Rabbitbrush Rambler: Japanese settlement

At present, the San Luis Valley’s diverse cultural traditions are receiving increasing appreciation, thanks to this region’s Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. One that is receiving appreciation is the Japanese heritage that began here in the early 1900s.

Although information might have seemed scarce about our Japanese community, some new sources have appeared lately. Among them are the oral history project by Lorrie Crawford that was published in the San Luis Valley Historian, and Dr. Morris C. Cohen’s earlier master’s thesis prepared at ASC. And all of us are greatly indebted to Bessie Konishi who has graciously made presentations to many groups throughout the Valley.

Several Japanese families came to the Valley when land sales were being promoted for farming. Many of the newcomers came to Costilla County, especially in the areas of Fort Garland, Blanca, Mesita and Eastdale in that county. Others located farms around La Jara and Waverly in Conejos and Alamosa Counties.      

A few of the older people among the new arrivals had been born in Japan before coming to America, and some brought brides from Japan after coming to this country, so Japanese was the language often spoken in several early homes, but younger generations were Japanese American citizens who already spoke English and adapted quickly. Some of the settlers purchased land, while others got their start as sharecroppers, but all had a well-deserved reputation for being honest, hard workers. Principally their crops were vegetables, and sheds were constructed for storage and distribution of their produce.

By the 1930s numbers and spiritual needs called for the construction of a Buddhist Church in the northeast sector of La Jara. In addition to the temple’s religious importance, it provided a social center, with festivals and special observances. Gradually with assimilation, observances changed but the congregation was still active until the temple itself was sold in the mid-1990s.

These people had been progressing well through hard work during the 1920s and 1930s despite the Great Depression, but during World War II they suffered bigotry, relocation, losses of potential earnings and theft of personal possessions when Japanese were sent to large camps like Amache near Holyoke in southeastern Colorado These camps were called relocation centers, though they more bluntly should have been called concentration camps.

Although some people were sympathetic, FDR’s federal order could not be ignored. Governor Ralph Carr, a Conejos County attorney in earlier years, knew the people of the Valley and was keenly aware of the injustice that was being inflicted on the innocent Japanese people, who were not at all subversive. Carr vigorously opposed the internment program to no avail, but he succeeded in ameliorating a few conditions in Colorado’s Camp Amache at least.

After the war, many farmers resumed life on farms in the Valley, while some established themselves in other occupations. As years have passed, some have moved to more urban locations offering other opportunities. A sample of the Valley family names includes Fugii, Hayashida, Inouye, Kawanabe, Konishi, Kunugi, Miyaki, Ogura, Sato, Serna, Shioshita, Tanaka and Yoshida.

A visible reminder is the Japanese-American Memorial Garden on the university’s campus. This beautiful feature reveals the school’s importance for students with Japanese heritage and also the college’s longtime groundskeeper Ben Fujii.

Abundant Sandhill Cranes that migrate semi-annually through the Valley, as they are doing at present, also remind us of Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis) that often appear in beautiful Japanese paintings and other art. Their representations are part of the region’s heritage.

Two good books for learning more about the people are Bill Hosokawa’s “Colorado’s Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present” and “Nisei, the Quiet Americans.”