First Japanese Immigrants to the Monterey Peninsula

Nakahama Manjiro

From any particular country, there always has to be a first immigrant to set foot in America. History documents that the very first immigrant from Japan to the United States was Nakahama Manjiro. Born on Shikoku, fate would put Manjiro on a U.S. whaling ship under the command of Captain W.H. Whitfield, and eventually deliver him to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in the year 1841.

Among the first documented immigrant(s) from Japan to California was a group known as the Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Colony, which settlled in Gold Hill, El Dorado County, in 1869.  The 1870 U.S. census states that there were twenty-two Japanese residing at the Gold Hill settlement.

But who was in fact the first immigrant from Japan to the Monterey Peninsula?  Although there may be some who merely  passed through the area, most local historians seem to agree that the first documented presence of a Japanese person was  Otosaburo Noda who arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in the early 1890s. 

As a labor contractor operating out of Castroville and Watsonville, Noda provided Japanese workers to clear forest land.  In 1901, Noda established a Japanese fishing colony to fish for salmon in the Cannery Row area.  He also had a role in assisting the Issei farmers who came to the Monterey Peninsula and discovering the presence of rich abalone beds along the Monterey to Point Lobos coastline.  Although a temporary resident in Pacific Grove, Noda never took up permanent residence on the local peninsula.

The distinction of being the first permanent resident on the Monterey Peninsula belongs to Gennosuke Kodani. Born in 1867 in Chiba ken, Kodani had studied biology at Keio University. At Noda’s prompting, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture considered the economic promise of developing the abundant red abalone beds lining the Monterey coastline. The ministry looked to the biology department at Keio University and chose Kodani to travel to this region to investigate the Noda report. 

Gennosuke Kodani left Yokohama aboard the ship Doric, disembarked in San Francisco on September 14, 1897, and arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in early October of 1897.  Exploring the peninsula coastline, it did not take long for Kodani to translate the bountiful abalone into the idea of an abalone business.  In 1898, Kodani negotiated a partnership with Alexander M. Allan, owner of a 64-acre parcel at Whalers Cove, forming the Point Lobos Canning Company.

Kodani family photo; Gennosuke is second from right

Following their marriage in Japan in December of 1902, Gennosuke and Fuku (Tashiro) Kodani raised nine children. Aside from a work-related tragedy that struck the second son, the rest of the children achieved respect and prominence in various business professions in the local Japanese community.

Following their marriage in Japan in December of 1902, Gennosoke and Fuku (Tashiro) Kodani raised nine children. Aside from a work-related tragedy that struck the second son, the rest of the children achieved respect and prominence in various business professions in the local Japanese community.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 in Japan brought with it several key policy changes that opened the doors to more Japanese emigration. First, the Satsuma-Choshu-Tosa alliance that supported the Meiji government’s defeat of the Tokugawa bakufu led to a reversal of the Tokugawa exclusion policy that forbade Japanese from leaving Japan on pain of death. Second, the Meiji government’s adoption of a strategy to pursue industrial development encouraged Japanese to travel to Europe and the United States, especially to pursue education to acquire western science and technology. Other Meiji policies and post-1870 events—high tax rates, expropriation of former samurai lands, universal military conscription, painful poverty, and domestic recession—acted as incentives to push Japanese to think about the opportunities for a better life abroad.

Across time, people facing hardship in one country have emigrated to another country to pursue better opportunity and dreams. In the first three decades of the Meiji era, 1870 to 1899, many Japanese had visions that the streets of America were lined with gold. The dream for many was to find and mine this gold and then to return to Japan to invest in farm land or business property to live the good life.

Another reason encouraging Japanese immigration to America was the anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese immigrants helped America’s industrial development by working in western gold and ore mines, providing service industries, and building railroads to transport goods. When this source of cheap labor was closed out by the 1882 congressional act, the timing was right for Japanese to fill labor needs in America. So they came from Japan and Hawaii (a stopover point for Japanese emigrants working in the island’s sugar cane industry) in increasingly large numbers.

Part of Japan’s strategy was to identify prefectural skills and ship those skills abroad, all aimed at increasing commercial trade to promote Meiji Japan’s economic, industrial modernization. In this view, it is no surprise that many of the first-generation Japanese immigrants to the Monterey Peninsula came from specific prefectures. Immigrants from Chiba and Wakamatsu ken brought fishing skills; those from Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, and Kumamoto ken transported their agricultural skills.

The first pioneering footprints belong to Otosaburo Noda and Gennosuke Kodani (Chiba). Other early Issei immigrants similarly applied their work skills acquired in Japan to new opportunities on the Monterey Peninsula. Among those who came to settle locally using prefectural work experience and skills in America included: Kanji Watanabe (abalone fishing, Chiba); Koichi Tanaka (farming, Hiroshima); Kumahiko Miyamoto (farming, Kumamoto); Unosuke Higashi (fishing,Wakayama); and Tomekichi Manaka (fishing, Wakayama). Other Issei immigrants would follow, establishing retail and service businesses related to Monterey’s growing Japanese population involved Nihon gakko in the fishing and farming industries.

It is reasonable to think that when humans emigrate from old country to new country, they bring along and use old-country job skills to pursue dreams in the new country. So we find this general pattern partly explaining the arrival of early Issei on the Monterey Peninsula. Combined with the push-factor of economic hardship in Meiji Japan and the pull-factor of dreams about new opportunity in the United States, we see why Japanese immigrants came here to establish new lives in a new place they came to call home.