By Tom Gregersen, Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
The Yamato Colony was a pioneering community of Japanese settlers who came to the Boca Raton area in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the summer of 1905, Colony leader Jo Sakai (1874 – 1923) and a group of around fifteen Japanese men established the colony on a 40-acre parcel of land just west of the Florida East Coast Railway in the vicinity of present-day Yamato Road. The colonists purchased the site, which was part of the 610-acre Keystone Plantation, with the help of the Model Land Co., a subsidiary of the FEC. The settlers named their colony "Yamato," an emotion-laden poetic or patriotic designation for Japan itself. It was a choice that reflected the settlers’ pride in the colony project and expressed their confidence in the colony’s success.
The story of Yamato, however, begins with the visit to Florida of the 29-year-old Sakai in the autumn of 1903. A recent graduate of New York University, Sakai arrived in Jacksonville from New York City armed with letters of introduction. He met with Charles Garner of the Jacksonville Board of Trade and other state business and political leaders to lay out a plan for establishing a number of Japanese colonies in Florida to engage in agriculture. Reaction to his proposal was enthusiastic. Sakai soon found himself on a tour of the state to inspect possible sites for the first of his proposed colonies. He visited Boca Raton, site of one of two colonies to materialize, on Christmas Day, 1903.
Floridians supported Sakai’s plan because they believed it had much to offer the state. The colonies Sakai proposed promised to benefit Florida by introducing new crops and new agricultural methods that others could emulate, thereby stimulating the growth of Florida’s agricultural economy. Floridians hoped his project would do nothing less than revolutionize agriculture in the state.
After signing a contract with James Ingraham, president of the Model Land Co., to locate his colony at Boca Raton, Sakai sailed for Japan in February, 1904, to recruit settlers just as the eighteen-month Russo-Japanese War was beginning. Despite delays caused by the war, he returned to Florida by November leading a contingent of colonists.
However, even with the establishment of the colony on a permanent site the following summer, Sakai struggled with recruiting families, seen as necessary for the long-term stability of the colony, with the result that Yamato never grew very much in size. Experimentation with new crops, at the heart of the colony’s purpose, also foundered as the settlers concentrated on crops already being grown in the area in order to make a living.
Still, the colony did flourish for a time. Before long, "Yamato" as a place-name was applied to more than just the Japanese settlement, but included the entire area. The FEC Railway erected a train station on Dixie Highway just north of present-day Yamato Road in 1906 and the U. S. Postal Service changed the designation of the local post office from Wyman, as the area had been known previously, to Yamato. Some established farmers, including Sakai himself, his brother, Henry Tamemasu Kamiya (1875 – 1962), and Hideo Kobayashi (1883 – 1967) among others, returned to Japan briefly to marry and bring wives to Yamato.
In 1907 Count Masakuni Okudaira (1880 – 1940) purchased 40 acres adjacent to the original Yamato Colony tract, raising the number of Japanese landowners who were growing pineapples to at least seven. During the 1907 – ’08 season these farmers shipped 10,000 crates of fruit harvested from a total of 43 acres under cultivation, and even sent two crates of extra choice pineapples to the imperial household in Tokyo. In addition, Yamato farmers shipped 20,000 crates of tomatoes to northern markets during the same season. Despite the volume of this activity, Yamato farms tended to be small, with 5-, 10-, and 20-acre plots widely scattered over several square miles, not all of them near the area that was recognized as Yamato. Several landowners farmed property in section 33, a township division on the Intracoastal Waterway that today is bisected by the C-15 Canal separating Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
When, two decades later, the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s convinced many Yamato settlers that the time to sell their property had come, most left the state. A few remained, only to lose their land to the federal government in 1942 as the U. S. Army sought a location for an Army-Air Corps technical training facility. Two Japanese families, the Kamiyas and the Kobayashis, were told to move, while other Japanese also lost property. In all, five Japanese landowners lost a total of 296 acres within an area reserved for the Boca Raton Army Air Field that was 5,820 acres in size. (The largest landowner affected was the Lake Worth Drainage District.) Although none of the four Japanese households remaining in Boca Raton at the outbreak of World War II were interned, the removal of two of them from their homes in Yamato was only one of the ways in which the war impacted them. Because of their classification as resident enemy aliens, Yamato settlers Hideo Kobayashi, George Sukeji Morikami (1886 – 1976), and Shohbi Kamikama (1889 – 1974) all had bank accounts frozen and their movements restricted, at least for a time.
Jo Sakai brought to Florida Formosan tea and mulberry shrubs as well as experts in raising silk worms in an effort to realize the potential of his colony project. Furthermore, Yamato provided the starting point for at least three other Japanese colony efforts in the state (in 1906, 1909, and 1910), one of which did enjoy a measure of success. Although Yamato fell short in leading the way to reinvigorating the agricultural economy of the state, the Japanese colony nevertheless benefitted Florida, contributing meaningfully to its rich and exciting ethnic heritage.
To read more about the Yamato Colony check out these issues of the Boca Raton Historical Society's Spanish River Papers: