Thu, January 10, 2013

Seiki Kayamori and His Place in Alaska History

By Zach Jones
View of workers inside Libby, McNeil, & Libby cannery,
circa 1925. Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives.
In 1912 thirty-five year old Japanese national Seiki (Shoki) Kayamori (1877-1941) arrived in Yakutat, Alaska, to work at the local salmon cannery. He joined a crew of Japanese, Filipino, and Tlingit Indian workers already employed in the Yakutat cannery. He was one of the many individuals that make up Alaska’s diverse ethnic population and history. Kayamori, however, was an amateur photographer and spent the next thirty years photographing the people, community life, and environment around Yakutat. His surviving photographs archived at the Alaska State Library and Sealaska Heritage Institute provide an intimate glimpse into the environment and life of those in Yakutat between 1912 and 1941. Kayamori’s photographs, and especially his life story, are telling about the history of Alaska in many ways.
Seiki Kayamori was born in 1877 in the village of Denbo, today part of Fuji City in central Japan. He was the fifth of eight children; the second of four sons. The wealthy and prominent Kayamori family owned a paper mill, farm lands and a small department store. Under Japan’s conscription law, Kayamori likely served a three-year military term. The law also required an additional three-year term in the reserves. In 1903, Japan was on the brink of war with Russia, and reservists like Kayamori waited to be called back to duty.
In September 1903, however, Kayamori boarded the steamer Iyo Maru for a voyage from Yokohama to Seattle. He arrived with $87.10 and a steamer ticket for San Francisco, according to the ship’s manifest, which lists his last residence as Tokyo and his occupation as “laborer and farmer”. The ship’s manifest lists his destination as the Japanese Methodist Mission on Pine Street.
By 1910, Kayamori was living in Seattle’s Welcome Hotel and working as a “cleaner and passer” at a dye works, according to census records. Around 1912, he moved to Yakutat, a small Tlingit village in southeast Alaska, where he worked in the Libby, McNeil, & Libby fish cannery. Racist attitudes and active unions at the time ensured that the jobs available to Japanese immigrants on the West Coast were largely limited to agricultural, railroad, laundry and cannery work. After his father’s death, Kayamori’s mother went to live with her grandson’s family in Manchuria, then a Japanese colony. According to family members, Kayamori sent letters, money, pictures, toys and once a whole salmon packed in salt.

Yakutat 4th of July 1927 community celebration.
Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives.

In Yakutat, children nicknamed Kayamori “Picture Man”. For thirty years, he photographed celebrations, ceremonies, remnants of traditional Tlingit culture, and the growing influences of white society. Kayamori had a box camera with a hood, and a darkroom in his small house near the cannery on Monti Bay.
As World War II escalated, Yakutat’s Pacific coastline was perceived as vulnerable and U.S. military forces began to fortify the area, also adding a large airfield and base as a refueling and service stop between both the Aleutian Islands and points north (Anchorage and Fairbanks). Soldiers warned Yakutat residents to prepare for an attack. Amid this period, one now remembered for American xenophobia of Japanese Americans, in October 1940 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent a letter to the bureau’s Juneau agent requesting the names of “persons who should be considered for custodial detention pending investigation in the event of a national emergency.” The reply included the name Seiki Kayamori and a description: “Is reported to be an enthusiastic photographer and to have panoramic views of the Alaskan coast line [sic] from Yakutat to Cape Spencer.”
A day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hoover wrote to the War Department’s military intelligence division requesting information on a number of individuals. Under Kayamori’s name the reply noted: “Reported on suspect list, Alaska.” After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 local Yakutat residents reported that soldiers severely beat up Kayamori, a 64-year-old, 5-foot-3 photographer. Locals reported that Kayamori felt he would be arrested, and was soon found dead in his apartment, reportedly having committed suicide.
Under cause of death, his death certificate asks “Drug?” The doctor who responded to Kayamori’s death later wrote that he found evidence of an attempt to burn some documents. Locals say soldiers buried Kayamori across the bay, a site that was later paved for a naval ramp. His grave remains unmarked.

Schooner Scandia at Yakutat, January 21, 1916.
Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives.

While his story is tragic in many ways, his surviving photographs exist to educate. The bulk of Kayamori’s photographs were obtained by the Alaska State Library in 1976, amounting to 694 images. The State Library’s collection of Kayamori photographs (PCA 55) has been studied with great interest, and some of the Kayamori images have been placed online via Alaska’s Digital Archives. In 2012, a century after Kayamori arrived in Yakutat, the Sealaska Heritage Institute received 28 photographs taken by Kayamori, a donation by Yakutat born-resident and Tlingit leader Byron Mallott on behalf of the community of Yakutat. These 28 photographs were recently discovered in Yakutat and are now available for study and online [click here]. The photographs and life story of Kayamori will continue to capture the interest of educators for generations to come and help us all understand more about Alaska’s complex historic past.
Ronald Inouye, “For Immediate Sale: Tokyo Bathhouse—How World War II Affected Alaska’s Japanese Civilians,” Alaska at War, 1941-1945. The Forgotten War Remembered, ed. by Fern Chandonnet (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2007), 259-263.
Margaret Thomas, “Was Kayamori a Spy,” Alaska Magazine (Nov. 1995): 48-54.
Margaret Thomas, “Attack Prompted Suicide of Yakutat Photographer,” Juneau Empire, 6 December 1991. 
India Spartz and Ronald Inouye, “Fhoki Kayamori: Amateur Photographer of Yakutat, 1912-41,” Alaska History 6, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 30-36., accessed October 2, 2012.
Thanks to Juliana Pegues.