Itaro Kono: Setting of a Rising Son
For ten days each year, citizens of Japan and residents of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania bridge the nearly seven thousand miles of land and ocean between them to share in the experience of the Little League World Series, a momentary merging of cultures within the beloved pastime of both nations. Although their shared experiences at the annual event began in 1964, another connection- unknown to either the Japanese or the Americans - has long joined them together, Japan to Williamsport, one to the other, for more than a century. The fascinating story of this singular, long-forgotten bond between the Land of the Rising Sun and the one-time Lumber Capital of the World begins one hundred fifteen years ago in a harbor in Tokyo Bay.
On the 14th of November in 1905, the Japanese cargo steamer Iyo-Maru cast off her lines and eased away from her mooring in Yokohama Harbor on the western shore of Japan’s Tokyo Bay. The propellers visibly churned the brackish water in her wake as the coal-fired boilers fed steam to the ship's twin three-cylinder engines, straining to push the 135-meter-long vessel through the choppy surface of the bay. Fully loaded, every available space within the Iyo-Maru’s 632,000 cubic feet of gross tonnage was packed with cargo bound for America, including tea, matting, exotic woods, camphor wax, and silk.
Though primarily a voyage of trade, the steamer also carried more than one hundred Japanese citizens, mostly young men, destined for the Pacific Northwest of the United States. As the Iyo-Maru steamed south out of Tokyo Bay and into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, the helmsmen brought her left to a north-by-northeast heading. The young emigrants, after stowing their baggage in the open-berth steerage accommodations below, lined the deck’s portside railing for a long and perhaps final look at their ancient homeland.
Among them was 25-year-old Itaro Kono.
Kono had left his familial home in Yamaguchi, a settlement on the coast of the Inland Sea at the western end of the main island of Honshu, nearly five-hundred miles west of Yokohama Harbor. From all across Japan as many as 125,000 citizens had emigrated across the Pacific – most of them departing from Yokohama – for Hawaii and the Pacific coast of the United States in the years between 1885 and 1905. Prior to that, few people from Japan had ever set foot in America; equally so, hardly anyone from any nation in the world had ever set foot in Japan.
For nearly three centuries, Japan was a closed nation, off-limits to outsiders and cut off from international trade and global technological progress. Regional feudal lords, or Daimyos, ruled their individual territories beneath the omnipotent authority of a Shogun, an archaic feudal system that endured for nearly seven hundred years until it ended in 1868 when the reigning shogunate resigned and returned power to the Emperor who had previously become merely a figurehead.
The resultant “Meiji Restoration”, initiated by Emperor Meiji, began social, political, and economic changes within Japan that were the beginnings of the modern nation that the world knows today. The sudden access to international trade markets, particularly those in Hawaii and the Pacific coast of America, presented new emigration opportunities for young Japanese men in the densely populated island nation, and thousands boarded steamships bound for the Pacific Northwest at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s.
On November 29th, 1905, after a fourteen-day, 4,150-mile-long voyage, the Iyo-Maru eased into her berth in Smith Cove at the north end of Seattle’s Elliott Bay. The Japanese immigrants were permitted to disembark only after the ship’s surgeon had certified to port officials that the eighty-six men and twenty-nine women were “free from loathsome or dangerous contagious disease”, including ailments common to Japanese immigrants like trachoma and hookworm.
Many of the men were listed as ‘students’ or ‘farm laborers’, though the roster of immigrants onboard the Iyo-Maru included a cook, a painter, a watchmaker, and a physician. Most of the women were recorded as ‘married’, though many of them were meeting their awaiting husbands for the first time. These marriages, called shashin kekkon, translated literally as “photo marriage”, were arranged by the heads of their respective families in Japan, often based solely on an exchange of photographs between the prospective bride in Japan and the groom in America.
When Itaro Kono stepped off the gangway and onto the harbor dock in Smith Cove, he appears not to have intended to stay in Seattle indefinitely. Immigration papers record that Kono’s declared final destination was New York City, but the documents also confirm that Kono was not in possession of a paid ticket for continued passage to the east coast. Nor, it seems, was he prepared to depart Seattle for the east coast of America just yet. U.S. law required that each immigrant possess a minimum of $50 when they arrived in America; Kono declared himself in possession of just $60.
