These things are by nature impossible to see, but the Florida Atlantic University parking lots in Boca Raton are built on a lost civilization.
In 1903, 29-year-old Japanese pioneer and recent NYU graduate Jo Sakai had a notion. He would gather together a small band of enthusiasts, investors, and hangers-on, he told the Jacksonville Board of Trade. Together, they would grow pineapples and rearrange a little piece of America based on utopian ideals and Japanese know-how. “A Jap here at Rickard’s looking for a tract of land for a colony,” noted Frank Chesebro, Boca banana pioneer, in his diary. By 1905 the Yamato Colony set sail. The educated colonists were few at first, and they didn’t actually know how to farm, but they worked hard for their new tropical micro-paradise. Clusters of shacks sprouted up on the half-flooded, mosquito-infested plantation. “Industrious Japs Will Soon Incorporate” read the headline in the Tropical Sun. The all-Jap colony “is intensely patriotic and is working in every way to advance the general welfare of the state.” Children were born, children were raised. A railroad station and post office were built.
Yamato was designed with Japanese traditions in mind, but pioneering tends to be a tradition-eraser. “I am feeling very uncomfortable to live in Japanese house even I born such place,” Sakai wrote in a 1904 letter to T.M. Rickards, Boca Raton’s first developer and aid to the Yamato project. “How I love U.S. you can not guess it!” Customary Japanese interiors gave way to swampy pioneer chic. Billiards and ice cream socials replaced the celebration of Japanese holidays. Bacon and eggs for breakfast, sashimi for lunch. “Their highest ambition being to be called Americans and citizens of this country, which they greatly admire,” The Florida Farmer bragged on their behalf. Within a few years, they had started to make a go of it; acres of fruits and vegetables blossomed over the colony. Big shots from all around the great state of Florida came to check out their farming prowess and learn their special techniques. Bit by bit, the Yamato Colony helped revolutionize Florida agriculture.
Still, it was never easy for the residents of Yamato. Their neighbors, enthusiastic in print, worried these Japanese immigrants could ever really assimilate. Laws prohibited them from intermarrying and they couldn’t even become citizens. “As workers they are valuable to the white growers who would employ them,” wrote the Jacksonville Florida Grower, “but as property owners they are not desireable.” 1908 brought a terrible pineapple blight. In the teens, Cuba started bringing low-cost pineapples into the States and Yamato farmers just couldn’t compete. In 1919, the post office closed and families starting drifting away. The 1920s brought incorporation and the Big Boca Boom, led by Addison Mizner, notorious development genius and shyster. It was Mizner who would shape the Boca Raton of our collective present-day experience, the city-as-playground, who would fill up Boca with golf clubs and Healthitoriums, ornament it with a wood-like compound called “woodite.” Addison Mizner turned tropical Florida into tropical-themed Florida. By the 1930s, Jo Sakai was dead and just a handful of families were keeping his dream alive.
One day, in 1945, Henry Kamiya returned to Yamato after a four-year stint in an internment camp in California. Standing before him as far as the eye could see was an enormous Army airbase built by the U.S. Air Corps. The land of the few remaining farmers had been seized by eminent domain. It was said that Yamato was renamed “Blitz Village” for a while as the Air Corps men used the empty Japanese houses for target practice. Henry lingered around for a year or so, but rumor around Boca had it that he was a cousin to that emperor of Japan. Nothing was left anyway, so he went back to California. In 1949 or maybe 1955, Henry returned to Japan and died. His American children, all born in Yamato, flew his ashes back to America and buried them at his wife’s grave in West Palm Beach. As for the airbase, it shut down around 1947 and lay abandoned for a decade or so. “A deteriorating and empty mess hall, and about twenty-odd other wooden buildings of World War II vintage,” was what historian Roger Miller found when he visited the site. Today, under the parked cars at the Florida Atlantic University campus, lie the old runways of the airbase.
In the words of Douglas Coupland, Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wishes to be found. For an outsider in the once-tiny agricultural community of Boca Raton, making your way from one beige Boca business park to the next tan mini-mall can be stupefying and disorienting. Still, history has a way of seeping through the pavement cracks. Inside his eponymous museum and gardens, around the site of the old colony, you can visit the gravesite of George Morikami, Yamato’s last colonist. Some say the museum is the premier representation of Japanese culture in America. It has bonsai trees and a traditional Japanese abode and peaceful rock gardens combed just so. The old Yamato colonists might have also liked a place to shoot pool. • 30 April 2010