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Chiyokichi Comes to America - Sen Natsuhara


Chiyokichi Comes to America

By Sen Natsuhara


Chiyokichi Natsuhara was born on June 30, 1876 (Meiji 9) in Kyutoku, Kyutoku-mura, Inukami-gun, Shiga-ken as the eldest son of Zenzaburo and Take Natsuhara. Besides his parents, Chiyokichi had an elder sister, Toe and two younger brothers, Tomekichi and Yosokichi. After graduating elementary school, Chiyokichi helped his parents on the farm until he reached the age of 20. Tomekichi, who was 9 years younger than Chiyokichi, was adopted by another family. Yosokichi, who was 4 years younger, died in 1896 (at the age of 16) after leaving Kyutoku and working in Hokkaido. Chiyokichi learned the meaning of pain and poverty at a very early age.

In 1896 (Meiji 29), at the age of 20, Chiyokichi had a physical examination for the military draft. His height was 5 shaku 1 sun 8 bu, ( 157cm or almost 5’2” ) and the army disqualified him, declaring that he was 2 bu (6 mm or about a 1/4 inch) short of the mandatory 5 shaku 2 sun. The Nisshin senso (war between Japan and China) ended a year earlier in 1895 and the army figured they might not need many more soldiers. Nevertheless, Chiyokichi’s height disqualified him. So, Chiyokichi decided that he wanted to start some kind of business, and he even thought of going to Manchuria to do that, since he didn’t enjoy his life as a farmer.

About 300 years ago, Kyutoku Castle stood in its relatively large village. On the south side of the village, the big Seri-gawa River entered Lake Biwa while crossing Hikone. Fertile soil and abundant water contributed for good rice crops. There were village offices, an elementary school, a police station, an agriculture union, a temple and shrine, the Jizo hall, a tobacco and wine shop, a medical clinic, and two grocery stores, but most of the villagers were farmers, including Chiyokichi’s family. Chiyokichi helped his father grow rice crops. They had a cow to use for some of the farm work. They owned a small vegetable garden in front of their home and a tiny Cryptomeria grove for firewood near Yaeneri village, but it was not sufficient enough to support their living as they were tenant farmers and paid a land tax every year. Chiyokichi especially hated the times when his father had to face the landlord when the harvest was not good.

Around this time in Kyutoku, there was a rumor going around which created a feeling of enticement for young men to go to America. Mr. Seitaro Ookura of the neighboring village of Ichien was back from Canada looking for nine men to return with him to work in Canada. Chiyokichi decided that he would to go. After asking his uncle in Taga (Uncle Kyuhichi Shimizu) to help make the arrangements for the necessary money, Chiyokichi inquired of Mr. Ookura if he could be included in the group. In March of Meiji 30 (1897), just before his 21 st birthday, Chiyokichi walked to Maibara station by the way of old Nakasendo and boarded the train there to Yokohama instead of catching the train at the closer station in Hikone. Chiyokichi knew that his father would be waiting for him in Hikone to take him back home. His father, however, felt that leaving for America seemed too adventurous, and the eldest son should stay home with the parents. But, Chiyokichi’s mind was set and he left Japan for Canada despite the disapproval of his parents. Chiyokichi was the only unmarried man of the group. The rest of the men left their wives and siblings at home. Notes: (Money was said to be borrowed from the Tasai family near Taga Shrine who were awarded the draw from their group savings lottery, and Chiyokichi was fed by sailors during the voyage.)

During the first year in Canada, Chiyokichi engaged in catching salmon while on-board small boats, or working in the cannery. After the salmon fishing season, they all moved to Vancouver and played around, since no jobs were available. In 1896, gold was discovered near the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon River, in Alaska. This news attracted a great many people from California to Yukon, as many regarded it as a repeat of the Gold Rush that happened almost 50 years earlier in California. Chiyokichi showed great interest in the story, but he did not want to go there. Not only was Yukon a place that he was unfamiliar with, but it had a shortage of food, a high cost of living, and men walking the streets with pistols on their hips. One could reach the town of Dawson from Vancouver by steamboat in 10 days, but the fare was unbelievable and out of reach. If you didn’t have the money, you could go to Jenou by boat first, and then venture through a rough mountain trail for 20 days before reaching the Klondike district. Chiyokichi heard of a prospector who came back (from Dawson) without any gold and was lucky to just be alive. ( Dawson was called “ San Francisco of the North”.)

Chiyokichi became anxious looking for a job as days without one grew more painful. News of good paying jobs in lumber yards and on railroads in the U.S. encouraged him to move. One day in Meiji 31 (1898), he left with a ‘nuke booto’ (or ‘sneak out boat’) and landed on a port near Seattle with his friends. In his native village, there was no distinction between Canada and the U.S. when people spoke of “ America”. He did not realize that the two countries were completely different until he arrived in Canada. Since there were more jobs available in the U.S., and moreover the pay was good in America, many Japanese men entered the U.S. from Victoria and Vancouver.

