We, at EduCulture and OWWCC, mourn the loss of our locally grown hero, mentor, and farm partner, Akio Suyematsu, who passed away peacefully on July 31 at the age of 90. Akio Suyematsu was the last of the original berry farmers on Bainbridge Island who put Bainbridge on the map as Island the strawberry capital of the Pacific Northwest. He was also one of the first Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed and incarcerated during WWII. Out of his experience of exclusion, Akio Suyematsu’s farm has become the oldest and largest in the region, and one of the most inclusive places on Bainbridge Island. His life’s work is living memorial to a Japanese American farmer “who against all odds cultivated a legacy that will live forever.”
Like others before us, EduCulture got its start through the generosity of farmers like Akio Suyematsu who allowed their agricultural landscapes to be used as learning landscapes by hundreds of local school children. It has also become a primary heritage site for our Only What We Can Carry Program for hundreds of students, educators and adults to visit each year to tour and learn about one man’s triumph over the adversity of exclusion, losing his freedom and his family farm, and returning home to make Suyematsu Farm what it is today.
The City of Bainbridge Island passed a proclamation making August 19, the day we celebrated Akio’s life, Akio Suyematsu Day. Click here to read the Proclamation.
Below is text from his obituary and celebration of life:
A Japanese American Farmer Against All Odds
Cultivated a Legacy That Will Live Forever
Akio Suyematsu was born October 30, 1921 on a small farm in Port Madison, on Bainbridge Island. He was the oldest son of seven children born to Yasuji and Mitsuo Suyematsu. In 1928 the family purchased forty acres of timberland in Akio’s name. This was due to the Asian Exclusion Act that made it illegal for his parents to own land.
Here the family faced pioneer conditions forging the house and livelihood from the raw land. For the next three decades, the land was painstakingly cleared one stump at a time, eventually to be transformed into the Suyematsu Farm on Day Road. Through the first half of the 20th century, the family was poor with food being a constant concern. They would often seek to buy the cheapest fish from the local docks to can for food stores. Affording health care was beyond their means. Akio witnessed his youngest brother Yasuo die at the age of 9 due to unknown causes.
Akio attended Bainbridge Island schools and graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1942, the same year he and the rest of the Japanese American community were forced into internment camps during WWII. Akio was one of the few to meet his graduation requirements prior to exclusion. There was some resistance within the school leadership regarding Akio’s standing. It took a letter of advocacy from his shop teacher affirming Akio’s above average performance that enabled him to earn full credit. This letter was found recently in a wallet Akio carried throughout his WWII years.
Akio found his academic strengths and gifts in vocational classes. He developed into an expert mechanic, machinist, and welder and could have easily found trade work, but this life did not appeal to him. However, Akio would apply all of these skills to survive as a farmer over the coming decades. He rebuilt his first tractor many times and even today it still runs like new.
On March 30, 1942 the Suyematsu family and the rest of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American community were the first to be uprooted by the US Government and sent to the WWII internment camps. They were forced to leave behind a bumper crop of strawberries just months away from harvest and allowed to take only what they could carry.
The family was sent to the Manzanar Relocation Center near Death Valley, CA. Living conditions were extremely harsh and the heat was especially hard on the elders such as Akio’s parents. The family requested along with other Bainbridge Islanders to be transferred to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.
In 1945 while in camp Akio was drafted into the US Army. He trained for the 442 all Japanese American Regimental Combat Team but the war ended before his deployment. He and his brother Toshio who was also drafted then served as military police in Germany until 1947.
Upon returning to Bainbridge Island from his term of service, Akio found the farmland “a mess”. Their family house had been looted and Akio expected the farm to be foreclosed upon. Since starting their farm it was not uncommon for the family to be cheated. Mr. Suyematsu never received payment for the timber that was originally logged off their land. After the War, they were forced to deal with the compounded interest caused by not being able to farm for years. As such, Akio was surprised when the mortgage holder offered to let Akio keep the land for the back payment of all interest. Akio worked extremely hard for many years to repay this debt. He was forever grateful for this act of kindness. Akio continued to use horses to plow his fields for many years after others converted to tractors because he could not afford one until after his debt was repaid. This act of kindness shaped Akio’s outlook on life.
In turn, he has helped an entire new generations of farmers establish themselves with similar acts of kindness on this very same land.
Akio Suyematsu was the last Japanese American farmer on Bainbridge Island. He has become a local legend for having produced the finest strawberries, raspberries, Christmas trees and pumpkins. He pioneered organic and sustainable farming on the Island before these became popular practices. His farmland is more fertile after 84 years of operation than when it started. The Suyematsu Farm has become the longest, continuously operating working landscape in Kitsap County. Throughout the decades, Akio has received numerous awards for his acts of farming and conservation, and now has an annual farming award established in his name.
In 2001, Akio sold part of his beloved farmland to the City of Winslow on Bainbridge Island, not to develop as most others have, but with the right for him to farm it for the rest of his life and with the expectation it be kept in perpetuity as working farmland.
At 90 years of age, Akio could still be found out weeding his pumpkins, tending his rows of raspberries, and maintaining his reputation of having the most immaculate fields ever.
During his lifetime, Akio mentored a successive generation of master and junior farmers who will carry on his legacy on his land. Each year over a thousand students, visitors and interns come to visit, study and train at the historically recognized Suyematsu Farm. Akio’s raspberries are served in the school lunch program at his alma mater and featured as a “Bite of Bainbridge” attraction. Today, the Suyematsu Farm is considered a valuable community asset. Out of Akio’s experience of exclusion, his farm has become one of the most diverse and inclusive places on Bainbridge Island.