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January 20, 2010 > History: Kimiyo Asakawa

History: Kimiyo Asakawa

Frank and Miyo Tsuji came from Hiroshima, Japan to Centerville in 1891 and settled near the Bunting estate on Thornton Avenue, known as Sycamore Farm. Their daughter Kimiyo was born there in 1903 where her father worked. She was recognized as the first Japanese American born in Washington Township. Their family physician was Dr. C. A. Wills. She attended Centerville Elementary School and helped her parents with household and field work. Clarence Kolb, vaudeville star of "Kolb and Dill" fame, bought the ranch about 1908. He only came for short visits to his ranch leaving the actual ranch work up to the Tsuji and Asakawa families.

Kimiyo married Hirokichi Asakawa, the ranch foreman, in 1920. They raised two children, a son named Alan, and a daughter named Mazie. They also grew up and worked on the farm and attended local schools. The Asakawa family purchased a ten-acre apricot orchard for their home which they farmed for many years.

The Japanese Americans organized their own social and religious activities. They formed the Japanese American Citizen's League in 1934 to plan events, provide welfare services, encourage language study and promote American citizenship.

Pearl Harbor changed everything for the Tsuji and Asakawa families and all people of Japanese ancestry in the area. They were caught in the war hysteria, looked upon with suspicion and restricted in what they could do or where they could go. Then the relocations began. Kimiyo's parents and younger sister, Maeda, left first for Arboga Assembly Center in Marysville before being sent to Tule Lake. Kimiyo's family stayed behind to try to find someone to rent their home and orchard.

The Asakawa family was ordered to report at the bus station in Centerville to be deported. They were allowed to only take one suitcase which contained clothes for four people. They stored their furniture in the barn, but it disappeared. The bus station was a scene of confusion and tears. It was a sickening feeling, leaving their home and birthplace. They were taken to Tarforan Assembly Center where they tried to make a temporary home in a horse stable sleeping on straw mattresses. The family was relocated to Topaz, Utah and later to Tule Lake where they were reunited with their parents and sister. Later they transferred to a camp in Amache, Colorado.

Clarence Kolb owned Sycamore Farm until 1945, near the end of the war, a period of some 27 years. The local paper would report his visit with brief comments such as "Clarence Kolb spent last week at his Centerville Orchard Estate." Kimiyo recalled that she had worked 25 years for Mr. Kolb. Her father was custodian of the ranch.

Sycamore Farm, named for the huge sycamore trees there, was owned and developed by John and Elfleda (Fleda) Bunting. They built a beautiful three-story mansion, a four-story tank house, and a steam power plant with an irrigation system for their orchard. It was a historic showplace with elaborate landscaping of trees and shrubs imported from around the world and lit by the first electric lights in Washington Township. This was the property Kolb purchased, described as a 40-acre tract with 35 acres in apricots. It was said to be one of the best apricot orchards in the state.

Kolb sold his ranch to Manuel Freitas, a Centerville farmer in 1945. He spent several days here while the deal was consummated. He donated a whistling swan and three Canadian honkers from his ranch to the Oakland City Park Department.

Clarence Kolb and his partner, Max Dill, were masters of slapstick comedy and vaudeville favorites for many years. Kolb was tall and lean while Dill was the opposite. They did not always get along behind the scene, but they were a riot on stage. Kolb carried on a separate career in the movies and as a character actor in television.

During the war the Asakawa family had no communication with the people at Centerville except for a few letters of sympathy and encouragement. There were some strained moments when the family finally got back to Fremont. Their house was still there, but the furniture was gone. Someone fired bullets into the tank house, but that ended after the sheriff came.

The Japanese American Citizen's League of Southern Alameda County resumed its activities after World War II ended. Some of the members, including Hirokichi Asakawa, were honored for their agricultural awards at the Alameda County Fair.

Mrs. Asakawa's sister's family was killed in the atomic blast in Hiroshima. She was widowed in 1960, but continued to live in her home on land that was her husband's orchard. She was born in Washington Township. She grew up here. This was her adopted country. Forty years later she was stripped of her freedom and forced by her government to live in detention camps for three years. Yet, she bore no bitterness, only tears of sadness and resignation. She could still say, "This is my country. I would not think of living anywhere else."

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