The Hirasaki - Kishi Memoirs – Part I

By: Vicki Parfait



Most people today think of the Orange County area being built and cultivated by Europeans and Arcadians, but there was another major influence. It came here with Kichimatsu Kishi and his colony of Japanese immigrants. There were other Japanese colonies in Texas, but Kishi and his colonists settled here, and stayed. Some of the original colonists are buried in the Kishi cemetery located not far off FM 1135.

One of Kishi’s grandsons, Henry Hirasaki, his wife, Becky, and their adult children, Amy, Jon Kishi, Ken Kiyoshi, Ron Mikio, and foster son, Hiro Nishi, still live on Jap Lane in Orange County in an area that was once owned entirely by Kishi.

Their home is average middle class American brick, with abundant landscaping and a huge vegetable garden every year, lovingly tended by Henry. There is a small Japanese-style flower garden near the front porch, with flowings of pebbles that simulate water, and carefully placed rocks as you move to the doorway.

Inside, it is an eclectic meeting of the Gulf Coast and the Far East. Stored in this mixture of cultures is a Samari sword, and elaborate ceremonial as well as daily use Japanese tea services. There are also Southeast Texas objects, with a love of Cajun beans and rice, and homemade sauerkraut nestled in the blend. Becky jokingly says she cooks "Jap-Tex" instead of Tex-Mex at their house. The environment is one of welcome, friendliness, and wonder at the beauty of art objects, such as the beautifully embroidered portraits of ancestors hanging on the walls. It’s a trip to a different place and time with people who live very much in the present and future.

This part of the story, related by Henry and Becky, who has become the family historian, is about Kishi.

He was born in Japan, the son of Ukichi Kishi. Actually, in Japan, the name would be said "Kishi Ukichi." The family name was always placed first, so the person was identified as a member of that family immediately. Family was one of the most important measures of who and what one was in Japan. But the truth of the matter was that Ukichi Kishi was not born a Kishi at all!

In Japan, the culture and custom was that family or a close friend would help out when a man had no sons to carry on the family name by allowing one of their sons to be adopted. Ukichi Kishi was born a Yamamoto.

It was not to the same Yamamoto that became the great Commanding Admiral of the forces that eventually devastated Pearl Harbor, but that segment of the family was from the same town, Nagaoka, and the probability that they were cousins is almost unquestioned, even if it is not documented.

The custom of adoptions to continue the family name also gave the Kishi’s a son who would care for them in their old age. It was seen as the right thing to do, and an amicable way of keeping the two families as close friends, much as Europeans once arranged marriages of their daughters into other families to ensure allies should they ever be needed as such.

Kichimatsu Kishi grew up and became a decorated veteran of the Russio-Japanese War. When he returned to the mountainous town of his birth on the Sea of Japan, where there is snow much of the time, he found that there was no land worth farming left. He had chosen farming as his way of life, believing that connection to the land was a "good and honorable" way to live. But he would have to leave to accomplish his goal.

He considered moving to Manchuria, which he had seen in the war, and liked, but after the turmoil that country had faced, it was politically and economically troubled. He traveled to the United States to look around for greener pastures.

At first Kishi was drawn to the area that is now Humble, Texas, and the Hirasaki family laughs now that their finances might have been much different if Kishi had settled there in the oil fields, but perhaps not. He came to what is now Orange County, and there was oil in this area too.

Immigration at the time in the US was pretty well closed. Japanese Ambassador Uchida formed the Texas Plan for Immigration that allowed the Kishi Colony and nine other groups, some of which were small and short-lived, to come to Texas. Because young men with no families tended to have other priorities than men with the responsibilities of wives and children, Uchida felt that they would be happier and more contented with their own countrymen.

Some of the young men who had come years before Kishi and his party, had been turned around and deported when they had arrived in Seattle years before the Texas plan was formed. Officials there didn’t understand the agreement between the United States and Japan. Others had gone off to California in search of gold, work with railroads and other pursuits

When Kishi arrived in 1906, he found the land he wanted for the colony, bought it, and returned to Japan to gather people and supplies. He brought in the first group of men who worked here for a year or two establishing an operation, then Kishi returned to Japan to bring the wives of those who were married and for those who were single, he brought brides. There were at least five men in the first group who "needed" wives, and five weddings were held the day the women arrived.

