He Lost His Wife to the Spanish Flu; Umekichi Tanaka's Fascinating Story
Updated: Jul 16
A True Immigrant
Born in Japan in March of 1872, Umekichi Tanaka was a true immigrant, having landed in Mexico in the early 1900s. While there, he purchased property on "blind faith". After saving up money from working in Mexico, he illegally crossed the U.S. border. With the money he saved, he wanted to purchase property in California, only to find out that he was not allowed to. With that in mind, he went back to Mexico to claim the property he owned, only to realize that there were no records of his purchase. And just like that, he needed to begin a new life.
Arriving on the Central Coast
Like many Asian Americans, Tanaka worked on the railraods. He arrived on the Central Coast because he was a member of one of the first group of farmhands who worked as thinners at Union Sugar, eventually being promoted to foreman. On the Central Coast, he rented property in Oso Flaco where he became a vegetable farmer. Deciding this was where he wanted to settle, he sent for a picture bride from Japan, Masu Ohama. They were married in June of 1903 and together they had seven children.
Japanese Picture Brides (Image source here)
The Spanish Flu
Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu pandemic hit in 1919, when Masu was giving birth to a premature infant boy; they both died in January 1919. And with that, the widowed Tanaka was unable to care for his six children, with the death of his wife. Therefore, he sent his son back to Japan to live with his grandma. Meanwhile, his daughters were cared for by the Matsuura Family, leading to the creation of the Japanese Children's Home. Back on his rented property, he hired a woman to do the household chores and cook for his farm workers.
When his son received the equivalent of a high school degree in Japan, his son returned to the family farm in Oso Flaco, and his daughters were reunited with their family after living at the Japanese Children's Home. In the 1930s, the four schools in Guadalupe were to be merged as one, thus an additional building was needed. Wanting to contribute, the Japanese community came together to fundraise, raising $2500 in just four days. At the time, 45% of students were Japanese. After being successful in the farming industry, another one of his contributions was his purchase of a gold alter, which he donated to the Guadalupe Buddhist Church in appreciation for the care his daughters received.
Tanaka Family at the alter of the Guadalupe Buddhist Church (Image Source here)
The War Years
On Dec. 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the lives of the 120,000 Japanese Americans in California were forever changed. This is because the government ordered everyone with Japanese ancestry to leave their homes and live in detention camps - there were ten in all. At the time, Tanaka was already 70 years old, and taking only clothes and a toothbrush, he was forced to North Dakota. Three months later, his family was reunited, only this time, they were at the Poston detention camp.
After the war, the Tanaka's didn't have the resources necessary to return to Oso Flaco, so they moved to Fresno where they lived in a Buddhist Church until they were able to rent a place again. In April of 1955, at the age of 83, he was finally able to purchase land, having become a U.S. citizen. But at that time, he was too old to work. Umekichi Tanaka would live to be 96 years old. As can be seen, it was not easy for the Tanaka Family, having lost a dear mother and wife to the Spanish Flu, forcing the family apart, not being able to purchase property, and being relocated because of World War II.
Contreras, Shirley “The Fascinating Life of Umekichi Tanaka and His Family.” Santa Maria Times, 17 Aug. 2014, santamariatimes.com/lifestyles/columnist/shirley_contreras/the-fascinating-life-of-umekichi-tanaka-and-his-family/article_7731deaf-a4f7-5c81-ad1a-4b15394fbf67.html.