The Saibara Family of Webster, Texas

    Seito Saibara (1861-1939), former President of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and the first Christian member of the Japanese Diet (Parliament), arrived in the United States in 1901 to study theology at the Hartford Theological Seminary.  He came to Texas in August of 1903 at the invitation of the Houston Chamber of Commerce to advise farmers on the cultivation of rice, which was emerging as a major crop.  At that time, the average rice yield using seed from Honduras or the Carolinas was 18-20 barrels an acre.

    In 1903, the father asked his wife and oldest son, Kiyoaki Saibara (1884-1972), to bring from Japan 300 pounds of shinriki seed, a superior variety.  Together, father and son planted 1,000 acres in Webster.  The Japanese seed yielded 34 barrels per acre.  The first crops were primarily distributed as seed in Texas and Louisiana.  The Saibaras are credited with building the multimillion-dollar Texas rice industry with their improved rice strains and production techniques.  As other families arrived to help with the farming, the first Japanese colony in Texas took root.

    After the rice crop was well established, Kiyoaki told his father he was ready to marry.  His father arranged for him to meet Shimoyo Iwasaki, the daughter of a friend in Japan.  The daughter of a samurai, Shimoyo began attending a Christian school in Japan to learn about the faith and to learn English.  The arrangement was that she would travel to the United States and meet Kiyoaki in San Francisco.  They began attending consular social events there and decided to marry.  The ceremony was held in Webster Presbyterian Church on July 10, 1909.  The little white church on the prairie, with its steeple gleaming, was festooned with flowers for the occasion.  Among the wedding guests were Japanese consular officials, a tribute to the high esteem in which the Japanese government held Seito Saibara.

    In 1953, almost 50 years after his arrival, Kiyoaki Saibara became the first Japanese to become a U.S. citizen in Houston, and probably Texas.  Until 1952, an immigration law passed in 1906 prohibited Japanese from acquiring citizenship.  Saibara's outstanding record in Texas was persuasive in making Congress change its mind.  During World War II, Kiyoaki helped the country that would not accept him by using short-wave radio to explain to his countrymen in Japan that the United States was a place where a man was accorded dignity and where a farmer could grow rice and prosper.

    After John Glenn achieved fame worldwide as a U.S. astronaut, he had occasion to meet Kiyoaki Saibara shortly before he went to Japan for a visit.  Mr. Saibara startled the famous astronaut when he said, “Colonel Glenn, when you get to Japan, if you should meet the Emperor, would you give him my regards?”  John Glenn smiled inwardly, seriously doubting that the Emperor would recognize the name of an obscure rice farmer from Webster, Texas.  But when Mr. Glenn did meet the Emperor, he thought he would try it, and said, “Your Majesty, do you know a Mr. K. Saibara in Webster, Texas?”  The Emperor immediately flashed a big smile and said, “How is my dear friend, Mr. Saibara?”

    John Glenn did not know that Mr. Saibara had done much to cement American-Japanese relations after the war.  Most of the ambassadors who came from Japan would first stop by Webster to talk to Mr. Saibara and get his counsel on how relations between the two nations were going before they continued on to Washington, D.C.  Kiyoaki Saibara farmed rice and raised cattle until he retired in 1964 at age 79. He died in 1972.

    Kiyoaki's eldest son, Robert, served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the highest rank at that time held by a person of Japanese ancestry.  A second son, Warren, also served in the Army.  The youngest son, Harvey, was killed while in training in the Air Force.

    Robert graduated from Texas A&M University in Electrical Engineering and was a lifelong Aggie supporter.  Robert and his wife, Rola, had three daughters, Phyllis, Judy and Marjie, three grandchildren, Mike, Mark, and Holly, and one great granddaughter, Brittany.