Yoemon Shinmasu, Life of My Grandfather in Seattle
Vol.1 From Kamai to Seattle
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.
Kamai Village in Yamaguchi Prefecture
Kaminosekicho Kamai in Yamaguchi Prefecture is a village on the southern coast of Nagashima, a narrow island in the Seto Inland Sea. Though it can be accessed from the mainland now through Kaminoseki Bridge, ships had been the only transportation available until around the 1960s. It was a small hamlet with approximately 100 houses and a population of about 400.
Jinzou, or “the old man,” who was over 90, and my grandmother Aki lived in the house where I was born. I thought that they were a couple but later I found that Jinzou was my great-grandfather. My grandmother Aki’s husband was named Yoemon and born as the eldest son of nine children of Jinzou in Kamai in 1884. He had passed away before I was born, but I remember his pictures displayed in rooms in the house.
His name was always brought up at gatherings on ceremonial occasions when relatives and villagers came to my natal home, a big house with a garden. Everyone would say, “Yoemon was such an esteemed man, building this big house for his parents and siblings.” Yoemon went to Seattle and made a success out of his barbershop business, which led him to have this house. But he died young in Seattle in an unfortunate accident. This is the story I’d heard.
Kamai was a small village of people who made a living out of farming and fishing, but it also had a number of people who have lived in the United States. They mix in English words with their Japanese, and they have regularly eaten bread and coffee (rather than traditional rice and miso soup) for many years. I remember seeing it served as a child. According to the “History of Kaminosekicho,” a total of 28 people from Kamai went to America in the early 1900s. They went there not as immigrants per se but rather as dekasegi workers (migrant workers) to send their wages back home, and they literally worked themselves to the bone.
Unraveling Life History of Yoemon Shinmasu
I left Kamai when I entered college, and after working at a business planning department of a foreign-affiliated maker in Kobe for decades, I retired in 2015. With a fresh mind, I thought about going back to college, but then I remembered my grandfather whom I never had a chance to meet: Yoemon, who sailed across the Pacific Ocean from a small island to Seattle back in the Meiji Era. Why did he travel to a foreign country so far away and how was he able to make such a big success? I remembered that I had been interested in the 25 years of his life in Seattle, something that I would not have a chance to know, and I wanted to learn about it from a third-person perspective through the studies of the history of Nikkei immigrants in Seattle. I studied at the Distance Learning Division at Nihon University as a history major and wrote my graduation thesis titled “Studies on Immigrants in Seattle – Thoughts on Yoemon Shinmasu’s Successful Barbershop Business.”
I started looking for materials on Yoemon in my natal house, and I found some stuff that had been kept with care by my father, Atae, such as photos of when he lived in Seattle as an immigrant, journals of him and Yoemon, passports, a manifest, and public school records. I also visited the National Diet Library and the JICA Yokohama Japanese Overseas Migration Museum and found some references on Yoemon in Beikoku seihokubu nihon iminshi (History of Japanese Immigrants in Northwestern America) by Kojiro Takeuchi and the archived articles of a Japanese paper in Seattle Taihoku Nippo (Great Northern Daily News). Reflecting on the historical background described in a number of resources such as Kazuo Ito’s Hokubei hyakunen zakura (100-Year-Old Cherry Blossoms in North America) and Mitsuhiro Sakaguchi’s Nihonjin america iminshi (History of Japanese Immigrants in America), I was able to figure out the truth of how Yoemon lived his life in Seattle and made his barbershop business a success.
Japanese immigration to America began in Hawaii in 1868. By 1884, 153 Japanese people had moved to Hawaii as migrant workers under King Kalākaua’s pro-Japan policy in the Kingdom of Hawaii. In 1871, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Hawaii and Japan was signed, and the king was welcomed by the Meiji government as a state guest in 1881. In those days, the western part of Japan, especially Yamaguchi Prefecture, was in a great economic depression with an increasing number of farmers who suffered from hunger and poverty. In an effort to defuse the situation, the Japanese government encouraged immigration to Hawaii, and the Kingdom of Hawaii also asked for Japanese labor for sugar cane cultivation. The Minister of Foreign Affairs back then was Kaoru Inoue from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Inoue must have wanted to send people to Hawaii from his prefecture, which was facing a severe economic crisis. The majority of immigrants to Hawaii turned out to be from Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Yoemon went to Hawaii at age 19 in January 1904. He migrated to Hawaii to help his family out of poverty. He took a minimum amount of necessities and got on a small boat to Kobe from Kamai, as his father Jinzou saw him off. He got on an official ship in Kobe and headed to Hawaii. Traveling by ship back in the days was truly harsh. The ship cabin was small, the sea in the Pacific got rough sometimes, the ship swayed violently, and many people became awfully seasick.
In 1898, the Republic of Hawaii was annexed to the United States, and by 1900 the Kanyaku Imin (government sponsored immigration) from Japan to the Republic of Hawaii had ended. On the other hand, Japanese workers in Hawaii were planning to move to the mainland, hoping for a better wage. Using their experience in Hawaii as a steppingstone, they were eager to immigrate to the United States. Back then the Chinese were the main immigrants from Asia, yet as the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 resulted in a shortage of cheap labor, American capitalists craved Japanese immigrants as an alternative to the Chinese.
Yoemon followed this flow and headed to Seattle from Hawaii in May 1906 after staying in Hawaii for three years. At this time, Yoemon didn’t have a passport or a boarding pass. “He sneaked on by pretending to be a sailor, and as he’d been good at swimming in the sea in Kamai since childhood, he got on shore by swimming, after the ship arrived at the port,” said my aunt, who is 102 years old now and is the eldest daughter of Yoemon. Learning of Yoemon’s courageous act, I was astonished by how desperately determined he was to go to Seattle. Thus, Yoemon landed in Seattle and started his work and life in a foreign land, which was soon to become tormenting.
- “History of Kaminosekicho” (Edited by History of Kaminosekicho Editing Committee, Kaminosekicho, May 1988)
- “History of Immigrants in Hawaii from Oshima-gun, Yamaguchi Prefecture” (Yataro Doi, Matsuno Bookstore, July 1980)
- “Another History of Japan-U.S. Relationship” (Masako Iino, Yuhikaku, March 2000)
[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 Success of 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.