Kishi bought 3,500 acres, and would later add another 5,000 in an area that is now from Hwy 105 to I-10, and from south of Vidor to Orangefield. Most of the area was in a place that was then called Terry, which was at the current intersection of the old Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and Farm Road 1135.

Kishi brought his son, Taro, with him. His baby daughter Toki didn’t come until she was four years old. She remained in her grandfather’s home. Kishi had been married to his first wife, Moriyama in Japan. Their daughter, Toki was very young when her mother died, possibly as young as 8 to 15 months. Pictures show the first Mrs. Kishi to be a beautiful, delicate woman with gentle eyes and a graceful appearance. While still in Japan, Kishi married Fuji, and brought her to Texas with him, where she raised the children as her own. Their union never resulted in children.

Toki was not told that Fuji was not her birth mother until a relative informed her when she was approximately 15. The knowledge was extremely difficult for Toki to handle and was highly upsetting.

Kishi built a large yellow two-story house with a balcony on FM 1135 after the original farmhouse on Jap Lane had burned, sometime around 1921.

They grew rice for the Texas market, and were very successful until the salt-water encroachment. For several reasons, salt water started coming up the Sabine River into Cow Bayou, where the colony got their fresh water for the fields. It killed rice farming temporarily, but Kishi turned to growing cabbages, onions, figs and orange trees and continued to make profits. The cabbages became their cash crop. The orange trees died out with freezes, and figs were not a good storage crop.

Kishi brought "stones" as the seeds were called, for camphor laurel trees and planted them throughout the area. They reminded him of home, and they did well. They were planted because Kishi loved beauty, and felt that it needed to be incorporated into the place they would make their home so far away from his own country. One has been designated the largest camphor tree in Texas. It is located near the intersection of 105 and FM 1442. These trees are scattered sporadically throughout the area today, but most are gone now. Kishi told a nine-year-old cousin that "Things like this will live long after human life is gone." As usual, he was right.

Religion was an important part of Kishi’s life, and he was a devout Buddhist. He claimed that he was too old to change his lifelong beliefs, but was firmly committed to the fact that the children should be brought up in the new country as Christians. As he did everything, he studied different denominations, albeit with a Buddhist frame of mind as he pored over the Christian writings and Bible, and finally decided on Methodism, as a less radical of the choices available. He said there was very little difference between Buddhism and Christianity as far as doing good was concerned, adding, "Man without God in his heart cannot attain the full measure of his services to mankind."

By 1922,Kishi offered to build a church for the Terry community so children could be raised as "good Christians". Kishi’s business manager was Harry A. Watts, whose father, the Rev. WW Watts was minister of First Methodist Church in Orange who talked to the Bishop and helped make arrangements. The Terry Methodist Church came into existence because of a Buddhist man.

Kishi paid half the preacher’s salary, and the other half was paid from donations. Kishi provided funds for utilities, and provided a car for the church. Kishi even taught a Sunday School class, translating the Bible into Japanese and interpreting it.

A group of devoted mission workers were brought in to help teach Christianity, many of whom boarded for a time with the Kishi family. When the first, a Miss Kennedy, came there, Kishi’s wife, Fuji, was not enthusiastic. She was, she said, "Getting aged and tired," and was obviously reluctant to live with a stranger in her house. As time went by, she enjoyed these devout Christian women immensely, and missed them when they weren’t around.

Kishi had brought Christianity to his people. The next step was full education. In 1928, Kishi donated land for the school in Orangefield for a meager $550 charge for the acreage, but added a codicil to the deal. If the school in Orangefield ever ceased to exist there as a free public school, under the Orangefield Independent School District, the land would revert to him or his heirs. The agreement is still in effect today.

Kishi was well known and respected among the businessmen of the time, including such worthies as William H. Stark and James O. Sims. These relationships would prove one of the greatest assets...and later one of the greatest downfalls, of the Japanese community in Orange County.

Watch for part two in next weeks issue in this multi = part series

WW2, and the Japanese Americans In Southeast Texas