History of the Onishi Family
By Sut Oishi with excerpts from The Japanese Texans and a personal interview with Harvey Onishi


    Three families, the Saibara's, the Nishimura's, and the Onishi's came to Texas in 1903.  Saito Saibara was the catalyst/ entrepreneur who made all this possible through determination, hard work and politicizing with the American people.  The Consul General of Japan, Uchida, who was stationed in New York, influenced Mr. Saibara to grow rice in America and ship it back to Japan.  Uchida felt that Texas would be a good place to grow rice.  Saibara started looking for land from Florida to Texas but eventually made Texas home. Once in Houston, Saito worked with the banks, post office, newspaper, and local business organizations to start rice farming in the Houston area.  Southern Pacific Railroad worked closely with Saibara since they would profit from the future rice business.  Saito Saibara bought his first 300 acres in Webster Texas.  The Onishi brothers soon followed him and purchased 300 acres next to Saibara.  Next came Mr. Nishimura, tea merchant, who also bought 300 acres next to the Onishi's.  This was the beginning of the Japanese colony of rice farmers in Texas in 1906.  The Onishi's were made up of two cousins, Rihei and Toraichi. Toraichi was a wealthy wine merchant.  Rihei had two brothers Iwajiro and Eijiro.  Toraichi had one brother Soichi. The second cousin of the aforementioned, Jitsuji Onishi, rounded out the Onishi family.


Daughter Katie is far left, next is Father (Jitsuji Onishi), next is son Lee and far right is Holly (Harvey's Dad).  Holly is the oldest son, then, Lee and last is Katie. 

   Rihei Onishi, the main entrepreneur, brought short grain rice from Japan.  Seito Saibara planted Onishi's short grain and became very successful in the Webster area.  Until this time, the only rice in Texas was the long grain from the Honduras.  The Onishi's farmed in the Kemah area, Wharton county, Makeena county and Almeda area. They were not allowed to own the land until 1920 when the Senate Bill 142 was passed.  This was called the Alien Land Bill.

   Most of the immigrants in the Onishi colony were men.  This created real problems for the stability and future of the colony.  Without wives the men could not be expected to stay on the farms forever.  While some men did have Japanese wives with them and others had temporarily left their wives in Japan, the great majority were unmarried.

       Seeing the problem, Rihei left for Japan in 1909 to recruit women who would marry his colonists.  At least three of the seven or eight women that he eventually brought back with him were known as picture brides.  These were women who agreed to marry men they had never met.  Because the prospective bride and groom in such marriages were in different countries, pictures were exchanged to determine approval or disapproval.  This was a common practice for Japanese immigrant men at the time. When both parties were satisfied, a wedding ceremony was held in Japan without the groom.  The wedding was duly recorded and the bride was free to go to America.  This process was most important after the Gentleman's Agreement in 1908, because Japanese women were not allowed to enter America unless they were married to men in America.

Nobu Onishi, wife of Jitsuji and mother of 4 children.

When Rihei Onishi and his group of Japanese women landed in San Francisco they were refused entry into United States. The port authorities accused Onishi of bringing prostitutes into the country. However wrong, Onishi and his company were forced to make hasty plans to enter Texas through Mexico. They landed in Mexico and traveled overland to enter at Eagle Pass Texas.

 


   From 1907 to 1919, the Onishi farm prospered very well mainly due to the rising price of rice and the demand for food after World War I.  The Onishi's were so large and isolated that they established their own company store.  They were able to purchase groceries and clothing at a slightly lower price than the stores.  Other Japanese laborers were brought in to help on the farm and soon picture brides were brought in to complete the family hierarchy.  One of the foremen was Yonekichi Kagawa who helped manage the workers in the rice fields.  The Onishi's farmed in Wharton county and did very well until 1919.  As the demand for rice worldwide started to decline, the price of rice went from $15 per 100 lbs to $3 per 100 lbs.  Most of the Japanese failed and they left Texas.  When the great depression struck in the 1930's, the Onishi's formed an Ehime Chokin Kumiai to pool their money and loan the money to the ones that needed it the most.  This operation went on until the beginning of World War Two.  In the meantime Rihei moved his family to Massachusetts in 1920.

   Jitsuji and his wife were the only Onishi family to stay in Texas.  They started with rice, but when the price of rice dropped to $3 a bushel, they switched to cotton and then vegetable produce.  They raised their four children in Kemah and Sugarland Texas. The oldest, Flora was born in 1909, Holly Sr. in 1913, Lee in 1918, and Katy in 1920.

