Modest and Convincing

Sawai

In June of 1904, Zenhichi Kitagun Sawai, a Japanese student from the Cornell University School of Agriculture, came to Skaneateles to speak on the causes of the Russo-Japanese war and its probable effect upon commerce with Manchuria. Delivered at an open meeting of the Business Men’s Association in Library Hall, the talk received mixed reviews. One account noted, “Mr. Sawai has poor command of the English language and it was difficult for many to understand him, but he made strenuous efforts to present his subject clearly. Like all his countrymen, he is small in stature, brown in complexion, and of a lithe and active figure. His remarks were modest and convincing.”

The audience of 75 was said to be disappointingly small, but in retrospect seems like a pretty big house given the topic. I’m at a loss to say who arranged the lecture, or why, but I can tell you what became of Zenhichi Sawai. After his graduation from Cornell in 1905, he worked in Texas, as the manager of a rice farm in Terry County, the heart of that state’s rice-growing region. He later moved west, to work on farms in California.

During World War I, Zenhichi Sawai registered for the draft in San Fernando at the age of 41. In 1920, he married Mino Ichiker, another Japanese citizen living in the U.S. In 1929, their daughter, Isako, was born in Sacramento. The 1940 census found them living in Berkeley, California, with Mr. Sawai, now 62 and retired from farming, teaching in a private school.

And then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. The Cornell University graduate who had spent 40 years living, studying, farming and teaching in the United States, suddenly became, simply, Japanese. On September 28, 1942, Zenhichi, Mino and their American-born daughter Isako were “evacuated” from their home by U.S. troops, taken first to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, and then to the Central Utah Relocation Camp, a.k.a. Topaz War Relocation Center, in Abraham, Utah, surrounded by desert, guard towers and barbed wire. A far cry from Ithaca, Skaneateles or Berkeley.

Topaz

Zenhichi Sawai died there on December 12, 1943. On the internee inventory form, in the column under “Type of Final Departure,” there is a simple typed D by his name. The next two lines tell us that Mino and Isako Sawai were released and returned to Berkeley on July 17, 1945.

Isako Sawai

Isako Sawai attended the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated from the College of Agriculture with a BS degree in 1952. The next year, she married Shinji Momomo. Her mother, Mino Sawai, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953 and lived in Alameda County, California, until her death in 1985.

* * *

Photos: Zenhichi Sawai from The Cornell Countryman, May 1905, Cornell University College of Agriculture; Topaz War Relocation Center by Francis L. Stewart from the collection of the National Archives; Isako Sawai from the 1952 yearbook of the University of California at Berkeley.

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