Kono’s age at the time was recorded as ’25 years, 3 months’, almost exactly the average age of the eighty-six Japanese men who crossed the Pacific with him. The average age of the twenty-nine young Issei women onboard was 25 years, 7 months.
Kono, who’s ‘occupation or calling’ on the ship’s arrival manifest is given as “Judo Teacher”, arrived in Seattle as a ‘Kodokan 2-Dan’, a second-degree black belt in a variation of Jiu-Jitsu called Kodokan Judo, a new discipline in the martial arts founded by Kano Jigoro in Japan in 1882.
At the time of Itaro Kono’s arrival in Seattle, Judo was virtually unknown outside of the Issei community - the first generation of Japanese immigrants to America - of the Pacific Coast; indeed, the relatively new discipline was not widely known among the Japanese immigrants, either. Apparently, Kono came to the United States specifically to open a Kodokan Judo school, or Dojo. At that time, no martial arts Dojo of any type existed anywhere in North America.
Seattle in 1905 was in the midst of what has been called its “frontier period”, a city on the cusp of exponential growth. Largely isolated from the more-populated eastern United States, the addition of what was viewed as sojourning Japanese immigrant labor into the Pacific Northwest was, at the time, welcomed.
Founded in 1851, the scrubby settlement in the northwest corner of America, clinging to the foothills of Puget Sound amidst a tangle of fjords, bays, inlets, and islands that punched into the distant coastal corner of the continental United States, attracted little attention. Thirty years after its founding, it boasted a population of only 3,500. Early city founders, however, grandly envisioning a “New York of the Pacific” that would one day rise from the damp shanties of the hard-scrabble port at the water’s edge, saw endless potential in the region’s vast natural resources of lumber, fishing, and coal.
And then, a confluence of events changed everything.
First, in 1882, Chinese immigration into the U.S. was banned, effectively shutting off the flow of cheap labor into the Pacific coast and creating a labor shortage at the very moment in time when Seattle was on the verge of staggering development. Japanese immigrants would willingly fill the gap.
Secondly, in 1893 the Great Northern Railroad arrived, tying Seattle’s ports to Minneapolis, to the shipping ports of the Great Lakes, and to the agricultural breadbasket of the northern plains.
In 1896, the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Steamship Company contracted with Seattle port officials to provide the first regularly scheduled steamship service between the United States and Japan.
Lastly, in the same year that NYK began its scheduled Pacific passage, gold was discovered along the Klondike River at Rabbit Creek in the Alaska-Canadian Yukon Territory, some 1,300 miles north-northwest of Seattle. So much gold flowed into America through Seattle that the U.S. Federal Government quickly established an Assay Office in the port settlement to weigh, grade, and purchase the precious metal; by the end of its first day of business, the office took in more than one million dollars in gold.
The combined effect of these events cannot be overstated: development in Seattle exploded. The 3,500 settlers of 1880 had become more than 80,000 by 1900. Ten years after that, Seattle’s population would approach one-quarter of a million people.
Kono arrived in Seattle in 1905 into an Issei community of a few thousand immigrants clustered in Nihonmachi - “Japantown” - at the time a dense community of immigrant-owned dry goods shops and boarding houses, restaurants, tea houses, laundry services, bathhouses, and barbershops at the southern end of the city.
Within Seattle itself, the business of shipping fueled a steady expansion of the city’s footprint. As the number of steamships in and out of Elliott Bay increased, so too did the ancillary industries needed to support them: food and water suppliers, coal yards, boiler mechanics and pipefitters, nautical supplies, ship repair yards, foundries for anchors and chains, timber merchants, passage and cargo brokers, ship owners and agents, tavern owners, and innkeepers.
The Japanese community within the waterfront city that was in many ways similar to his home village of Yamaguchi must have appealed greatly to Kono, who abandoned his plans to continue on to New York and remained instead in Seattle.
