Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Sam Araki Interview
Narrator: Sam Araki
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: San Jose, California
Date: March 21, 2012
Densho ID: denshovh-asam-01-0001

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TI: So today is Wednesday, March 21, 2012, and we're in San Jose at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, and we have Sam Araki this evening for an oral history. And so, Sam, I'm going to just start from the very beginning and we'll just kind of walk through these things. But can you tell me when you were born?

SA: July 12, 1931.

TI: And where were you born?

SA: Saratoga, California, on the Blaney Estates, it's a little house on Blaney Estates where my father was a gardener.

TI: And so when you were... were you born, did a midwife deliver you or were you in a health facility?

SA: It was in a house and a midwife facility.

TI: Okay. And what was the name given to you at birth?

SA: Minoru.

TI: And so where does "Sam" come?

SA: Well, it sort of came about as I begin to go to college and get out of school and into the work environment. Because "Minoru" was so hard to pronounce. And I don't know how "Sam" came about. Somebody used to call me that, and I think that just sort of stuck.

TI: But legally, did you ever adopt "Sam"?

SA: No, no.

TI: So it's just how people know you what way. So let's talk a little bit about your father. Can you tell me his name and where he was from?

SA: Sakai Araki, and he's from Fukuoka in Japan.

TI: And tell me a little bit about the family. What kind of work did they do in Japan?

SA: It was a farming family, and he came with his father when he was, I think, thirteen years old. And so he started... and he couldn't go to school because they had to work. And as time went on, the father wanted to go back to Japan because his wife was still in Japan. So he was left when he was eighteen years old; he went on his own.

TI: So your grandfather returned to Japan...

SA: Yeah, and on the way, he passed away.

TI: Oh, on the journey back?

SA: Yes.

TI: Oh, that's tragic.

SA: So as a result, he became, he was a very independent person because he got left, was on his own very young. And so you figure he was, at eighteen years old, in a brand new country.

TI: So how did he survive? What did he do?

SA: He basically learned how to become a gardener. And so he found this job on this estate in Saratoga, which was about a mile from where we lived. And the lady -- her name is Blaney, had really a liking for him. And he developed a great rapport, and he learned to not only take care of the garden but how to treat the soil. When I look back, he really learned organic farming techniques as he gardened. So he developed a... that's how he migrated to the fertilizer business. And the Blaney Estates, the aunt owned the Blaney Estates, she didn't have an heir, so the nephew was brought in to inherit the estate, so his name was Kirkwood. And Kirkwood, my dad and he got very close.

TI: Now, age-wise, how close in age was your father and Mr. Kirkwood?

SA: Probably about, I'd say maybe twenty years' difference.

TI: So Mr. Kirkwood was older?

SA: No, younger.

TI: Younger than your father?

SA: Yeah.

TI: So Mr. Kirkwood was a very young man, then.

SA: Yes, yes. And he's the one that helped us greatly during the war.

TI: But then early on, he probably got a lot of help from your father.

SA: Well, they worked together, and he got very, I think they both got very interested in how to create a living soil.

TI: Okay. And how large was the Blaney Estate?

SA: Oh, probably like, maybe a hundred acres.

TI: So a sizeable piece of property to take care of. So we have your father and Mr. Kirkwood who are working together, but then your father eventually moved on. What made him move on?

SA: What happened was, when my dad... this was the early 1930s, it's about 1933, Japan invaded Manchuria. And Manchuria was a key source of fertilizer for Japan, because food was one of the key security items, very critical to the welfare of the nation and for warfare. So Manchuria became the primary source for fertilizer and other minerals like iron ore and so on. So I'm really not sure how my father got involved, but he figured out a way to export fertilizer from Manchuria through a Japanese company and brought it into the United States.

TI: And when you say fertilizer -- my chemistry is old -- but I'm thinking of the chemicals, things like phosphorous and nitrogen?

SA: Well, this is nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash. But what is more important here is the organic side. And he somehow got involved in importing bat guano from Manchuria.

TI: Oh, okay, so this is natural fertilizer.

SA: That's right. Although he had, I'm sure he obtained chemical fertilizer, too, but he really got involved in importing, because there are some big bat caves in Manchuria. And there's some dry lakes that had a lot of residue.

TI: Okay, so probably workers were scraping the stuff...

SA: Yeah, and of course the Japanese were very interested in all this, too, for their own use in Japan. So he somehow got very much involved. And so I think he started his fertilizer business in 1934 while he was still a gardener. And Kirkwood and Blaney wanted him to do that, I mean, this is all sort of... he was really encouraged to do all of this. And so he started his fertilizer business, and that went on until 1938 when the war between Japan and China really got heated, and the relationship with the U.S. began to deteriorate. So he was not able to get the fertilizer shipped out of Manchuria to the U.S. any longer.

TI: Interesting. Now, did Mr. Kirkwood, in any way, was he a business partner with your father?

SA: No, he wasn't, but I'm sure that he really encouraged him to do this. And, of course, Kirkwood became a farmer during the war. So I'm sure that the two worked together to figure out how best to develop fertilizer for his farming.

TI: When I also think of fertilizer, I mean, in the right combination, it can also be kind of an explosive also. Was that ever an issue or anything, did that ever come up?

SA: No, no. And also I still remember riding on his truck to Monterey to get fishmeal. Because during the days when cannery row was very active, a lot of sardines were being caught. The fish that were not sardines, like mackerel, a lot of it got ground up into fishmeal. So I remember him bringing home fishmeal to the warehouse.

TI: Again as fertilizer.

SA: As fertilizer, that's right. So he was mixing his own brand; he had his own brand.

TI: Interesting.

SA: In fact, I still remember he called it DJK brand, and I don't know what DJK stands for.

TI: And how big an operation was this fertilizer?

SA: Well, he serviced every, all the Japanese farmers from Santa Clara Valley all the way into Salinas Valley. So he serviced Watsonville, Salinas, San Juan Bautista. In fact, my wife's father knew him because he sold fertilizer to my wife's father.

TI: So how would his fertilizer compare with, say, like the Italian farmers' or something? They had fertilizer, too...

SA: That's right, that's right.

TI: So what would the differences be?

SA: I think the difference was because of the living organisms, it's an organic fertilizer. And, in fact, I have some photographs from those days, and the produce was really big. I mean, they put... so he really had a good business at that time.

TI: Interesting. Because I'm thinking, and probably the Japanese farmers were comfortable with having natural things in there. I've interviewed people who've lived in Japan, and when you say "fertilizer" for farmers there, it was usually human waste.

SA: That's right, that's exactly right.

TI: So it's very different.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.