One of the most obscure footnotes to the recent American elections was the failure of little-known ballot initiative in Florida, which would have symbolically removed from the law books a currently inactive 1926 unconstitutional provision of the state constitution which was intended to prohibit Asians from owning land in the state. The 1926 prohibition is specifically directed at foreigners ineligible for citizenship, which at the time applied to Asians-who were at the time barred from naturalization by federal law.
The language before voters did not explain that the laws first appeared around 1913 during a public panic that Asian immigrants, mostly from Japan, would work on farms for less than Americans and buy up vast tracts of land. It failed to spell out that state provisions were intended to work hand-in-glove with discriminatory federal laws that prevented Asian-Americans from becoming naturalized citizens until 1952.
Rather the ballot simply asked voters if they were willing to delete “provisions authorizing the Legislature to regulate or prohibit the ownership, inheritance, disposition and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.”
Steve Geller, a former state senator who worked to get the initiative on the ballot, said Florida election rules only allowed a description of 75 words, and required that the language of the old provision — “aliens ineligible for citizenship” — be included. As a result, he said, “a lot of people thought it had to do with illegal aliens, and it had nothing to do with illegal aliens.” (NYT)
Few traces remain in Florida of this brief and ill-fated wave of Japanese immigration, and the most prominent is likely the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. It happens to be located very near to my grandparents’ house (like all Jews from Brooklyn, they eventually retired to Florida) and I went there with them a few years back. The garden is pretty nice, I suppose, although I actually got the impression that it is too big to replicate the feeling of an actual Japanese garden, the design philosophy of which is largely based on a fractal-like recreation of the large on a small scale. The significantly different vegetation of Florida also does not help. But the museum does have some neat exhibits (their temporary one the day I went was a pretty cool collection of Japanese kites, which based on my experience is a dead art form in Japan. I saw kites all over in China-does anyone fly them here?) and resources that could be of great interest to a Palm Beach County resident who wants to learn a bit more about Japanese culture. For me, of course, the most interesting thing was the history of the museum itself. And the iguanas.
Their website has a tantalizing, but brief, history of the Japanese in Florida.
In 1904, Jo Sakai, a recent graduate of New York University, returned to his homeland of Miyazu, Japan, to organize a group of pioneering farmers and lead them to what is now northern Boca Raton. With the help of the Model Land Company, a subsidiary of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad, they formed a farming colony they named Yamato, an ancient name for Japan.
Ultimately, the results of their crop experimentation were disappointing and the Yamato Colony fell far short of its goals. By the 1920s, the community, which had never grown beyond 30 to 35 individuals, finally surrendered its dream. One by one, the families left for other parts of the United States or returned to Japan.
One settler remained. His name was George Sukeji Morikami. A modest farmer, George continued to cultivate local crops and act as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In the mid-1970s, when George was in his 80s, he donated his land to Palm Beach County with the wish to preserve it as a park and to honor the memory of the Yamato Colony.
It is sad that a legally meaningless ballot resolution intended only as a posthumous apology to these poor immigrants was accidentally voted down by people who thought they were doing something to hurt current illegal immigrants, but one must admit that the resolution was very poorly worded.