 

   In the early 1900's, the city of Houston had a produce center referred to as Market Square at the intersection of Franklin and Commerce.  The city sponsored the vegetable produce, nursery, fish and poultry market, while the meat packing business was off to the side and privately operated.  The Onishi's along with the other Japanese and some Caucasian farmers brought their produce to Market Square on a daily basis.  These farm to market roads bustled with mule drawn wagons before the advent of trucks.  Usually when a wagonload of vegetables was brought into market, the farmer had to stay with the wagon until all the vegetables were sold.  Holly Sr. would spend many a night guarding the remaining vegetables till early morning, then finish his sales, go home, get ready for school.  The depression years were tough times for everyone.  They looked for ways to improve their efficiency.  The Japanese farmers soon realized that all of them didn't have to stay behind to sell the left over produce.  One person usually volunteered to stay behind and sell the remaining produce for the others.  This was generally referred to as co-oping.  Holly Sr. was generally better than others and soon offered to sell the produce for all the Japanese and some Caucasian farmers on commission basis.  As time went on Market Square grew too large for the downtown area.  The city moved the commercial side of the business (institutional business) to the Wayside area in South East Houston.  The noncommercial business (private, public and independent grocers) moved to the Airline Drive area.  This happened in 1954.  The farmers cooperative bought the land on Airline Drive and Holly Sr. built his first warehouse to serve the farmers in the northern sector of Houston.  These people were mostly Germans, Polish, and Czechoslovakians.  As the coop grew Holly Sr. and Lee realized the need to provide produce year round for their clients.  They started transporting produce from the valley and then eventually went coast to coast.  The warehouse ran as a cooperative until the early 70's at which time they changed to a corporation.


    The Japanese community of Houston also started the Lone Star Club in the 1930's and continued on into the forties and fifties. The club was located in Almeda close to the residence of Holly Sr.. The valley people took their lead from Houston and established a similar club in the Rio Grande valley, The Valley Royals.

    Holly Sr. married Fumiko Tanamachi through an arranged marriage (baishacunin) in 1939.  Lee Married Midori Okabayashi in the same manner.  Flora married George Miura an insurance salesman and moved to Chicago. Katy married Fred Muto and moved to San Fernando California. The Tanamachi's and the Okabayashi's were large families from the Valley.

     There's an interesting story how the Onishi brothers, Holly Sr. and Lee, met their brides.  Holly transported produce from all over Texas to Houston.  He frequented the valley and became friends with Jack Tanamachi, the oldest son of Kumazo Tanamachi who grew vegetables in the valley.  Jack introduced his oldest sister, Fumiko, to Holly Sr. and the rest was history.  Lee on the other hand did not marry until after the war.  He met Midori Okabayashi, but Midori's parents were against the marriage.  That didn't stop the couple from getting married.  They eloped. Lee was called into service, but Holly being the oldest son, stayed on the farm.  The farming operation was a two-fold process.  The vegetables were grown and then marketed.  Holly later convinced Lee to get involved in the produce business.

Lee and Midori Onishi had one son and two daughters.  The oldest, Lonny, is an Instructor for the Montgomery sheriffs department.  The eldest daughter, Kathy, married Rick Smith who works for the Texas Department of Corrections.  Lynda married Todd Knight who is now in the banking business.

 


    Holly and Fumi Onishi had four sons, Holly Jr., Harvey, Richard and Carl.  After Holly Sr. passed away in 1977, the two sons, Holly Jr. and Harvey along with their Uncle Lee ran the produce business.  Soon the two sons took over the entire produce business.  As Houston grew and large wholesalers became the norm, the Onishi's cut back.  Harvey is presently running the Holly Produce business.

A short synopsis of the Onishi siblings:

  1. Holly Jr. married Alice and has two children, Ginger and Keith.  He continues to be in the Produce business in Houston.
  2. Richard married Julie and has two children, Rachelle, and Richard, Jr.  He retired from an Engineering firm in California and continues to live there.
  3. Harvey married Leiola Lum Ho from Hawaii and have two children, Eric and Allison.  Allison was one of the first recipients to receive the Okumura Memorial Scholarship.  Harvey and Leiola still live in Houston and Harvey continues to run Holly Produce.
  4. Carl Wayne married Dawn and has one son Phillip.  Carl retired from Exxon and with his second wife, Susan, live in Port O'Connor.

This concludes the history of the Onishi family from 1903 to 2003.

Major Source:

The history leading up to the life of the Jitsuji Onishi family was taken from “The Japanese Texans” written by Thomas K.Walls in 1987 for the Institute of Texas Culture.