October 30, 1921 – July 31, 2012
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 nine 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. It was a terrible time as Akio’s father Yasuji had been taken into custody when two blasting caps (dynamite was regularly used to clear stumps but was made illegal for Japanese to own) were found on the farm. This was a very stressful time as it was not clear his father would be returned but he eventually was after several days. Other families were not so lucky.
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 442nd 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.
Akio Suyematsu passed away peacefully on July 31 at the Kline Galland nursing home surrounded by family and supported by friends and colleagues.
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.
Akio Suyematsu is predeceased by his parents, Mitsuo and Yasuji Suyematsu, his sister and brother-in-law, Kimi and Tom Kamo, and his younger brothers, Isamu, Toshio and Yasuo Suyematsu. He is survived by his brother Yoshio and sister-in-law Joan, his sister Eiko and brother-in-law Zenji Shibayama, his sisters-in-law, Grace (Toshio) and Hime (Isamu) Suyematsu, 14 nieces and nephews and 15 grandnieces and grandnephews.
The Suyematsu Family wishes to thank all of Akio’s friends for their love and support over the many decades of hardship and success. A special thanks goes to Kline Galland for their exceptional care and the Cook Family Funeral Home for their thoughtful handing of Akio’s final arrangements.
A Celebration of Akio’s Life will be held on Sunday, August 19th from 12:00PM to 2:00PM at the Suyematsu Farm, 9229 Northeast Day Road NE, Bainbridge Island.
The Suyematsu guestbook may be signed at: www.cookfamilyfuneralhome.com.
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