Kishi-Hirasaki History in Orange County

With War, you get internment threats
By Vicki Parfait

In 1906, the Japanese Kishi Colony settled in Orange County to begin a new life for themselves and their children. They became farmers and builders of the community, and were well respected and liked by area businesspeople and neighbors.

In 1921, Japanese Naval Commander Isoroku Yamamoto came to the Kishi colony in Orange County, accompanied by Mishio Kaku, a counselor for the Japanese Embassy. He stayed at the Kishi place, explained that Japan was completing an 8 battleship-8 cruiser squadron for the Navy, and asked Kishi to help develop Texas oil resources to help his home county. Japan was not at war with the US. Kishi decided, whether because of that meeting or not, to organize a company with Japanese capital to develop oil in Orange County. He went to Japan in 1921 to try to raise funds for the project.

Kichimatsu Kishi came here in 1906, his descendant, Henry Hirasaki and his wife, family historian, Becky, said, to assimilate. He built a church to help the colonists he helped recruit become Christians, even though he remained a Buddhist until he died in 1956. He pushed education and becoming part of the community, public schools and business community. His
ancestral family, however, was in Japan. He wanted to help them too, as custom and love dictated. He and other Japanese nationals organized Orange Petroleum Company in 1921 with a large investment from Count Kojiro Matsukata. They found oil on Kishi’s land, but not enough to make it worthwhile and 2-10-1925 the company was dissolved.

When the war began twenty years later, there were those who thought it was open evidence of cooperation with the Japanese war effort. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop the rumors at a time when the country was in panic. It was the beginning of the end of the Kishi colony as an entity.
Kishi’s son, Taro, was in New York City when the war started. He was immediately summoned to the Alien Enemy Hearing Board and released without restrictions. He went home to Orange County to help his family and friends. In Orange County, the authorities because of his many ties to the Japanese government also apprehended Kishi. He was taken to an alien detention camp in Kenady, 52 miles southeast of San Antonio. He was ill with a cold, but other internees helped him as much as they could. After two months of this, he was returned to Beaumont to meet with their Alien Enemy Hearings Board composed of FBI agents, Army and Navy Intelligence, and presided over by Steve M. King, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Unusually, the record of investigation has been left in the FBI main files and no details are left in the area. Family members have said Kishi stated that he was very patriotic toward his adopted country, but also prayed for no serious damage or injury to his native country. That seemed in keeping with what his grandson, Henry Hirasaki knew of his grandfather. It is true, Hirasaki said, that Kishi kept in constant phone and mail contact with Japan before and after the war. He was worried about family there. The businessmen of Orange County, including James O. Sims and W.H. Stark testified in Kishi’s behalf and probably kept him from internment. They stood up for Kishi’s integrity and the fact that he was a needed as an important Orange County businessman. Kishi was released immediately with no restrictions.

W.H. Stark had helped Kishi early on, lending him money to buy an extra 5,000 acres of land for the Japanese Colony. Kishi assiduously paid his debts, but after the ravages of the depression, and paying back the Japanese people who had given him money for the original loan to come to the US threefold, and the failed oil interests, all of which he felt duty bound to look on as their investments, not gifts, finances became a serious problem. He couldn’t pay his land loan to Stark. W.H. Stark liked Kishi, and said he didn’t have the heart to foreclose on the property. Kishi was relieved at that. Stark, however, sold the property to his own corporation, Lutcher Moore Lumber Company, who didn’t mind foreclosing. Kishi could have kept 200 acres, which were filed as a homestead exemption. He was hurt and felt betrayed, and told them to take it all. The Kishi Colony basically ended. Kishi was not allowed to bring in more immigrants once he got back on his feet financially and leased the land back. The only property the family" kept" was the old Kishi Cemetery and it still remains in the family. Taro, Kishi’s son, filed for the cemetery land to be dedicated and remain accessible to the family.

Henry Hirasaki, born in 1938, was only a small child when the war began. "I don’t recall anyone ever saying much of anything other than that we were at war with Japan," he said, "I know they were worried about what was happening to people in Japan, and after the war they were concerned because Japan was devastated. Throughout the war we children were kept very sheltered and within our own community for the most part."

The oldest Japanese cousin still living, Yoshio Hirasaki, was in Nagasaki, working in a factory when the atomic bomb fell. He was 16 or 17 at the time, and, Hirasaki said, "He used to laugh and say he would always be healthy because he was thoroughly radiated." " Some of the families that came with Kishi had men who served in the war fighting against Germany," Henry Hirasaki reported.

The closest anyone of the Japanese communities in the Orange County area came to being looked on as a spy, and who swears to this day that he was not one, was a man named Suzuki.
Kanama Andrew Suzuki was probably a shipping clerk of the Kawasaki Lines, whose president was Kojiro Matsukata. Suzuki opened an office here in the early ‘30’s, purchasing and shipping oil to Japan until 1941. He was involved in Orange County Petroleum, running it at one time.
In 1940, he became an agent of the Japanese government, it was said, and took a census of his countrymen in the Orange, Beaumont and Port Arthur areas. He was apprehended immediately after Pearl Harbor and interned as a dangerous alien enemy, then repatriated to Japan, where he has lived ever since. He recently returned to Orange County for a visit, and spent time with Homer and Becky Stark, who believe his assertions that he was never spying for anyone.

Despite his love for his homeland, Kishi was also highly unlikely to have been a spy. He was a man caught between two worlds that he loved, and the two were at war. He was between "a rock and a hard place," with his ancestral family in Japan, and his offspring family in America. Kishi planned to live his life in America, but no proof has ever been forthcoming that he was anything but good for Orange County or that he conspired against the United States of America. "Knowing my grandfather, there was no way he did anything to harm his family here", Henry Hirasaki said. "All he did was try to sell oil back to the Japanese people who had financed the company for the purpose long before there was a war, or even hints of a war. He was, before anything else, an honorable man. He brought his family here to make America their home. I never saw him to anything to endanger that goal."

Next week, Picking up the pieces as the Kishi-Hirasaki saga continues