Yoemon Shinmasu, Life of My Grandfather in Seattle
Vol.8 Sending money home and a new house
by Ikuo Shinmasu, translated by Kimly Sok
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.
In the last part, I wrote about Yoemon Shinmasu’s venture into the hotel business. This time, I will write about Yoemon’s birthplace, Yamaguchi Prefecture, him sending money back home, and the construction of his new house in Kamai.
An Immigrant from Yamaguchi Prefecture
Yoemon’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi had one of the highest numbers of emigrants in Japan. According to the immigration statistics by prefecture in the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum’s archives, between 1885 and 1894 and between 1899 and 1972, there were 57,837 Japanese immigrants from Yamaguchi living abroad. Nationally, this ranked Yamaguchi as the prefecture with the fourth highest number of Japanese immigrants living abroad after Hiroshima (109,893), Okinawa (89,424), and Kumamoto (76,802)
The immigration records also indicated that in 1926, a large number of immigrants from Yamaguchi living abroad came from three districts in the eastern area of the prefecture. These three districts were Kuga (9,893), Oshima (6,249), and Yoemon’s home district of Kumage (4,492). In terms of the percentage of people living abroad in 1926, Oshima, which had a population of 57,177 people at the time, was the largest with an immigration rate at 10.9%, followed by Kuga at 7.8%, and Kumage at 5.8%.
According to Kaminosekicho shi (The History of Kaminosekicho), 28 people from Yoemon’s home district of Kumage District in Kamai immigrated to the United States, 20 people immigrated to Hawaii, and a number of people immigrating to other regions. In total, this put the number of immigrants from Kamai at more than 50 people. At the time, Kamai had an estimated population of around 400 people, which meant the immigration rate was more than 12% of the population. Even in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Yoemon’s hometown of Kamai stood out as the village of immigrants.
The reason a significant number of Japanese immigrants originated from just a few prefectures was due to well-known politicians from these prefectures, such as Minister of Foreign Affairs Kaoru Inoue, encouraging people to immigrate abroad. It became a unique Japanese tradition for people who did go abroad to ask the people who went before them for assistance. They then would call for other people from the same village to join them abroad and created communities around people from the same village. These gatherings first started at the village and regional level and would work their way up to the prefectural level. There was solidarity in the knowledge that if you went to Seattle, there would be people from the same village, region, or prefecture that you can rely upon. This led to Japanese immigrants in Seattle possessing a very high level of prefectural kinship.
The 1907 book Hokubei washintonshu nihonjin jijyou (Japanese in the State of Washington) noted, “The people from Yamaguchi were typically diligent and strived their hardest in any and all endeavors in a way that surpassed others.”
An article published on May 19, 1917, in the Great Northern Daily News described the Yamaguchi natives this way: “As expected from a prefecture with a lineage of renowned families, Yamaguchi Prefecture is a place with a strong sense of unity.”
The immigrants from Yamaguchi Prefecture who had come to Seattle soon established the Yamaguchi Kenjinkai in 1903, shortly after the immigrants from Hiroshima Prefecture had established theirs. By around 1907, there were 140 members in the Yamaguchi Kenjinkai. The Kenjinkai was indispensable to the immigrants, providing critical assistance with job searches, personal references, housing, companionship, and other support. The clear and prevailing rule of the Yamaguchi Kenjinkai was to help other Yamaguchi natives during their time of need.
The person who would become the head of the Yamaguchi Kenjinkai was Oshima-born Chuzaburo Ito. Mr. Ito was introduced back in Part 2 of this series. He was a strong leader who would pave the way for the Japanese from Yamaguchi to dominate the barber business that was to form the bedrock of the tremendous kinship of the Yamaguchi natives in Seattle. Yoemon’s successful barbershop was also a product of this strong kinship.
Sending money home
The Japanese who went abroad would often send most of their money back home. For a Japanese person, the number one duty was to care for his/her struggling family members back in Japan.
In 1908, before Masanao Hanihara was appointed as ambassador to the United States, he observed various regions of the United States as the second secretary of the Embassy of Japan in Washington. In his report, he wrote, “Recently, the total sum of money being sent to Japan by the Japanese immigrants living in the United States has exceeded 10,000,000 yen. This development is a great boon to the people of Japan. Immigration to the United States must be safeguarded and encouraged.”
In 1925, there were a number of Japanese banks, such as Sumitomo Bank, the Japanese Commercial Bank, and the Oriental American Bank, operating in Seattle. These banks would be used by the Japanese immigrants in Seattle to build their fortunes and to send a lot of money back to Japan.
From the American perspective, this practice of sending money back to Japan by the immigrants became a source of anti-Japanese sentiment. They would bring up the point that the Japanese immigrants were not contributing to American society due to them leading frugal lives and sending the money that they had earned in Seattle back to Japan instead of spending it locally. According to the 1928 publication of the North American Almanac, the amount of money being sent back to Japan by Japanese immigrants outside of Asia totaled 26,320,000 yen (present day value of 26 billion yen). In 1925, the amount of money being sent back by Japanese immigrants in the United States was the largest globally, totaling 14,140,000 yen or 54% of the global amount.
