In the early 1900s many families left Japan and traveled across the Pacific to the United States. These immigrants settled in areas like the Eastside and became integral parts of building the cities and towns we know today. One of them was the Matsuoka Family. Leaving Kumamoto-ken, a province on one of Japan’s most southern islands, Mr. and Mrs. Matsuoka brought their two sons, Takeo (Tom) and Yoshio (John) to Washington state in 1919 after briefly living in Hawaii.
Increased immigration around the time of the Matsuoka Family’s arrival had led to the passing of the Washington State Alien Land Law , which prevented immigrants from buying land in 1921. For this reason, the Matsuoka family leased land in Kent during the 1920s and 30s, first clearing away the large stumps that had been left by the timber companies in order to farm. This extremely difficult work was remembered vividly by both Takeo and Yoshio later in their lives. To remove the stumps that littered the area and develop it into farmland, they used only horses and dynamite. They dug holes under the stumps and dynamited them to hasten their removal. Historian Asaichi Tsushima estimates that many of the stumps Japanese-Americans pulled up were 4 and 5 feet in diameter, often taking almost a whole month to remove entirely.
Once this tremendous work was complete, the Matsuoka family tended 20 acres of vegetables, sustaining themselves through the depression with farming. Yoshio recalled in a 1997 interview that the depression didn’t hit farmers as hard as others because farmers were always struggling to make ends meet. Farming led the Japanese-Americans of the Eastside to work together with their neighbors and create the Strawberry Festival in 1925 which attracted over 3,000 people across the lake. The Matsuoka family were among the many farmers who donated large quantities of strawberries and other produce to this event.
In 1927, Takeo was also a crucial organizer of the Seinenkai (Youth Club) for the young men who were growing up in Bellevue so that they would have a place to gather. He was also among the group that built the Kokaido (Club House), completed in 1930 where men came together as a community for recreation and to celebrate their cultural heritage. Buddhist worship was held at the Kokaido so that citizens of Bellevue no longer had to travel to Seattle to practice their religion.
After their father was crushed by a horse in 1932 and died of related injuries in 1937, Takeo and Yoshio found employment where they could. Both sons continued to farm throughout their lives. Yoshio worked on a farm leased by an Issei (first generation Japanese-American) in Auburn, WA. Takeo farmed land owned by his brother-in-law Tokio Hirotaka at 124th street in the Midlakes area where the Safeway warehouse complex is now located.
When the United States declared war on Japan in December 1941, Japanese-Americans were incarcerated across the nation. The Matsuoka family was taken along with all Issei and Nissei (second generation Japanese-American) citizens of King County to the Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresno, California. Overall 110,000 Japanese-Americans were taken to concentration camps across America’s Western States. Individuals were allowed only one suitcase, leaving behind their personal belongings and the farms they had worked so hard to make arable. Many lived until the end of the war with very little in prison camps. The Matsuoka family was once again saved some of this hardship by their excellent agricultural skills.
In 1942, Takeo went to the Chinook area and voluntarily worked in the beet fields in order to leave incarceration. Takeo and his wife chose to stay in Montana, returning once in 1946 and leaving again for the East. His son Ty did move back much later, in 1985.
Likewise, in 1943, Yoshio requested a transfer and was moved to Hunt, Idaho where he was required to get permission to work on a sugar beet farm. In 1944, Yoshio moved with his wife and daughter to Michigan for a work opportunity. They eventually returned to Washington towards the end of the 1940s for the birth of their second daughter.
In 1950, Yoshio leased the land which he occupied until he retired, becoming known for his ability to grow the best sweet corn on the Eastside. By 1997, Yoshio (John) Matsuoka was the last Japanese-American Farmer left in Bellevue, still working his farm and growing food. It is thanks to families like the Matsuokas that the Eastside was settled. They created the farmland which made our area a resource for Seattle and led to its future development. Theirs is just one story of many that the Eastside Heritage Center strives to preserve and share.
Our Mission To steward Eastside history by actively collecting, preserving, and interpreting documents and artifacts, and by promoting public involvement in and appreciation of this heritage through educational programming and community outreach.
Our Vision To be the leading organization that enhances community identity through the preservation and stewardship of the Eastside’s history.