The southern half of Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of the most densely populated portions of the state. It’s hard to imagine a time when this was not the case, but at the turn of the 20th century, the population in this area was comparatively tiny. In 1905, Fort Lauderdale had a population of only 219 persons. Miami had fewer than 5,000 residents, even counting the suburbs. West Palm Beach was home to about 1,300.
Investors were eager to get more settlers moving into the area to farm and generate economic activity. With help from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration, they cast a wide net, seeking new residents from around the country and abroad. Jo Sakai, a Japanese man who graduated from New York University in 1903, was one of those who answered the call. In 1904, Sakai and others would establish a colony near present-day Boca Raton called Yamato.
Jo Sakai had come to the United States after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. After studying finance at NYU, he was attracted to Florida by advertisements from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration and the Model Land Company promising plentiful land and profitable farming opportunities. The Model Land Company was a corporation set up by developer and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler to manage the massive grants of land given by the State of Florida as an incentive for building the Florida East Coast Railway.
Sakai inspected the land available for sale and purchased one thousand acres from the Model Land Company near modern-day Boca Raton. The idea was that he would establish a colony of workers, develop a successful farming operation, and pay for the land over time. As an incentive, the Model Land Company agreed to front the money for the colony’s equipment and housing.
Jo Sakai left for Japan in March 1904 to seek willing individuals for the new proposed farming colony. By autumn he had several takers, but they had to carefully disguise their intentions to avoid disruption by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. To reduce suspicion, Sakai’s colonists told the government they needed their exit permits and passports so they could study in the United States. Once in the U.S., the colonists traveled to Florida on Henry Flagler’s dime, another sign of how eager developers were to get South Florida’s economy going. By the end of 1904, a dozen colonists were ready to work.
The Japanese newcomers called their new home “Yamato,” an ancient name for Japan itself. Getting the farming underway was slow at first. The soil was fertile, but it had never been cleared before. Months of manual labor went into preparing only a few acres for cultivation. The inhospitable climate and mosquitoes didn’t help matters.
Over time, however, the Yamato colony began to grow. In 1907, the Florida East Coast Railway established a train station at Yamato, near where Yamato Rd. (State Road 794) now crosses the railroad tracks in Boca Raton. The local post office, which had previously been called “Wyman,” was renamed “Yamato.” Settlers began sending word to Japan for their wives and families to join them in Florida. Jo Sakai’s wife Sada arrived in 1906, making her the colony’s first woman, and in 1909 their daughter became the first child born in the new settlement.
Pineapples were the first major crop grown in Yamato, but a blight in 1908 all but ended that strategy. The colonists began growing winter vegetables like beans, onions, and especially tomatoes. Although the colony remained active for several decades, it was never very large. A number of residents branched off into other fields of work over time, and by the 1930s there were only about 20-25 Japanese farmers living in Yamato.
Anti-immigrant sentiments did not directly disturb the colonists’ work, although a number of the settlers were unable to legally become U.S. citizens until the 1950s. World War II presented the colony’s toughest challenge, one it would not survive. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a federal judge ordered that Japanese-owned lands at Yamato be turned over to the United States government. Some of the land went toward building an airfield for Boca Raton, and a large portion ultimately became the site of Florida Atlantic University.
Boca Raton has all but absorbed what remained of Yamato after the war, but some former residents took steps to keep the colony’s memory alive. George Morikami, who by the 1960s had bought up a considerable amount of land, granted a parcel to Palm Beach County in 1973 for a park. On June 25, 1977, the Morikami Museum of Japanese Culture opened along with the park. The museum seeks to inculcate an appreciation for Japanese culture through exhibits, authentic Japanese ceremonies and demonstrations, and other educational experiences.