Out of the 14,140,000 yen that was sent back to Japan by Japanese immigrants in the United States, 3,070,000 yen went to Wakayama Prefecture, 2,050,000 yen went to Okayama Prefecture, 1,740,000 yen went to Hiroshima Prefecture, 1,130,000 yen went to Fukuoka Prefecture, and 990,000 yen went to Yamaguchi Prefecture. In terms of the amount of money being send back to Japan, Yamaguchi Prefecture came in fifth place nationally.
In 1925, the amount of money being sent back to Japan from the regions under the jurisdiction of the Seattle Consulate General of Japan was 420,000 yen. In that year, the Japanese population was 8,734, with 3,157 of them owning a business. This meant that each business owner was sending home about 1,330 yen each (present day value of 1,300,000 yen). This massive amount of money being sent back to the homeland was unique to the Japanese immigrants as they far exceeded what their European counterparts were sending back.
When sending money back to Japan, Japanese immigrants would often use the Seattle branch of Sumitomo Bank to carry out their transactions. At the bank teller window, they would be able to convert their money from dollar to yen and designate the recipient of the money on the Japan side. After they had gone through this process, they would then receive a remittance receipt with the transaction number on it. The sender would send the recipient the amount of money, the date, and the transaction number. Once the recipient had this information, he/she would be able to access the money. In Yamaguchi Prefecture, the recipient would receive the money at the Yanai branch of Sumitomo Bank. The remittance receipt for the money that Atae had sent to Aki from Seattle to Japan in 1940 still remains to this day. The receipt that he would have used in 1925 probably would have looked similar to the 1940 one.
The primary recipient of the money that Yoemon would send back home was his father in Japan, Jinzo. Whenever Yoemon notified his father that he was sending money over, Jinzo would ride a ship all the way to Yanai to receive the money. The boat that Jinzo took was the previously mentioned Unyu-maru. The Unyu-maru would leave Iwaishima at 5 a.m. and arrived at Kamai around 6 a.m. Jinzo would ride the Unyu-maru to the port of Yanai where he arrived at around 3 p.m. He enjoyed riding the boat and was proud that his son was making so much money.
Building a house in Kamai
The main purpose for the money that Yoemon sent back home was for the construction of a new house in Kamai. It was Yoemon’s dream to be able to have his parents and younger siblings live in a nice house because his whole family had been living in a shabby and small house by the sea all this time.
With his successful barber business in Walla Walla, Yoemon told his father about his plan of building a new house in Kamai around 1927. While he and his father were sending letters back and forth, they asked a local first-class architect to design the house. The house was also to be made out of the finest of woods, such as keyaki.
Construction of the house began in the spring of 1928. Given that it was being constructed in a seaside village, the house had a low profile and was built away from the sea in the middle of the rice fields in order to minimize the damage that typhoons would cause. At the time, Kamai was often hit by severe typhoons, so houses along the coast would often be swallowed up by the raging sea.
Construction began with the laying of the foundation of the house. The size of the house was unprecedentedly large when compared to the other houses of the time. As construction progressed and the shape of the house began to take form, the sheer size of the house amazed the other villagers, who would come by almost every day to take a look at the construction.
The house had four 106-square-foot hallways, a kitchen, and two 106-square-foot guestrooms. The alcove also was of a size never seen before.
The garden had a large pond as well as various stone lanterns arranged inside of it. These stone lanterns were specifically sought out and transported by boat from Honshu (the main island of Japan). Building such a house was unprecedented in Kamai and it was known as Kamai’s “Shinmasu Palace.”
The house was completed in the fall of 1928. A traditional mochimaki (throwing rice cakes at a gathering) was held. Jinzo, Yoemon’s little brothers and his relatives had to climb up to the roof to get away from all the villagers throwing mochi at them. The villagers were still amazed at the Shinmasu Palace. Shouts of joy were heard throughout the day. Yoemon’s two daughters who had come back to Kamai when they were infants were now 12 years and 10 years old. Both of them were now in elementary school and both of them greatly enjoyed running around in the hallways of the house.
Yoemon was notified of the completion of the house by his father. However, he himself would never get a chance to see the new house.
- Yuki Ishikawa, Nihon imin no chirigakuteki kenkyu: Okinawa, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi (A Geographic Study of Japanese Immigrants: Okinawa, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi), Youjyu Syorin, 1997
- Harry H.L. Kitano; Translated by Isami Uchizaki, America no naka no nihonjin (Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture ), Toyo Keizai Inc., 1971
- Hiroichi Ishioka, Hokubei washintonshu nihonjin jijyou (Japanese in the State of Washington, USA), 1907
- Mitsuhiro Sakaguchi, Nihonjin America Imin shi (The History of Japanese Immigrants in America), Fuji-shuppan, 2001
[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.