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Yoemon Shinmasu, Life of My Grandfather in Seattle Vol.4

Yoemon’s father Jinzou and Yoemon’s children in Kamai (circa 1921)

Yoemon Shinmasu, Life of My Grandfather in Seattle
Vol.4 Sending children to Japan

by Ikuo Shinmasu, translated by Mina Otsuka

This is a series on the life of Yoemon Shinmasu, an Issei immigrant from a small fishing village in Yamaguchi Prefecture who made his barbershop business quite a success in Seattle, yet lost his life in an accident in his 40s. Yoemon’s grandson Ikuo was born and raised in Japan and has been always interested in Yoemon’s life in Seattle. He shares what he discovered through his research.

Volume 3 introduced Yoemon’s family in Seattle after his marriage and his barbershop business with his wife. In volume 4, I will write about the life of Yoemon’s children in Kamai. They were brought back to Japan for the sake of his business and Atae’s return to America.

Family’s return to Japan

In September 1920, Yoemon returned to Japan with his family. The purpose of his visit was to leave his children with his parents in Kamai, as his children were becoming a nuisance to the barbershop business. Born in Seattle, his children knew nothing about Japan. Atae was 6; the eldest daughter was 4; and the second daughter was 2. My aunt, the eldest daughter and now aged 102, had left a note in the blank space of Yoemon’s notebook.

“I was born in Seattle on September 20, 1916, and at age 4 went to Japan on September 21, 1920.”

My aunt later said about how she felt returning to Japan, “For my parents, making money was more important than their children. They lived for money.”

A sailing permit from 1920

I found Yoemon and his wife’s sailing permit issued on September 17, 1920 by the city of Portland. The Yoemon family temporarily lived in Portland with Yoemon’s brothers before the return. The day of departure was listed as September 20th on the permit.

His whole family boarded a ship in Seattle and headed straight to Japan on a two-week journey. His three children anxiously wondered about their home country, a country they had never seen.

They took a train from Kobe to Yanai, and from Yanai they took a ship to Kamai. It was a long trip. According to the Kaminoseki-cho shi (History of Kaminoseki-cho), a liner called Unyu-maru was in operation back then, sending people from Yanai to the neighbor island Iwai-shima via villages such as Kamai in Nagashima.

In Kamai, Yoemon’s relatives and other villagers came out to the shore and welcomed the Yoemon family. People in Kamai would come to the shore on the arrival of Unyu-maru and give a warm welcome to those landing from the ship. As they had been informed of the Yoemon family’s return from America, the villagers gave a cheer once they spotted the ship from behind the tip of the island as if responding to the ship’s whistle. As the ship got close to the shore, they rowed a small boat, went alongside the ferry, and took the passengers back to land. The boatman lifted the children up, and they nervously got on the boat. (The same scene is described in “The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida” where Jim Yoshida returned to Japan on Hikawa-maru with the remains of his father and visited Kamai in April 1941.)

Yoemon’s children’s life in Kamai

For Yoemon’s children, it was their first time in Japan, and rural life in Kamai was full of culture shock. Instead of familiar Western clothes, they were given Japanese clothes, which looked strange to them. Their staple food changed from bread to rice. Kamai had fresh fish, but there were no meat dishes. For the children, it was difficult to eat fish with many small bones. They slept on tatami instead of beds. The toilet was not a flushing toilet but a pit toilet , and the iron kiln bath was scary for children. The lifestyle in Kamai was completely different from Seattle’s, and there was a big difference in the standard of living. To Yoemon’s children, every scene was different.

In the meantime, Yoemon’s father, Jinzou, was delighted to meet his three grandchildren. He took them to many places in Kamai, but they didn’t open their hearts to Jinzou that much. Yoemon’s mother, Sae, was not in good health, so she could hardly take care of the children.

As the children didn’t have their parents close during the time when they most wanted parental care and love, the two young sisters especially missed their mother and father. In place of their parents, Yoemon’s youngest sister devoted a lot of attention to the two. Yoemon’s brothers and sisters, his relatives in Kamai, and villagers all loved the children. Though not related by blood, the villagers were like their family. Kamai was full of people who cared about others.

