dedication ceremonies and talks and the afternoon and night to plays and folk dances and speeches all in costume.” There was a large barbeque and many valley residents remember the impressive Kendo demonstration. Around 200 people attended the dedication festivities.

Bessie Konishi, who was born in 1935, remembers the Buddhist Church as a center of social life. There were socials, Japanese school, and an annual Father’s Day picnic with races and a trout fish fry.

The Japanese Buddhists in the SLV were members of the Shinsu or Shin Buddhist sect. This branch of Buddhism, founded by the former Tendai Japanese Monk Shinran, is the most widely practiced form of the religion in Japan. Twenty percent of Japanese identify as members of this sect. From the nineteenth century Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and western North and South America came from regions of Japan where Jodo Shinshu was predominant. Because of its long history away from Japan the practice of ritual may be very different. Many temples and churches in the US use English as the primary language for dharma talks.

People moving and dying reduced the congregation. Frequently second- or third-generation Japanese left the faith. In 1993 there were about six Buddhist families who belonged to the Buddhist Church and a priest still came monthly from Denver to conduct services. The church building was sold. It still stands three blocks east of Jack’s Market in La Jara and has been converted into a triplex.

Pearl Harbor began a difficult time for Japanese-Americans

The Japanese Empire attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed life drastically and quickly for Japanese-Americans. It was certainly the most difficult time in the SLV for those of Japanese descent. The Buddhist Church could not hold services as it would mean too many Japanese gathered together in one place at one time. Its windows were boarded up and it was only used for funerals, which were allowed.  Bessie Konishi grew up during this time and remembers it well. “I was in fifth grade when the war started,” Konishi recalled, “The Cozy Café in Alamosa wouldn’t serve us. We were cat called in the streets and had to sit upstairs at the movies.”

On December 11, 1941 the Alamosa Daily Courier reported: “Blanca scene of threats to Japanese. Capt. Joseph C. Monnig of the courtesy patrol said today that he and other officers had been in Blanca Wednesday night for the second time to investigate rumors of a planned uprising against Japanese in the area. Monnig reported he had about thirty citizens of Japanese descent in the Blanca area. Most of them are respected citizens. Monnig attributed the rumors to young hoodlums who think less then they talk.”

Colorado Governor welcomed Japanese-Americans

The climate on the west coast of the US became increasingly tough for the Japanese-Americans. Many came to the SLV where they had friends or family and could find work in agriculture. In February 1942 Executive Order 909 directed the internment of Japanese-Americans from the west coast in camps throughout the country. You could avoid internment if a friend or relative would vouch for you in a state which agreed to accept you. Colorado Governor Carr, who grew up in Cripple Creek, was one of the few western governors who accepted and welcomed the Japanese-Americans. Despite the state’s friendly attitude, the federal government located the Amache Reclamation Center near Lamar. Over 1000 Japanese were held there until 1945.

Japanese Americans made the best of the internment camps

Bessie Konishi said, “These relocation camps were like concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire fences. Sentries with guns were on duty. They were put in remote areas where there was nothing. And yet the Japanese made the best of the situation. They planted flowers and made Japanese gardens. They had a camp newspaper; there were Girl and Boy Scout troops. They carried on just like the rest of the people in the country. The famous Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Unit in Europe was composed of young men many of whom had families in relocation camps. Japanese Gold Star mothers were sharing their grief with other mothers at this time in history.”  Many valley farmers employed labor from the relocation camps.

The decline of the Japanese population in the SLV after 1940 can partly be explained by the introduction of mechanized agriculture, which made hand labor unprofitable in the vegetable industry. It is estimated that there are around 38 families, descendants of the original Japanese settlers, in the valley in the communities of La Jara, Alamosa, Blanca, Ft. Garland and Monte Vista.

Side bar:

Japanese American generations:

NIKKEI – all generations of Japanese Americans

ISSEI – first generation of Japanese American in the US (1919-1930)

NISEI-second generation born to first generation in US (1930’s)

KIBEI – born to first generation Japanese. Many returned to Japan during war for a formal education, became Japanese citizens. Some members of a family remained American citizens causing family rifts

SANSEI – third generation (1940’s)

YONSEI – fourth generation (now)