Kono settled into one of the many Japanese boarding houses that operated within the bustling Nikkei enclave of approximately thirty square blocks which lay below and above Yesler Way and Dearborn Streets, respectively, and roughly bound east and west by 4th & 14th Avenues. Almost immediately, Itaro Kono founded the first martial arts school anywhere in the United States and the forerunner to the Seattle Dojo, the oldest active Dojo still in existence in America today. In an open room on the lower floor of a two-story wood-frame building on the northeast corner of the intersection of Maynard Street and South Lane St., Kono began instructing young Issei men in Sensei Kano Jiguro’s Kodokan Judo techniques and philosophies.
The exact month and year in which the first Dojo in North America was founded have in the past been disputed, as has been the identity of its founder. An authoritative examination of Judo in America entitled “Getting a Grip: Judo in the Nekkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1950”, published in 2003, attributes the founding to a Japanese immigrant named Iitaro Kano, a 25-year-old 'student' who arrived in Seattle aboard the Riojun-Maru on May 20, 1903. The present-day Seattle Dojo, in a brief history published on its official website, repeats the claim but acknowledges a degree of uncertainty, conceding that its founder “appears to have been Iitaro Kono (or Kano), a Kodokan judo black belt who arrived in Seattle on May 20, 1903.” Both accounts have been previously accepted and cited as fact by other writers. But a closer examination of available evidence today compellingly challenges those claims, assertions which seem to be based largely on unintentional errors of interpretation and misidentification.
U.S. Immigration arrival manifests, for instance, along with steamship arrival notices published in contemporary newspapers, establish that the steamship Riojun-Maru didn’t arrive in Seattle until June 4, 1903, after a fifteen-day voyage. The date of May 20, 1903, cited previously as the day the ship supposedly docked in Seattle, is actually the date on which the Riojun-Maru departed Yokohama, Japan. Admittedly, it is a minor error that can be attributed to a misreading of the ship’s departure and arrival dates as indicated on her U.S. Immigration arrival manifest.
Indeed, aboard the Riojun-Maru on June 4, 1903, when it arrived in Seattle was a 25-year-old immigrant whose name is shown on the manifest as “Iitaru Kano”. In Japan, Kano and Kono are often used interchangeably, and so the discrepancies in spelling between similar accounts may be understandably explained and ignored. Iitaru Kano’s declared ‘calling or occupation’, however, given on the arrival manifest as ‘student’, along with the year of his arrival - 1903 - are not so easily overlooked.
A published article about the introduction of Jiu-Jitsu to America which appeared in the Seattle Times newspaper on Sunday, March 10, 1907, and which has been repeatedly cited as the earliest contemporary evidence of the founding of the first Dojo in North America, records that Japanese immigrants in Seattle had “organized a wrestling club which has been in existence for about two years” (emphasis’ added) and was led by an instructor from Japan whom the story identifies as “I. Kono”. The article notes that Kono was “a graduate of one of the great Japanese wrestling schools”. Most significantly, it was recorded that Kono “has only been here a little more than a year and speaks English falteringly”. Neither of these contemporarily recorded facts of March 1907 support crediting the founding of the first Dojo to the 'student' Iitaru Kano who arrived aboard the Riojun-Maru four years prior in June of 1903.
It seems clear that in the intervening century between then and now, two different Japanese immigrants with names similar in spelling and pronunciation, both of whom arrived at the same port at the age of 25, but in two different years - 1903 and 1905 - have been inadvertently interchanged, their identities unknowingly confused within the Pacific mist of Seattle’s long frontier history.
Now, however, it seems clear: 25-year-old Kodokan Judo ‘2-Dan’ Itaro Kono, who arrived in Seattle aboard the Iyo-Maru as a declared “Judo Teacher” on November 29, 1905, and who had been in Seattle about fifteen months, ‘only a little more than a year’, at the time of the March 1907 Seattle Times article, organized an existing Japanese immigrant “wrestling club” into a formal Dojo in late 1905 immediately after his arrival in America, the precursor to the Seattle Dojo of today and the first of its kind to exist anywhere in the United States.