My aunt, Yoemon’s second daughter, often told me her memories with a cheerful laugh. “I was born in America, but I don’t remember much of anything about America, as I was little. In Kamai, Yoemon’s youngest sister, my aunt, took really good care of me. I didn’t have my parents near me, so I never felt the love of my parents. This is part of the reason I was a slightly difficult kid during adolescence.”

Atae was a brat. He would let the family’s chicken out and do many other bad things. Atae attended a local elementary school. There were some kids his age in Kamai, but they had never even been out of Kamai. All they knew were the fields and the ocean. Since Atae was from America, the other children thought he was different. Since he spoke Japanese with his parents in Seattle, he didn’t have any problem with everyday conversational Japanese. But he rarely wrote Japanese in Seattle and apparently struggled a lot with it in Kamai. He was fluent in English, but he didn’t use the language that much in Kamai. At times when he spoke some words of English, people around him were surprised at how fluent he was.

Yoemon stayed in Kamai for a while and got on the Africa-maru the following year on March 22, 1921. On April 7, he returned alone to Seattle from Yokohama, leaving people behind who were sad to see him go. I found the boarding list of the Africa-maru and his passport. In his passport, there was a note saying, “Going to North America again for hog-raising business” with Yoemon’s signature. Yoemon was helping his brothers’ hog-raising business.

The back of Yoemons passport which he used to return to America at age 36 March 1921

On the back of his passport was his photo with the permission to enter America written in English.

Atae’s return to America

A few years later in September 1923, while Yoemon’s children were living in Kamai, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred. The Kanto area turned into ashes because of the disastrous quake, and Japan’s future looked bleak. Yoemon thought that leaving his eldest son Atae in Japan would do no good and decided to bring him back to have him get an education in America. Yoemon’s wife Aki went back to Japan in April 1924 to bring Atae to Seattle. Atae and Aki headed to Seattle in May of the same year.

Meanwhile in America, the anti-Japanese movement was reaching its peak. In May 1924, the Immigration Act of 1924 was enacted. This law proved to be a crucial factor in the deterioration of the Japan-U.S. relationship. Once enforced, all immigration from Japan was deemed illegal, even if a husband wanted to bring over his wife, children, or parents. Upon hearing that the law was going to be enforced soon, Nikkei people in Seattle hurriedly called over their family in Japan. Like Yoemon, many of them called over children they had left with their family in Japan. For single men, it was their last chance to find Japanese brides. In July 1924, before enforcement of the law, many Japanese people landed in Seattle. It was under such circumstances that Yoemon returned his eldest son, Atae, to Seattle.

Ataes photo from his passport at age 9 May 1924

I found Atae’s passport with a picture of him in kimono attached to it.

Ataes passport when he returned to America at age 9 May 1924

In the passport, there was a note that said, “Going to North America again with my mother” with Atae’s signature. The boarding list of the Manila-maru with Aki and Atae’s names was kept safe, too. Aki was 30, and Atae was 9. At the time, the Miyazaki couple from Aki’s parents’ house were with them. It must have been encouraging for Aki to head to Seattle with her relatives.

The two girls were left in Kamai and forced to continue their lives there. They were so sad that they started to cry when parting with their mother, Aki. Though there were some cases where girls went to America to marry and get jobs like Aki, it was rare to send two daughters to America for education at the time.

Yoemon was joined by Aki and Atae, and the three of them started a new life in Seattle. Yoemon faced two challenges: he had a great ambition to further expand his barbershop business and have Atae get an education in America.


  • Hokubei nenkan (North American Almanac), Hokubei Jiji-sha, 1928.
  • Kojiro Takeuchi, Beikoku seihokubu nihonimin shi (History of Japanese Immigrants in Northwestern America), Great Northern Daily News, 1929.
  • Toshihiro Minohara, Hainichi iminho to nichibei kankei (Anti-Japanese Immigration Law and Japan-U.S. Relationship), Iwanami-shoten, 2002.

[Editor’s Note] : This series is a collaboration between The North American Post and Discover Nikkei (discovernikkei.org), which is a program of the Japanese American National Museum. It is an excerpt from “Studies on Immigrants in Seattle – Thoughts on Yoemon Shinmasu’s Successful Barbershop Business,” the writer’s graduation thesis submitted at the Distance Learning Division at the Nihon University as a history major and has been edited for this publication.