Japenese culture touted in Discovery Road episode

Bessie Konishi has spent most of her life introducing people to the Japanese culture and the important role they played in settling the San Luis Valley. Konishi laments the once vibrant community and works to document their story.


Japenese culture touted in Discovery Road episode




A new episode of Discovery Road, produced in part by the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area, takes a look at the fascinating history of the Japanese people settling the fertile agriculture lands of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.

Although the Japanese influence in the area may not be as vibrant as it once was, the Japanese character of that history is wonderful and important and shouldn’t be forgotten, said Discovery Road creator James Nelson.

This most recent episode called “Saving History” brings forward some fascinating stories that will educate and inspire people about the Japanese story, Nelson said. “The San Luis Valley today is beautiful, productive and filled with history,” he said.

Japanese farmers moved to the San Luis Valley in the early 1900s because land was available and promoters painted a rosy picture of agricultural bliss. By 1924, the Japanese settlement was complete and thousands of acres of vegetables were under cultivation.

The Japanese-American people in the San Luis Valley endured the hostilities of World War II and many were sent internment camps, according to historical records.

The half hour documentary profiles one of the first Japanese farmers to move into the valley. His name was Joseph Masahito Sato. And although he did everything that was expected of him, he was harassed for being Japanese.

Sato married Emilia Montano, but not before he promised to become a Catholic, hold a good job, be a bread winner and provide a place to live.

“They would call them Japs if something didn’t go right; that was the time, I guess,” said Sato’s granddaughter Cathy Serna-Egana in an interview with Discovery Road. “My mother told me about the times; they would get beat up. I really don’t know the reasoning, but it was because they were Japanese basically.”

Joseph Sato employed many with farming knowledge learned from his father long ago in Japan. He in turn provided produce and jobs to the community.

“I believe the story needs to be told because it’s something communities should be proud of,” said granddaughter Sandra Epenesa about her grandfather’s contribution to the community. “The Japanese is not the only culture; there are other cultures that need to be told, because it blends into the community that we are today.”

Discovery Road then traveled to Blanca, Colo. to film a Japanese potato farm operation. The show described Alvin Kunugi during the peak of the potato harvest and his hard work to bring food to America.

“Back when I was a child there were a lot of Japanese people here,” Kunugi said. “And almost all of them were in farming; opportunity was here; attrition just took its place over the years and it ends up there’s just a few Japanese farmers left in this area.”

The Japanese presence in southern Colorado is barely visible these days. The language is not readily heard, traditional food is mostly unavailable, and their Buddhist Temple is now out of business. Bessie Konishi has waged a quiet war against the disappearing culture of the Japanese.

“There weren’t very many of us,” Konishi said in an interview in the documentary. “We weren’t loud. We were quiet. No. They’re not going to remember. That’s why I feel it’s so important to get it down, you know. Get it written out, talk about it.”

Discovery Road is an award-winning ongoing documentary series broadcast each Saturday on the Utah Education Network in Utah and surrounding states. All episodes can also be found on the website mormonpioneerheritage.org. This episode was produced in conjunction with the Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area.