The Rice King of California
As soon as he was released, Keisaburo Koda, his wife, and their two sons drove — the barbed wire, 29 blocks of military barracks, and dirt-flat expanse of dry prairie fading fast in the rearview mirror. They drove all day and all night and into the day again. They left behind the Amache concentration camp in eastern Colorado’s High Plains to reach San Joaquin Valley in central California, more than 1,300 miles away.
It had been more than three years since the Kodas had seen their farm — three years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round-up and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans without even a nod at due process. Before World War II, Keisaburo was known as “The Rice King,” and operated a 10,000-acre, vertically integrated farm producing the best japonica rice, a rounder and thicker Asian rice variety, in the country. In California, he’d pioneered the technique for aerial seeding, installed a state-of-the art miller and drier, and set up a 1,000-head hog farm for using the rice’s byproduct, nuka (or rice bran), as feed.
When he returned, the two airplanes used for aerial seeding were long gone, as was the rest of their best equipment, the livestock, and 9,000 acres of their best land, along with their family home and the housing for workers. More than 30 years of his life’s work simply taken.
“I really don’t know where they spent that first night,” says Robin Koda, the granddaughter of Keisaburo, who currently runs the operation now called Koda Farms, California’s oldest family-owned rice farm, with her brother, Ross. “They came home to essentially nothing.” (She surmises the wheels that ferried her family back home in 1945 were acquired when her father, Edward, was temporarily released for a supervised work program.)
Keisaburo, once a school principal, arrived in California in 1908. Like many of the Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans), Keisaburo was not a first-born son. “In old-school Japan, it was the first-born son who inherited everything,” says Robin. “Everybody else is that spare heir kind of thing. Part of the reason why I think he came over was he recognized that, and he was adventuresome and America was the land of opportunity.”
Keisaburo’s early years in America were certainly an adventure. He first went wildcatting for oil in the Coalinga hills before operating a chain of laundry shops. In between, he established the North America Tuna Canning Company, which processed the catches of 39 Japanese American fishing vessels, in San Pedro. (Japanese Americans pioneered America’s tuna industry, turning what was once considered a trash fish into a beloved American staple). But farming, specifically rice farming, called to him. Koda’s father, once a samurai of the Taira Clan, was a rice miller and broker, and even if Keisaburo couldn’t take over the family business, in particular, he wanted to carry on the legacy in his own way.
He started out farming as a leaser and manager, “dabbling in rice” as Robin put it, north of Sacramento, where California’s traditional rice farming stronghold is based, and quickly found it was no way to make a living. He knew he had to become a landowner. But the California Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” — a thinly veiled statute primarily directed at preventing Japanese Americans from owning agricultural land. The Naturalization Act of 1870 had expanded naturalization rights already enjoyed by “free white” immigrants to those of “African descent,” but purposefully left out Asian immigrants, long a target of vicious enmity, stunning violence, and political and legislative harassment on the West Coast. There was a workaround, though: Many Japanese immigrants simply purchased land in their American-born children’s names.
Keisaburo started looking for land north of Sacramento, but the land up there was very developed and valuable, and no one would sell to him because he was Japanese. He started moving further and further south, until finally he found a landholder willing to sell to an Issei in 1927: the Miller and Lux Corporation.
“My grandfather did not choose to farm in San Joaquin Valley, making us the southernmost rice farm in California,” Robin tells me. “It’s just a fluke of politics. Henry Miller was willing to sell my grandfather a sizeable tract of land, which was continuous acreage, so you wouldn’t have to haul all your equipment and labor, hopscotching across several counties.”
In some ways, Keisaburo was like many Japanese immigrants, about half of whom were engaged in farming because they had worked in agriculture back home. Back then, Japan’s intensive agriculture was much more advanced than that in America, and so many Japanese immigrant farmers were able to buy unwanted land and turn it profitable, using their expertise in soil, fertilizers, irrigation, and drainage. White farmers would later complain that “the Japs” were taking all the best land. By 1940, about 63 percent of Japanese Americans worked in farming, wholesaling, retailing, or transporting food products, and while the average value per acre was $37.94, for Nikkei (second-generation Japanese Americans) farms it was $279.96 — about seven and a half times the value.
But there was at least one way in which Keisaburo was different from the average Japanese American farmer. Most chose quick-growth crops, which required little capital investment, due, in part, to the Alien Land Acts. But Keisaburo chose a labor-intensive crop and on particularly challenging terrain.
