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Japanese American writer shares insights into San Luis Obispo’s prewar Japanese immigrant community

1926 Pioneer Day float sponsored by the Japanese of Pismo Beach. Courtesy of Shizue Seigel Pismo float 1926_ lo.jpeg
Courtesy Shizue Seigel
1926 Pioneer Day float sponsored by the Japanese of Pismo Beach

Writer Shizue Seigel’s grandfather, “Frank” Sakuichi Tsutsumi and three friends arrived in California from Kumamoto-ken, Japan, in 1905. They worked in the sugar beet fields of Betteravia in Santa Barbara County, before renting land along San Luis Creek south of San Luis Obispo.

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Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
Tsutsumi family farming in Shell Beach, California circa-1920s

Blending Japanese and American technology to irrigate their fields, they grew lettuce, cabbage, peas, and other produce just as the area’s population swelled, due to the petroleum industry.

By 1911, they prospered enough to send for brides. Sometime in the 1910s, Sakuichi leased 140 acres at the site of the failed refinery of Oilport—the location of modern day Sunset Palisades housing development.

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Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
Japanese American farmers hold picnic in Shell Beach circa-1920s

In 1928, he bought several storefronts in Japantown at Higuera and South Streets. 1931 he invested $50,000 in a hotel and more storefronts. He died in 1934 but his widow, Umematsu struggled to manage the farm and Japantown properties during the Great Depression.

On December 7, 1941, their carefully built house of cards devised to circumvent discriminatory Alien Land Laws began to collapse.

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Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
“Frank" Sakuichi Tsutsumi, his wife Umematsu and children Sumiko Ann, Walter Arata and Irene Yoshiko. Sumiko and Walter died of scarlet fever less than two years later
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Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
San Luis Obispo's Japantown circa-1946

Shizue Seigel is a Japanese American writer, artist, and community artivist based in San Francisco.

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Correspondent Tom Wilmer (left) with writer Shizue Seigel

Seigel is founder/director of Write Now! SF Bay, which supports San Francisco Bay Area writers and artists of color though creative writing workshops, events and anthologies that reflect the depth and diversity of the 60 percent of Bay Area residents who are people of color.

Her seven books include Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color, Civil Liberties United, and In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans during the Internment.

Tom Wilmer produces on-air content for Issues & Ideas airing over KCBX and is producer and host of the six-time Lowell Thomas award-winning NPR podcast Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer. Recorded live on-location across America and around the world, the podcasts feature the arts, culture, music, nature, history, science, wine & spirits, brewpubs, and the culinary arts--everything from baseball to exploring South Pacific atolls to interviewing the real Santa Claus in the Arctic.
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