Sometime in late 1907, likely in November after the typhoon season in Japan had passed and near the two-year anniversary of his arrival in Seattle, Itaro Kono returned to his home village of Yamaguchi for a short time.
After a brief visit in Japan, Kono departed Yokohama on January 22, 1908 aboard the Kaga-Maru, bound once again for Seattle. This time, however, the voyage would demonstrate not only the hazards of a close-quarter steamship crossing of the Pacific in the early 1900s but also the growing anti-Japanese sentiments that awaited immigrants to the Pacific Northwest.
Shortly after departure, an outbreak of smallpox appeared aboard the Kaga-Maru during the cold January crossing. Though not often fatal, the physical symptoms of the highly contagious disease, flu-like body aches and extreme fatigue often followed by bouts of nausea, were extremely debilitating. Within the damp and cold confines of below-deck steerage, where nearly three hundred people shared cramped common living spaces for two weeks or more with little in the way of either effective sanitation or privacy, the effects of smallpox – open pus-filled sores and vomiting as the ship heaved and rolled on the rough winter ocean– could be horrendous.
Reaching the Pacific inlet to the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island, B.C. and the Puget Sound in Washington, U.S., the Kaga-Maru docked at the William Head Quarantine Station at the southern tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island on Wednesday, February 5, 1908. There, the white passengers in the upper accommodations, bound for either Vancouver or Seattle, were allowed to disembark and continue on, which seems to suggest that the Japanese steerage passengers were purposefully isolated within the lower hold for the duration of the voyage, away from the ship's other passengers. The two-hundred sixty-eight Japanese immigrants were placed in quarantine on the island facilities, and the ship was immediately fumigated.
After almost a week, on February 10, the Kaga-Maru and her immigrant passengers were released from quarantine. However, new Canadian anti-immigration measures aimed squarely at Japanese immigrants were scheduled to take effect on February 11. The law would now demand that all arriving immigrants must be able to read and write in English, or in another acceptable European language, before they would be allowed to disembark. Canadian authorities decided to hold the immigrants bound for Vancouver for an additional day until the new law became effective.
One hundred forty-three of the immigrants bound for Seattle and the U.S. continued on. One hundred twenty-five bound for Canada remained behind and most, blindsided by the new law, were likely returned immediately to Japan.
Itaro Kono finally arrived back in Seattle on February 10, 1908. If he ever crossed the Pacific again, no record of it has yet been found.
In 1909, Seattle hosted a vast “Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition” on the campus of the University of Washington to introduce the Northwest Pacific Region as a world economic powerhouse. A network of elaborate exhibition halls was constructed for the event at an overall cost of $2.25 million dollars. On Opening Day, June 1, 1909, nearly eighty thousand people paid fifty cents each to enter the grounds.
An official Japanese Delegation to the AYP Exposition, the only Asian country to send a formal delegation, arrived in Seattle and was formally welcomed with a dinner at the Banquet Hall of the Ranier Club on September 3, 1909. Japanese and American representatives joined in toasts to the Japanese Emperor and the American President, cries of “Banzai!” echoing throughout the hall. The next day, September 4, was officially declared “Japan Day” at the Exposition, and shortly thereafter, Itaro Kono would participate in a demonstration of Kodokan Judo for Expo visitors.
Throughout the nearly five-month duration of the Exposition, more than 3.7 million visitors passed through its gates. Many were drawn to the state, perhaps, in part by Washington’s progressivism. Women’s suffrage would be on the ballot in the state in 1910, and every county would approve it, ten years before the country as a whole would ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Still, this progressivism was not for everyone; one of the displays at the AYP Expo, in the Machinery Hall, was a newly patented contraption for the seafood industry designed to process salmon. Intended to make the point that the device could eliminate the need for Chinese or Japanese labor to do the work, the machine was presented to Exposition visitors under its marketed name: the “Iron Chink”.
