Japanese delegation arrives in San Francisco for 150th anniversary of first Japanese settlement

A clear sky and fresh ocean breeze greeted the Japanese delegation that arrived in San Francisco Friday for an historic celebration of the first Japanese settlement in the United States. 

Over the weekend, the dignitaries will join thousands of people for the public 150th anniversary celebration of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony in Placerville, just east of Sacramento.

Consul General Tomochika Uyama greeted the Japanese delegation at his residence in Pacific Heights before they left for Sacramento.

Among the group is Chikamori Matsudaira, 20, a descendant of the Matsudaira clan lord who provided funding to that first group of Japanese settlers in the United States.
The Consul General greeted Matsudaira and the three dozen Japanese delegates making the emotional pilgrimage to Placerville.

For the young Matsudaira, it is his first visit to the United States, where his family's history intersects with American history.

"I had heard about this story of the Wakamatsu colony, but I didn't know in detail until this occasion," said Chikamori Matsudaira, through an interpreter. 

Matsudaira will be the first of his family to visit the colony, which was funded by his ancestor Katamori Matsudaira. 

"Back then Katamori was not able to make it here. But instead of him I am here to commemorate all those efforts of the settlers," said Chikamori Matsudaira.

It was June 8, 1869 when a Dutch military advisor John Henry Schnell and other settlers including samurai, craftsmen and farmers, left the Aizu-Wakamatsu region of war-torn Japan and established the Wakamatsu Tea And Silk Farm Colony in California.

After two years of drought, the colony failed and was sold to the Veerkamp family, who farmed the land for more than a century employing some of the former settlers.

In 2007, the Veerkamp descendants agreed to sell the historic 272-acre site to the American River Conservancy for preservation.

"It really speaks to the importance of remembering those core values and what it means to be American, and that we are all immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants," said Elena DeLacey. Executive Director of the American River Conservancy. 

"About a third a mile from the farmhouse, there's a wonderful grassy knoll with oak trees. On that knoll sits the gravesite of Okei-san who was seventeen when she immigrated to the United States with the colony from Aizu-Wakamatsu," said DeLacey, "She was only nineteen when she died."  

"As far as we know it is the first known site of a Japanese woman to be buried in the United States and that is one of the reasons the property was placed not only on the state but the National Register of Historic Places," said DeLacey. 

Memorial services for Okei-san will be held as part of the Wakamatsu Festival. The commemoration June 8-9 also will include cultural performances, Wakamatsu history presentations and speeches by Matsudaira and Iehiro Tokugawa, a descendant and heir to the Tokugawa Shogun family 

"The local Californians gave so much welcome to the immigrants and this became the bridge of friendship between Japan and America and gave us this fate and destiny of friendship," said Chikamori Matsudaira.

A member of Japan's House of Representatives Shinji Oguma, told the Japanese delegates this not just the history of Aizu Wakamatsu, but also the roots of Japanese American history and relations.

When those first Japanese settlers came back in 1869 it was before the Golden Gate Bridge. They sailed on a wooden ship. called the P.S. China.

Although the ship that carried the Wakamatsu settlers is long gone, the first class cabin was preserved, and the Japanese delegation got an opportunity to see it in Belvedere.

A head docent with the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society Jack Fiorito showed the delegation the elegantly restored cabin from the P.S. China ship. He also discussed how the Wakamatsu colonists used the elegant cabin during the three week paddle-ship voyage to San Francisco.

"I was surprised," said Chikamori Matsudaira, looking at the 22-carat gold leaf and etched windows of the China Cabin, "This cabin was remodeled as it was and so being here, I feel like I'm back in time and the feeling of those immigrants."

The delegates will now go to Sacramento to meet American descendants of those early settlers.

The visit is a moment of history coming full circle, remembering the journey of immigrants, 150 years ago.