When Miyo Iwakoshi arrived in Oregon in 1880 she became the first Japanese immigrant to set foot in Oregon. She was part of a massive cohort of emigrants leaving Japan for new homes around the world. In 1868, the Meiji period began in Japan and initiated rapid social and economic changes. For the first time in more than 200 years, Japanese could leave the previously isolated country. The Issei, meaning first generation immigrants, were often poor young men, sometimes with families, looking for better economic opportunities.
Miyo Iwakoshi is buried at Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, lot 85, grave 3E.
Japanese Americans in Oregon
Oregon's Japanese Americans
Oregon Public Broadcasting
Nihomachi: Portland's Japan Town
Miyo hardly fit this mold.
Sources about her are limited, but she seems to have been from a reasonably well-off family from northern Japan. However, one thing in particular differentiated her from other women of her social status: her daughter, Tama Jewel Nitobe. Officially, Nitobe was adopted, and both of her parents are listed as “unknown” on her death certificate. Nonetheless, scandalous rumors followed both mother and daughter for much of their lives. Regardless of the exact details, illegitimate children faced acute institutional as well as personal discrimination during the Meiji era. Therefore, concern for her child’s future may have contributed in part to Miyo's willingness to leave her life in Japan behind.
At around the age of 27, she met an Australian-Scottish man named Captain Andrew McKinnon (no one seems sure whether or not “captain” was an official title), who was teaching animal husbandry near where she lived. The Japanese government made a conscious effort to industrialize the nation’s agriculture, and foreigners such as McKinnon were hired for their expertise with techniques and equipment for farming in arid climates. McKinnon was 53 when he moved to Japan in 1873, and 58 when he met Iwakoshi. He had aspirations of traveling to America to live out his days on the frontier.
The details of Miyo and McKinnon’s relationship is a mystery, since they never married (at least not officially) and never had any biological children. Nevertheless, she traveled with him when he left for Oregon, and they settled in the outskirts of Gresham with Nitobe – five years old at the time – and Miyo’s younger brother, Riki. In 1880. McKinnon built a steam sawmill on their property, which they relied on to sustain themselves. They named their property Orient Mill, which gave the unincorporated area of Orient the name it has today.
From reading the experiences of Issei women at around that time, it’s clear that many were unprepared for how much the pioneer life differed from the romantic countrysides and promises of great wealth that had often motivated them or their husbands to immigrate. Life was often very difficult on the frontier. And racist U.S. policies such as those specifically excluding Japanese immigrants from full citizenship made their experience even more difficult than it was for their fellow, white settlers. After a few years living off the land, many Issei women would privately admit wishing they could return to the relative comforts of home. Sadly, few ever got the chance.
Although there’s no point in speculating how quickly she adjusted to pioneer life, Miyo could not have anticipated how quickly she and her family would fall on difficult times. About six years after setting foot in Oregon, Andrew McKinnon passed away, leaving just mother, daughter and brother to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar country.
Fortunately, they were no longer the only Japanese settlers in the state. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – which forced many Chinese immigrants, including their American-born children, to leave the state – created huge labor shortages for many employers. This significant vacuum in the workforce drew immigrants from other parts of Asia, in particular Japanese workers, who were still denied citizenship but were not subject to the same racist immigration law.
During this growth of Japanese immigration to Oregon, Miyo became an important resource for new or prospective emigrees to the region. She proved quite generous with aid and useful advice, as well as providing contacts in the area. Her giving spirit and intimate knowledge of the region earned her the title of “Western Empress” among the Oregon Japanese immigrant community.
In 1885, an importer and merchant named Shintaro Takaki arrived in Portland with the intention of selling goods to Portland’s Chinese immigrant population. He found this business so lucrative that he was able to open a restaurant in 1889. Around this time, he met Nitobe (who by this time went by Jewel McKinnon), and soon the two became the first Japanese couple to wed in the state of Oregon.
Takaki’s restaurant became a hub for recent immigrants from Japan. Often, new arrivals would discover the work they had been counting on was nonexistent. Takaki fed them on credit, and was often able to use his connections to find them work. He began to make money from farms and railway lines for referring workers to them, and in this way found himself working as a labor contractor, making him the first such Japanese contractor in Oregon.
Between Takaki’s business and Miyo’s charity, the extended Iwakoshi family established themselves as the social nucleus of Nihonmachi, Portland’s emergent Japantown, which thrived for half a century in Northwest Portland. Nihomachi served as a gathering area for Japanese laborers preparing to take up work on the railroads, in the salmon canneries, and in the sawmills of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.
Despite having a supportive community, the family faced significant hardships through the years, including numerous instances of racial discrimination. In addition to being forced from their homes and into internment camps during World War II, they were also attacked at one point by the Anti-Asiatic Association.
Takaki and Jewel moved to the Spokane area, where they were eventually able to purchase land and start a small family farm. They would have seven children together, all of whom by most accounts spent their whole lives on the West coast. Ann Hana (Hannah) Ogura Takaki, their second eldest daughter, worked as a waitress in Portland after the death of her first husband before remarrying and moving to Coeur d’Alene, where she and her husband are buried. Their son Andrew married and moved to California, also to become a farmer.
Sadly, the lives of many of Miyo's grandchildren were cut tragically short. In 1905, Jewel’s daughter Mamie was murdered in Spokane while living in a boarding house with the family – she refused a suitor who shot her in her sleep before killing himself. Some years later another of their sons fell to his death from the family car, and in 1973 another was shot to death in Idaho.
Miyo died in 1931 and is buried in Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, Lot 85, Grave 3E. Her husband Andrew is in Lot 85, Grave 4W. Her headstone was dedicated to her on May 29, 1988 by the Japanese-American community and the Gresham Historical Society.
There is a Japanese cedar on her grave as well that was her only memorial until 1988. Several members of her extended family, including those who died so tragically, are buried alongside her in the same plot.