Sept. 4, 2017
Archaeologist Floyd Aranyosi stood a stone’s throw from Takayoshi’s general store, where in the early 20th Century he might have stopped in for homemade ice cream, a Snappy Drinks soda or a tin of Stag chewing tobacco, along with sundry imported Japanese goods.
Olympic College in Bremerton is wrapping up a three-year archaeological dig at the Yama site, where a Japanese-American community flourished at the turn of the 20th Century. Wochit
Historical photographs document the existence of the store in the Japanese-American town of Yama on the south end of Bainbridge Island near the Port Blakely Sawmill. Now, as the third and final year of an archeological dig at Yama wraps up, Aranyosi and his team from Olympic College know exactly where the store stood.
Through painstaking measurements and analysis of artifacts, they’ve mapped the town, which was home to about 200 people at its height. Colorful plastic tape winding through the ferns demarcates the road where the town’s first Model T rumbled along a wood plank surface, the Washington Hotel — owned by the Konos, one of the earliest and most influential Yama families — the bath house, the barber shop, the ballfield and a row of homes perched on the hillside.
The dig, on a 7-acre site now owned by the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks District, is a three-year project the college undertook in 2015 in collaboration with the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum and the Kitsap County Historical Society and Museum. Researchers are taking a multi-disciplinary approach, combining traditional archaeology with cultural anthropology, history and various scientific fields of study to better understand the people of Yama and how they lived.
The Port Blakely Sawmill, which opened in 1864, was once the largest sawmill in the world, according to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. The first workers were of European descent. Chinese workers who came in the 1870s were edged out by federal anti-Chinese laws. Japanese workers began arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1880s, filling a labor shortage at the mill.
The first to come were bachelors intent on making money and returning to their homeland. They called themselves “wataridori,” or “birds of passage.” Typically they crossed the ocean with nothing but a suitcase of clothing and a few personal mementos. They lived in a barracks-style building in a community called Nagaya near the mill’s log pond.
Near the turn of the century, married couples began to arrive, establishing a community uphill from the rowdy bachelors. They called their town Yama, which is Japanese for “mountain.”
On a recent day at the site, student Sharleen Hubbard held up a shard of white pottery with delicate blue accents. She wiped off the dirt.
“Look at that! That’s cool,” she said, placing the artifact carefully in a zip top bag.
The project has given students at the community college — and some from as far away as Alabama, California and Tennessee — the unique opportunity to take part in excavating what Aranyosi calls a birthplace of Japanese-American culture in the United States. Hubbard, an anthropology major at Colorado State University, is one of 18 students who enrolled in the 2017 Yama field school.
More than 3,000 artifacts were logged during the first two years of the dig, mostly glass and ceramic fragments, among items discarded or left behind after the mill closed in 1922 and families moved away. A broken pocket watch, fragments of an unglazed porcelain statue, a baseball and pieces of a porcelain doll’s face were among the more intriguing finds, evidence of a once-vibrant community.
We know of Yama that Tamegoro and Tamao Takayoshi built a photo studio and tea garden adjacent to their store. The town had a community center where visiting Buddhist monks held services, and also a Baptist church. Researchers over the past three years have learned more about the elaborate system of cisterns, pipes and ponds that supplied the town’s water.
After the mill closed, families left to find work elsewhere, some to the strawberry farms on Bainbridge, some to other parts of Washington, Oregon and California. Unlike other Nihonmachi (Japanese settlements), Yama is the only known community that was not built over. Yama’s ground has gradually been reclaimed by vegetation, meaning its artifacts have remained largely undisturbed.
Work on the site can only be done in dry weather. The field work will wrap up with the start of fall quarter, although much of the site remains to be excavated. Aranyosi hopes for an extension of OC’s agreement with the parks district.
Throughout the winter, students at Olympic College will catalog artifacts and prepare them for display at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. The Yama Project has been a hot topic at archaeology conferences throughout Washington. The site is a candidate for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Ashley Garrett, a field crew chief who was a student on the dig in 2016, marvels at the tenacity of the residents of Yama.
“These are people who left their homes behind to go to a place they’d never been to, couldn’t look up on the Internet, couldn’t see pictures of it,” she said. “They just got on a boat and came out here, and it sounds like a really big adventure. And they must have been really brave people to take such a risk just to improve their lives for their families and themselves. … It’s quite impressive.”
Yama, being one of the earliest Japanese settlements in the United States, makes Bainbridge a cradle of Japanese-American culture, Aranyosi said. Families adopted trappings of American culture like drinking soda and playing baseball, but they also held onto their Japanese identity, a phenomenon Aranyosi calls “transnationalism.”
“So the identity, what it means to be a Japanese American, that was actually created right here where we’re standing,” Aranyosi said. “It gives me chills just thinking about that.”
Aranyosi said he’s never seen or felt any ghosts in Yama. Nevertheless, “I like to think Tamegoro Takayoshi is looking over my shoulder as I’m working,” he said. “That ensures that I do a good job.”