Little is known of Itaro Kono’s life in the years immediately after 1909. Sometime around 1910, he left Seattle, and it is believed that he traveled east to Spokane, and then later to Chicago, where he opened up Kodokan Judo Dojos in both places.
Kono didn’t remain in Chicago for very long. Perhaps he was simply repeating a pattern of self-sustainability, teaching Judo in a particular city – Seattle, Spokane, and then Chicago – only long enough to save enough money to continue east with the intention of ultimately reaching New York City, his declared “final destination” when he arrived in Seattle in 1905. Somewhere between Chicago and New York, it seems, Itaro Kono stumbled into what must have seemed to him an entirely strange and unexpected opportunity to introduce Kodokan Judo not primarily to Japanese immigrants, but instead to millions of white Americans.
In 1914, there was quite literally no greater show on earth than the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Twenty-two years earlier, P.T. Barnum, then already a household name in America, joined together his ‘Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome Show’ with James A. Bailey’s ‘Great London Circus & Grand International Allied Shows Combined With Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie’ to become, in the interest of welcomed brevity, The Barnum & Bailey Circus. Known simply as ‘The Greatest Show On Earth”, four full-sized trains were required, nearly ninety cars in all, to move the entire enterprise around the country, night after night, with a logistical efficiency that rivaled a military battalion. Two hundred men and fifty specially trained horses could load or unload the entire affair in three hours. Often arriving in a new town or city late in the evening, by morning the anxious residents would awaken to a sprawling tent city that suddenly appeared on the outskirts of town literally overnight.
At its center was the nearly seven-hundred-foot-long three-ring ‘Big-Top” tent that seated fifteen thousand spectators beneath its sprawling canvas. Arrayed around it were various performance stages and display panoramas, and behind them stood an enormous dining tent that served meals, three times each day, to over eleven hundred performers. Other tents included a blacksmith shop and a wagon repair shop, sleeping quarters and dressing rooms, stables, and pens for nearly a thousand animals. More than five-hundred horses traveled with the show, requiring nearly one hundred fifty groomers and handlers.
The centerpiece of each performance in 1914 was an extravaganza entitled ‘The Wizard Prince of Arabia’, a menagerie of music, drama, and spectacle that featured eight hundred costumed performers, along with elephants, camels, and tigers, and which also included four hundred female performers whom one local newspaper described enthusiastically as “the most bewildering array of femininity ever assembled.”
Audiences were enthralled, and the coming of the Barnum & Bailey Circus was an event not to be missed. In Rock Island, Illinois, a county judge recessed a conspiracy trial so that the Jurymen could see the arriving Circus Parade. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, eight orphans from the Norwalk County Home, aged ten to fourteen, slipped away from the orphanage and walked nearly ten miles to see the circus trains arrive, only to discover to their dismay that they had planned their illicit excursion one day too early.
Not everyone, though, shared in the enthusiasm of the Circus. Shop owners in Wilmington, Delaware complained to the City Council that a planned Saturday performance of the Circus, if allowed to proceed, would interfere with their weekend business. In Mississippi, the local Hattiesburg News expressed its shock over reports that President Woodrow Wilson, along with his two daughters, Margaret and Eleanor, had attended a recent performance of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Washington D.C., calling the President’s patronage “undignified” and an “awful example of a Presbyterian Elder”.
Still, each spring the Barnum & Bailey Circus trains began a performance season that would cover more than twenty-six thousand miles, performing two shows per day for six consecutive days each week, usually in a different town each day. Cities and towns along America’s rail lines eagerly anticipated the coming of ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’.
1914’s opening performance in March at New York’s Madison Square Garden included a “great exhibition of Jiu-Jitsu” by The Royal Mikado Troupe of Japanese Wrestlers, one of whom was the now-34-year-old Itaro Kono. How, when, and where it happened that Kono first joined with the Royal Mikado Troupe and the Barnum & Bailey Circus isn’t known. “A demonstration of Jiu-Jitsu, the Japanese scientific art of self-defense” first appeared as a scheduled act in the 1913 edition of Libretto, Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Magazine and Daily Review’ program that hawkers sold to circus patrons for ten cents per copy.