In Seattle, through an arrangement made by Heiji Okuda, president of the Toyo Unso Kaisha Company, Chiyokichi got a railroad job in Misoula, Montana. All of the workers there were Japanese. There were two foremen there; one Caucasian and one Japanese by the name of Takahashi or Matsumoto. “We need more boys here. If you know of anyone, bring as many men as you can find.” These were the instructions given to Chiyokichi. So, he returned to Vancouver right away and came back to Missoula with some people. In those days, most Issei entered the U.S. illegally by sea or by land. In Vancouver, there were many young Japanese men waiting for their chance for work since getting a visa to Canada was relatively easy and close in distance to Japan. Preparing the railroad, laying the cross ties and rails, was regular daily work. It was also dangerous when they blasted rocks with dynamite. Chiyokichi was sometimes in the kitchen as a cook, and sometimes he did bookkeeping as well.

Up until a decade prior, all railroad work had been handled by Chinese from China. In 1882, a strict anti-Chinese immigration law passed, and no new laborers from China were allowed to come to the U.S. With the eventual shrinkage of Chinese labor, Japanese began to take over that vacancy. There were about 100 men within Chiyokichi’s group; all were Japanese. Shinya Kozai from Kyutoku was there too. They all slept in freight cars or shacks. They received about $1.60 a day. The exchange rate was 2 yen to 1 dollar. One hour of pay here was equal to about one day’s pay in Japan. It was almost 10 times more than the pay in Japan, but people in Japan could never imagine the degree of hard work those 10 hours were. They all endured, telling each other that they could build their own homes after 3 years of work here. Montana weather was extreme in both summer and winter. Especially during the winter as the temperature went down to 50 below zero and even froze the trees and soil. There was no radio or TV in those days either. Every day was a repeat of the last, involving the handling of soil and sands. Only on a rare day off did they have a chance to go to the town of Misoula and have fun. So, they opened card tables every day and played Hanahiki (a Japanese card game), Saikoro (dice), and playing cards. This type of gambling was a form of recreation for them. However, many times you lose while gambling, and Chiyokichi was regretful when remembering the hard work that he had to endure to make the money that he sometimes lost.

Even after the cost of room and board, Chiyokichi managed to save up a reasonable amount of money. Chiyokichi wrote a letter to his parents of his plans of bidding farewell to America and returning to Japan and starting of some kind of business. He wanted to say good bye to the life where gambling seemed to be the only joy. However soon after, he received a letter from Japan and it said, “Our home burned down on December 25th. Don’t come home, now. The fire started at our home and spread. It was catastrophic, destroying 8 structures (homes and storage houses) in the neighborhood. Due to our carelessness and for all that has just happened, you won’t be able to keep your head raised here. Please forgive us.” Chiyokichi was devastated and deeply at a loss for knowing what to do. Then suddenly, Chiyokichi understood that this was Heaven’s way of punishing him. He said, “I didn’t listen to the advice of my parents, and I was gambling from the time I was 17 or 18 years old. I was fooling around with money. My lifestyle was not firm.” From that day on, he vowed to quit gambling. To express his sincere sympathy to the victims of the fire, he sent all the money he had back to his neighbors in Japan, and asked them to accept it even though amount could not repair all the damage that had incurred. He was then 25 years old.

In early spring of 1902 (Meiji 35), Chiyokichi and his buddies jumped on a freight train. They bundled themselves with blankets before jumping off around Christopher, near Auburn, Washington. There, they met Matajiro Sakagami from Tominowo, Taga. (Tominowo is not far from Kyutoku.) Mr. Sakagami grew potatoes as a day work farmer and he welcomed them as partners. But, this venture did not proceed as planned, and it failed. From autumn to winter, 5 or 6 of the men went to the Austin area and found jobs making firewood and clearing the wilderness into fields. Dango-jiru (dumpling soup) was their daily meal, and many of them began to have difficulty seeing straight by late afternoons due to their lack of nutrition. They bought eggs from farmers nearby, and sometimes they caught and ate rabbits. This contract of reclamation was a disaster, and I heard this same story many times over the years. Chiyokichi said, “We sure had a hard time. We only made 10 cents a day.” They ate apples, even green ones, picked from the ground. Chiyokichi also remembered laughingly, “When white children threw half eaten ones to us, we asked them to throw some more at us.” By this time, 3 years had passed since he entered the U.S. as a railroad worker. With his solid record of a 3-year residency, he was then legally eligible to stay in this country. He was now able to lease land and grow vegetables, make firewood, or find jobs without worry.

In 1904 (Meiji 37), Chiyokichi wrote a letter to his parents in Kyutoku asking them to find a bride for him. His letter said something like this: “I have now leased and opened a restaurant in a country town of Auburn. So, find tall and healthy woman for me. As for her level of education, I just want her to be able to read and write letters.” His parents asked Kyuhichi Shimizu (Chiyokichi’s maternal uncle) in a neighboring town of Taga. Kyuhichi-san’s search for a maiden to America began. But, he could not easily find any girl who would accept going to a far-away place like America.





Author: Sen Natsuhara
  Born: July 12, 1885 in Taga, Shiga-ken, Japan
  Came to US in 1905 as a picture bride of Chiyokichi Natsuhara
  Died: October 1979 in Auburn, Washington
English translation by Yoshiaki G. Takemura


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