Jimmy Yamamoto

Jimmy Yamamoto, seen at age 83 in an illustration made from a 1981 photo, risked everything to enter the United States in 1915.


Editor’s note: This Hidden History column first ran June 4, 2015, in the Times-News and on Magicvalley.com

Jimmy Yamamoto lied to his boss that night in 1915 when he said he was tired and needed to rest.

Yamamoto, 18, had spent three years laboring on a Japanese ship while looking for a chance to slip undetected into the United States.

Under immigration laws at the time, he could not legally enter the U.S.

“I knew if I got caught, that was the end,” he told the Times-News 66 years later. “Immigration officials stood on the dock, making sure no Orientals left the ships.”

When his ship docked at Tacoma, Wash., that night, he saw his chance to escape a life of poverty and start anew in America.

Instead of going to his quarters to rest, Yamamoto, with no money and knowing little English, slid into the water and swam to a pier. Then, under the cover of darkness, he disappeared into the woods.

Yamamoto had planned his daring escape well; he carried in his pockets several valuable silk handkerchiefs he could easily sell for American money.

People “were pretty good to me,” he said, giving him food and asking no questions even though they suspected he was from a ship.

He made his way to Seattle, where he took the first job offered to him — in a salmon cannery.

Yamamoto worked numerous jobs over the next two years as he searched for a place to call home. He finally found that place on the Camas Prairie at Fairfield. Harry Geisler hired him to farm there in 1917.

Meanwhile, Matsuyo Kanno was born in Idaho Falls. Her Issei parents, Yuki and Heiji Kanno, left Japan for Hawaii in the 1890s after their marriage.

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Yamamoto and Matsuyo, who took the name Mary, were married in 1931. Yamamoto purchased property in 1941 and began farming for himself.

In December that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. One of eight Kanno sisters, who lived on the West Coast, had to sell her fine furniture and move to an inland Japanese internment camp.

The Yamamotos were spared that fate.

Eventually, Congress passed legislation allowing people of Japanese birth to become U.S. citizens and Yamamoto became a citizen in 1953. He retired from farming in 1966 and the couple moved to Gooding. Yamamoto died in 1991.

Yamamoto was called “James” only in his obituary. His Japanese name is not known.

Mychel Matthews reports on rural issues and agriculture for the Times-News. The Hidden History feature runs every Thursday in the Times-News and on Magicvalley.com. If you have a question about something that may have historical significance, email Matthews at mmatthews@magicvalley.com.


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