Not many people would consider farming a typical profession for contemporary Asian Pacific Islanders living in the Northwest, yet there is a rich history behind API farmers extending back to the nineteenth century, when the first wave of API immigrants began farming in Seattle and surrounding communities. Especially on Bainbridge Island, an increasing number of Japanese immigrants became strawberry farmers, so that by the twentieth century, most farms on Bainbridge were owned by Japanese Americans.
Caught in the midst of history is the Sakuma family, who immigrated to Bainbridge in the early 1900s.
“We are a generational farm,“ said Steve Sakuma, of Sakuma Brothers Farms. “Our grandparents came from Japan in 1915 and raised ten children. My dad was the oldest — he raised strawberries on Bainbridge and sold them at Pike Place.”
The family then moved to Skagit County in 1937, mostly because of the efforts of R.D Bodle, a Seattle processor who encouraged the family to relocate. In 1935, Atsusa, the eldest son of the second generation, moved his operation to Burlington, where he continued to farm strawberries.
Because of racial prejudice against the Japanese during World War II, the U.S. government issued Executive Order 9066, which effectively rounded up Japanese Americans to internment camps scattered across the U.S. On March 24, 1942, the U.S. government evacuated all Japanese residents on Bainbridge Island —the first to be rounded up after order was announced. Approximately 250 Japanese Americans on the island were taken to Manzanar, an internment camp in California.
Hisa Matsudara, one of the few remaining Japanese Americans living in Seattle who was interned, recalls how at age six, she was sent from Bainbridge to Manzanar.
“I was really excited we had a chance to get off the island,” Matsudara said. “On the train ride to Manzanar, the soldiers assigned to us were quite kind to us. Riding on the train with us, a lot of soldiers were crying, because many of them thought the internment wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Kay Sekai, another of the few remaining Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar, remembers how the U.S government forcibly interned her father.
“The FBI came to our house and took all the radios and guns,” said Sekai. “They accused dad of having short-wave sets. They took him overnight, but he was later released. At first the government said we were aliens, so we thought the 2nd generation would run the farm. But eventually they said, ‘A Jap is a Jap.’ They called us non-aliens.”
Sakuma relates his family’s experiences at Manzanar: “Bainbridge was evacuated first to Manzanar, though four brothers did not get evacuated until four months later. Then they went to Tula Lake. After the war, the entire family came back to Skagit County. We’ve been there ever since.”
After the internment, when Japanese Americans could finally return to their homes, many Japanese Americans continued to farm both in Seattle and Bainbridge Island. The Sakuma family eventually returned to Skagit County, where they’ve been ever since.
In 1970, one of the brothers went to California to farm strawberries. About the mid-1970s, the third generation started to come back to the farm. The family started to diversify to other crops – raspberries, apples, blueberries, blackberries.
Currently there are three companies inside the family business – a nursery operation in Northern California, the Sakuma Brothers farm, and a processing farm. In 2000, the last of the second generation retired and the third generation became fully responsible. In 2004, the family brought in Sakuma’s son as an owner, who was the oldest of the fourth generation.
Despite major setbacks, the Sakumas still uphold their corporate purpose: “To continue the Sakuma family legacy by producing wholesome agricultural products.” The Sakuma Brother’s Farm is an example of the perseverance of API farmers in the Seattle area. The family is now one of the largest Japanese American farming enterprises in the Northwest.