The soil on Keisaburo’s farm is adobe, which has a high clay content and is heavy and slow to drain. “Farming on adobe, we use an analogy,” says Robin. “It’s like farming in the bathtub.” Since that watery soil wouldn’t hold seeds and allow them to germinate, Keisaburo had the idea to soak rice seeds and then distribute the already germinated seeds over the soil — his process, called aerial rice seeding, is now the standard practice in California. Rice requires more processing than, say, lettuce. But Keisaburo saw an unserved market in California, where Asian-style short grain rice had become a staple since Chinese migrants showed up in the 1850s for mining, and later railroad work, and had to be shipped in from Asia. Once harvested, it has to be dried, and then either stored or milled to remove its hard husk. When I asked Robin if it was a stroke of luck that Keisaburo could farm rice at all — nevermind the best rice in America — on the land he was able to buy, she retorted, “Sure as heck was.”
Luck, though, could only go so far in 1940s America for Japanese Americans. The Koda family saw the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment: headlines, particularly from Hearst newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle, blaring conspiracy theories that all Japanese Americans were shifty spies, and California politicians, who had been agitating against Asians for 90 years, ramping up their vicious attacks. They decided to shut down operations, in the hopes that they could return from incarceration to the farm intact. But the government “got wind of it” and mandated that they stay operational, ostensibly to produce cotton for the war effort, which meant Keisaburo had to sign over power of attorney to, as Robin puts it, “non-Asians,” who immediately sold off what they could.
“A lot of the people who bought that land for nothing were immediate neighbors, and to this day, their descendants still own that land,” says Robin. The Kodas tried to sue for $2,497,500, but the case was settled in 1965, the year after Keisaburo passed, for just $362,500. That’s less than 10 cents on the dollar, without accounting for interest or inflation. The amount barely covered their legal costs. To this day, the Kodas can see their grandfather’s old mill standing derelict on land he once owned. “What does it take for a person to start over again with practically nothing and see that poignant reminder on a daily basis?” she asks. “But he did it.”
After the camps, Keisaburo stepped back to let his two sons, William and Edward, take over the day-to-day farming, and set his sights on civic activism to dismantle some of the worst strictures against his fellow Japanese Americans. Keisaburo worked with the Japanese Americans Citizens League to take down the Alien Land Law, which was deemed unconstitutional in 1948, and organized and served as president of a Naturalization Rights League. He also started an insurance company and opened Bank of Tokyo’s first California branch, to help Japanese Americans, who still faced endemic discrimination, get fair coverage and rates.
Of course, he didn’t entirely leave the farm — he and his sons established a breeding program with the renowned rice breeder Arthur Hughes Williams. They were the first farmers in the U.S. to grow sweet rice, Sho-Chiku-Bai, which means “three friends in winter,” which is still a top-selling product today, as well as sweet-rice flour (mochiko), which is a thickening agent. They developed a medium-grain rice, Kokuho Rose, which debuted in 1963 after 10 years of development (with only one rice crop per year, development was slow). Kokuho Rose was high-yielding for the time, but as breeding advanced, it came to yield one third less than contemporary strains and was more difficult to harvest.
“By today’s standards, it grows too tall,” says Robin. “The taller your rice gets, the more likely it’s gonna flop over. Combines have these threshing heads, and it’s tricky to pick up rice that’s laying flat on the ground. You can’t really effectively harvest it.” Despite its inconvenience, the heirloom rice is now prized for its heritage and flavor — pure, sweet, and a touch floral from a bit of Persian DNA from Assyrian rice. “We just have the sense of loyalty to this strain,” says Robin. So does Martha Stewart along with some of the country’s best restaurants including San Francisco’s Mister Jiu’s, New York’s Superiority Burger, and Los Angeles’s Porridge and Puffs. You can now find it in Whole Foods, or order it online.
For all their grandfather’s superhuman contributions, he did leave one project unfinished for Robin and Ross, who were raised on the farm and gradually took it over, particularly after their uncle William and father Edward passed, in 1961 and 2006, respectively. In his retirement years, Keisaburo took up the promotion of brown rice. For years, white rice was prevalent because it was more shelf-stable — the bran, along with all that fiber and nutrients, on brown rice can go rancid in a year (one tip from Robin: Refrigerate your brown rice). Keisaburo would tour around with a rice cooker, making samples of brown rice for anyone who would let him in. He once brought the godfather of macrobiotics, George Ohsawa, to a Buddhist temple in San Francisco — several decades too soon — where “it went over like a lead balloon,” says Robin.
It would be up to his grandchildren to fulfill that deferred obsession: Ross got a degree in economics from Stanford and took over the farming operation, while Robin, who calls herself a “farmist” — a portmanteau of farm and artist — got an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and takes care of the marketing side of the business, as well as their 95-year-old mother, Tama. In 2003, along with its organic program, Koda Farms started producing brown Kokuho rice — most famously the centerpiece of the beloved sorrel rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles. The name “Kokuho,” by the way, means “national treasure,” which seems just about right.