‘Land of Joy and Sorrow, The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley’

    ‘Land of Joy and Sorrow, The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley’

    By Patti Hirahara
    For The North American Post

    Downtown Yakima parade July 6 1935 Photo Courtesy of Yakima Valley Museum

    On August 24, members of the Seattle Japanese American community traveled to Yakima to witness the historic dedication of a new permanent exhibit, “Land of Joy and Sorrow, The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley,” at the Yakima Valley Museum. Of the 160 people in attendance — from Seattle, Yakima, Spokane, Moses Lake, and Southern California — many are descendants of families that lived in the Yakima Valley before and after World War II. The attendance was larger than that of those that attended the first grand opening of the museum exhibition in October 2010. The initial exhibit, “Japanese Pioneers of the Yakima Valley,” was the most popular and state-award-winning exhibit during its run from 2010 – 2020.

    The Yakima Valley JA pioneers began in the Yakima area in the late 19th century and evolved into a pre-war Japanese community of 1,017 people. They farmed and provided services and lodging.

    Seattle attendees L R KNEELING Gibby Mitsui Nancy Frederick Toshi Mealy Martha Mealy Kara Mealy Katie Cunningham and Senator Bob Hasegawa 11th District<br >MIDDLE ROW Lance Inaba Glenn Mitsui Arlene Mitsui Jayne Inaba Danny Kikuchi Amy Arai Kai Fujita Rae Nishida Debbie Kashino Shigeru Nishida Bill Tashima and Caitlin Oiye Coon Densho BACK ROW Joel Kikuchi Melanie King Bruce Inaba Paul Kikuchi and Erin Shigaki Photo Patti Hirahara

    According to information provided in 2013 by the museum from its original exhibition, there were approximately 99 pre-war Japanese farms in the Yakima Valley. In the city of Wapato, there was a Buddhist Church and a Methodist Church. There was also a Japanese school, a Kaikan Community Center and Gymnasium, three stores, a car repair, and three restaurants.

    Pre-war, many Yakima Valley truck farmers came to Seattle to sell vegetables and fruits by driving the long route from Central Washington to Seattle. Then, the Yakima Japanese community was bustling with activity in the city of Yakima with sixteen hotels, three barbers, eight cafes and restaurants, three cigar stores, one dentist, one grocery, one insurance broker, three laundries, a pool hall, four produce stores, one radio company, a tea parlor, three stores and one apartment building.

    Yakima Buddhist Temple Ochigo 1930 Ochigo is an annual ceremony where young children wear Japanese ceremonial dress and parade outside the temple
    Museum location 2 hours 24 min from Seattle Image Google Maps

    After the war, only 10 percent of the JA community returned after being sent first to the Portland Assembly Center and then to their forced incarceration at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Relocation camp from 1942 – 1945. Accordingly, when the initial exhibit opened in 2010, many Seattle people had not known that a major JA community had existed in the Yakima Valley before WWII. Now their story will be permanently told at the Yakima Valley Museum for future generations.


    “Japanese used the ideographs for ‘burning horse’ when they wrote the word, it must have seemed to them… a land hot enough to even burn a horse. And in winter, the cold was severe, too.”
    — Kazuo Ito, “Issei” (1973)

    Nisei at the Yakima Buddhist Temple Today it is the only surviving JA church Photo Densho

    Further Reading
    • Tammy Ayer, 2023, “Museum opens exhibit about Japanese families who settled in the Yakima Valley.” Yakima Herald-Republic,” Aug. 28.
    • Thomas H. Heuterman, 1995, “The Burning Horse: The Japanese-American Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920 – 1942,” Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press, 160 pp.

    Teiko Tomita, describing her arrival in 1921:
    “I went to the States and began farm life in Wapato. By that time the sagebrush was cleaned off and as far as the eye could see was cultivated land growing abundant crops. …

    Nevertheless, the house was only a little better than a shack, being a two-room cabin hastily put together. There was no electric light, so I had to polish oil lamps every morning.We had one small stove… which took wood or coal, and from time to time I picked up roots of sagebrush and used it as fuel, too. I got water from the well outside. In the coldest season, you could hear the eggs in the cupboard… cracking… in the summer it was scorching hot. …”
    — Kazuo Ito, “Issei” (1973)

    Issei map of Yakimas centrality Kanji read Douhou no Katsuyakusuru Hei­gen Fields where our brothers and sisters people from our country thrive Image Yakima Plains Japanese History Yakima Japanese Assn 1935
    The Wapato Nippons 1935 were a famous amateur baseball team of the Yakima Valley Their ability to work cohesively on both diamond and farm led to two Mount Adams League championships Photos Courtesy YVM

    How did the experiences of Yakima Valley Japanese Americans differ from those of others elsewhere?

    The Yakima Valley Issei could purchase or lease land through a loophole in U.S. law that was written to “civilize” Indians. The Dawes Act (1887) allowed individual Indians to own parcels of tribal land.

    As native land is technically outside the U.S., the latter’s Alien Land Laws (Washington, 1921 – 1967) did not apply.

    Moreover, the Indians found a kinship with JAs, probably because both groups faced prejudice from others. Native and JA baseball teams played each other.
    — Ed.