Asian Immigrants in Florida

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.

8 thoughts on “Asian Immigrants in Florida”

  1. My grandparents, like yours, migrated to the area near the Morikami; both of my grandmothers volunteered there at one point or another. I became an expert too late to give them the pride of having their grandson show up and give a talk, or something like that, unfortunately.

    The Yamato colony in Florida is one of several small-scale attempts to create self-sustaining footholds. Many of them, like this one, peter out, but some had lasting effects anyway — the Texas Japanese who brought new methods of rice farming and the mandarin orange to east Texas, for example.

    It is unfortunate that the ballot measure failed, though. I would think a court challenge would succeed, but it would be hard to find someone who has standing, I guess.

  2. As far as I know, the only category of people currently ineligible for citizenship but eligible for residents are the HIV infected (although they should get full immigration rights next year). I wonder, could an HIV patient residing in Florida sue with standing to eliminate this provision?

    Charles, I’m just saying I’ve never seen it in going on in the 4 years I’ve spent here in Kyoto. I know there are still some kite-based festivals around, so maybe I’ll go check one out someday, but kite flying seems pretty dead as a leisure activity, at least around here. But a few weeks in China and I saw hundreds of kite flyers in several different cities.

  3. There’s a big kite festival near where I live, but I admit that I saw more kites in China. Your link to the Morikami gardens just goes to their logo, btw.

    The problem with the Morikami, based on nothing more than a brief check of the photos and their design philosophy, isn’t the size per se, but the eclectic nature of the place, with every sort of garden crammed in. Some Japanese gardens are indeed quite large – the strolling gardens, such as the Big Three of Kenrokuen, Korakuen, and Kairakuen, are quite extensive. But you are right in that the vegetation doesn’t help. It looks far too wild.

  4. The Florida elections people screw things up on a regular basis. Bush v. Gore is the best known example, of course, but I also remember the fate of high-speed rail.

    There had been a referendum setting a state budget for it at one point, which was approved by a fairly big margin. Then in 2004 (I believe) some lobbyists got a measure on the ballot to repeal the rail mandate, but most people (including my parents) read the ballot item as re-affirming the rail mandate, and it passed by about the same margin as the original approval.

    Sadly, although I lived close to the Morikami for a few years, and even had the chance to go on a couple of field trips there in school, I never actually got to visit. I will say that when I lived in South Florida, it struck me as one of the least Japanese places in the United States. There is still only one place in Miami I know of to get authentic Japanese food, and it’s a “kosher Japanese restaurant” run by a Jewish guy and his Japanese wife.

    Oh, and to find kites in Japan, you have to find a big park on a summery day when kids aren’t in school. I live close to an enormous riverside park in Tokyo, and have seen quite a few intense kite-flying days there in recent months.

  5. Another simply excellent post. You need to get more exposure. Did you think of submitting this to a Florida newspaper?

  6. “As far as I know, the only category of people currently ineligible for citizenship but eligible for residents are the HIV infected…”

    I’m not sure whether that is really true currently. But there are numerous other, and I think reasonable, restrictions on U.S. naturalization. For example, I believe you cannot have been a Nazi collaborator in any way. USCIS also asks about associations with the communist party, any totalitarian party, terrorist organizations, whether you ever advocated the overthrow of any government by force or violence, and whether you ever persecuted anyone based on race, religion or national origin. Further, you must have “good moral character” which is evaluated similar to the way state bars evaluate it — i.e. you can’t be a felon, and you can’t be a polygamist. The last one, mark my words, is extremely important, and an issue that will be challenged by Muslim immigrants.

  7. Edokko: That is why I phrased it as I did. Former Nazis, terrorists, etc. are banned from entering the US, and so may not become either citizens or residents, or in fact even (legally) visitors. Felons etc. also are often not eligible for visas, so it doesn’t really contradict my statement. Polygamy I am not sure about-while polygamy is of course not recognized by US law, does it disqualify you from entering the country?

    Regardless, all of those exclusionary categories are based on personal choices, which even if unfair are still categorically differenct from restrictions based on ethnicity, place of origin, or HIV infection status (which can easily be due to no fault of the patient).

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