Running right through Boca Raton is a thoroughfare known as Yamato Road. It’s one of a few little reminders of the town’s storied past and humble beginnings. The street’s name is a tribute to the Yamato Colony, an early 20th-century colony of Japanese pineapple farmers.
It all started with Standard Oil magnate and railroad baron Henry Flagler. His Florida East Coast Railway Company was building railways in the Boca Raton area and wanted to encourage people, especially immigrants to settle the land and bring in business for the railroad. In 1903, the Florida East Coast Railway Company met Jo Sakai, a Japanese man who had just graduated from NYU. Sakai purchased 1,000 acres of land, and then recruited young men from his hometown of Miyazu, Japan to come settle. The plan? Use the land to grow pineapples, and have the young men farm. From there, pineapples could be shipped out on the railroad.
The plan was solid enough that hundreds of young men from Japan came to live in what became known as the Yamato Colony. But, Sakai’s plan was only solid in theory… it didn’t exactly pan out. By 1908, the farmers’ pineapple crops were ravaged by blight, not that it mattered much, since cheaper and faster-growing pineapples were being imported from Cuba en masse. Despite the fact that many of the colonist farmers had already moved elsewhere or even returned home, the colony still managed to survive until WWII. The land was then possessed by the US Government to use as Army Air Corps training base.
World War II was an especially tough time for Japanese Americans. Those who stayed in Florida were lucky enough that they weren’t forced into internment camps, although their rights were severely limited; they were ordered to stay in the county, and some were given “official escorts”. Ultimately, only one farmer stayed in the area: George Morikami. He came over to join the Yamato Colony when he was 19, and though he planned to return to Japan after his three-year contract to farm was up, he was unable to collect the cash or land he was promised. After WWII, he was able to purchase some land in nearby Delray Beach, 200 acres of which he donated to the county in 1973. He died in 1976, a year after ground broke on Morikami Park. George’s ashes were sent back to Miyazu, which is now a sister city to Delray Beach. Today, there’s also the Morikami Museum as well, which serves as a center for Japanese art and culture, complete with serene gardens and a tea house.