On the morning of Sunday, July 5th of 1914, the Barnum & Bailey Circus trains, carrying Itaro Kono along with approximately eleven-hundred other circus performers, rolled into Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a one-time lumber boom-town of about thirty-four thousand people along the banks of the Susquehanna River that for a time in the latter half of the 19th Century was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. Thousands of area residents came out to see the unloading of the circus train cars, and within a few hours, the massive expanse of the three-ring ‘Big-Top’ rose at the center of the city fairgrounds in Memorial Park.
At ten o’clock the following morning, the three-mile-long Circus Parade of performers, musicians, and animals left the sprawling tent city and headed into the heart of Williamsport, down Memorial Avenue to Cemetery Street before looping south through town. A column of elephants linked trunk-to-tail lumbered down city streets behind droves of camels and giraffes, clowns, marching bands, and snarling beasts thrashing within great padlocked wagons pulled by teams of horses, before returning to the fairgrounds for a 2 pm performance, the first of two scheduled for the day. When the Royal Mikado Troupe took to the display stage that afternoon, however, to demonstrate the art of Jiu-Jitsu to a captivated Williamsport audience - hardly any of whom had ever seen a Japanese man or woman before - Itaro Kono was not among them.
When he arrived in Williamsport, Kono was already suffering the effects of cancer. Sometime in the months prior, Kono apparently underwent some type of invasive medical procedure at the hands of a Japanese doctor in New York in an attempt to remove cancerous lesions from his body, after which he continued to travel with the Mikado Troupe through the summer.
By the time the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, however, Kono’s condition had rapidly deteriorated. Doctors at the Williamsport Hospital immediately confined him to bed. There was little, however, that they or the limits of cancer treatment at the time could do for Kono; The Barnum & Bailey Circus, too, did little; when the circus trains loaded up and pulled out of Williamsport early on the morning of July 7th, Itaro Kono was left behind.
It is difficult to imagine the feelings of uncertainty and fear that must have enveloped Kono as the fading steam whistles of the departing circus locomotives echoed across the city and through his hospital room window. Likely, though Kono spoke little English, he understood clearly that his condition was serious. Whether any of his fellow Japanese performers remained behind to help care for him, to translate for him, or simply to be by his side, isn’t known. It’s probable that none did.
Most likely, Kono underwent another excruciating cutting procedure in an attempt to save his life. As he lay in a Williamsport hospital room awaiting a fate that was rapidly approaching, his thoughts turned, surely, to his childhood home in Yamaguchi nearly half a world away, or to remembrances of the anticipation that had carried him across the Pacific aboard the Iyo-Maru nearly ten years before, bound for the unknown frontier of Seattle. Or perhaps his mind flashed with images of his great adventures crisscrossing America, of the grandiose steam locomotives belching black coal smoke as the Barnum & Bailey Circus trains chugged from city to town, a vagabond life almost incomprehensible to us today, a unique experience in American history forever gone.
Itaro Kono died in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on Saturday, the 29th day of August 1914, at the age of 34.
As a transient worker in the city in 1914, the disposition of Itaro Kono’s body after his death became the responsibility of the Williamsport Poor Board, a joint committee of city and county officials common in many cities at the time. An attempt was made, presumably by the Poor Board, to contact Japanese representatives in New York City, as well as officials of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Bridgeport, Connecticut, regarding Kono’s death. No evidence of any response has been found.
Itaro Kono was buried six days later in a plain wood-plank coffin at city expense within an obscure portion of Williamsport’s Wildwood Cemetery known as the Poor Ground. This Japanese Son of Yamaguchi, a trained Kodokan Judo Sensei, and founder of North America’s first Martial Arts Dojo was laid to rest without ceremony in an unmarked grave on September 4th, 1914.
Whether Kono’s family in Yamaguchi, Japan ever learned of his fate, or of the location of his final resting place, is uncertain.
The exact location of Itaro Kono’s grave within the pauper’s field, too, is unknown.
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