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Pruning the Bonsai: How the History of Japanese American Gardeners Lives on Through Their Descendants

A habit I’ve recently adopted as a result of COVID-19 is taking the time to admire people’s yards.

Because the global pandemic has confined us to our homes for the last six months, I’ve developed more of an appreciation for the times that I do get to venture outside, and my boyfriend and I have been taking long, meandering walks around our Pasadena neighborhood.

On some of these walks, my boyfriend, who is also Japanese American, is quick to point out the homes that he thinks belong to Japanese families based on their front yards. Many people are familiar with the telltale signs of a “JA home” from the outside: the grass is perfectly manicured, the trees are shaped in a bonsai-looking style, and there’s usually a stone lantern or two sitting around.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure if it is a “JA home” based on its front yard. A Japanese American family could still be living there, or they may have moved and the current owners have chosen to maintain the yard. There are also lots of non-Japanese people who appreciate the beauty and style of Japanese gardens and hope to mimic them in their own yards.

Japanese Tea Garden postcard from the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island, 1939, and a gift to the Japanese American National Museum.

Regardless, I’m always touched when I see a pristine yard featuring elements of Japanese-style gardening. Though the era of Japanese American gardeners in Southern California has ended, it’s heartwarming to see a physical reminder of the role they played in shaping both commercial gardens and residential yards in California and throughout the United States.

This led me to wonder how this history has lived on beyond the shrubbery, in the memories of their descendants. How do people my age — third, fourth, and fifth-generation Japanese American millennials — relate to their family’s history when it can sometimes feel so long ago?

A History of Survival

One of the most common phrases I heard in my Asian American studies classes in college was “to understand where we’re going, we must understand where we’ve been.”

“I think a lot of us see markers of gardening and farm history, but we don’t really know where it comes from,” said Joseph Tsuboi, who is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Asian American studies at UCLA. Joseph’s grandfather was a gardener in Sawtelle, West Los Angeles, and it was this piece of family history that initially inspired him to learn more about Japanese Americans in the U.S. and eventually study this history in school.

Joseph's grandfather, who upon returning to Sawtelle after the war took up an independent gardening route. Photo courtesy of the Tsuboi family.

When Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. pre-WWII, many settled along the West Coast and took up farming and gardening jobs. At one point in 1934, a reported one-third of Los Angeles’s Japanese American workforce farmed or gardened. While countless immigrants brought years of gardening knowledge with them from Japan, the reality is that they didn’t have a choice when it came to a profession, as anti-Asian racism prevented them from succeeding in other lines of work and even owning their own land.

Though white Americans discriminated against Japanese Americans, they were also fascinated by Japanese gardens, and by the 1920s there already existed a variety of popular gardens from the Japanese Friendship Garden at San Diego’s Balboa Park (built in 1915) to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (constructed in 1894).

Then came World War II, when more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated in camps along the West Coast after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Still, families would garden in camp as a form of survival and as a way to pass the time. My friend, Scott Shima, told me that his grandparents grew guayule, a type of shrub used to make rubber, for the U.S. government while incarcerated in Manzanar.

George Yokomizo, hybridizer for the guayule project at Manzanar. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Post-war saw countless Issei and Nisei returning to gardening work after being released from camp, along with the Japanese who immigrated to the United States later. Families lost their homes and belongings and often had to start their lives over in new towns; gardening involved low start-up costs and establishing an independent business was still easier than applying for other kinds of jobs. Scott’s grandparents used their gardening skills to acquire and run a nursery in Inglewood after they were released.

Joseph Tsuboi’s grandfather, who had renounced his U.S. citizenship during the war and returned to Japan, came back to Sawtelle with his family in 1958 and immediately began his own gardening route.

“My dad’s earliest memories were of seeing his dad, my grandpa, toil and figure out what work he could do,” Joseph said. “Given his family’s work as farmhands, he knew gardening was the only way he could find work. Dad said he saw him work nearly every day until he died.”

Joseph's grandfather with his uncle and dad. Photo courtesy of the Tsuboi family.

By the time Joseph’s grandpa settled in Sawtelle, there was already an established network of nurseries and former farming families-turned-gardeners in the area. Gardeners like Joseph’s grandpa were able to establish gardening routes through word of mouth in the community. His grandpa would tackle 8 to 10 homes a day in the wealthy neighborhoods of Brentwood and Bel Air. During this time, having a Japanese American gardener was a status symbol for middle-class households.

When Joseph’s dad was just 13, his grandfather passed away from a stroke — which Joseph and his dad attribute to his rigorous work schedule and the pressure of providing for his family — and his uncle ended up taking over their father’s gardening route.

Some families became gardeners after the war with the goal of eventually owning their own nurseries or flower shops — something they could call their own.

Kaitlin Hara’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Japan in 1968, and her grandfather became a gardener in Orange County to save up money so he could one day own a business. Her grandpa had studied agriculture in high school in Japan, and in just a few years he was able to lease land from SoCal Edison to start his own nursery. Some of Kaitlin’s earliest memories took place in her grandparents’ nursery, which was called John’s Nursery (her grandpa’s English name) and located in La Palma.

Childhood photo of Kaitlin and her brother riding around their grandparents' nursery. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Hara.

“What I remember are random moments, like opening the gate in my grandparents’ backyard that led right into the nursery,” Kaitlin said. “I also remember my ojiichan holding me on his lap while driving the cart around (and almost dropping me!), and his pruning shears with their distinctive orange handles as he taught me that you have to cut some leaves off the outsides of bushes so the sun can hit the inside and make it ‘more full.’”

Iszac Gaton’s family worked odd jobs in fishing and metalwork before his grandpa started a gardening and landscaping business in San Mateo after the war. He eventually earned enough to open his own flower business on a large plot of land in Salinas, which he ran with Iszac’s grandmother until they retired in 2002. Though his grandparents initially wanted to pass down the family business, his uncle pursued other work, and they ended up closing for good.

“When I visited as a kid, it felt more like a playground to run around in,” Iszac said about his memories of the flower business. “I was too young to understand the weight of the business.”

Gradually, as white-collar professions began opening up for Japanese Americans and countless Nisei and Sansei pursued college degrees, less people turned to garden work. The older generations retired from their gardening routes and either closed or sold their nurseries. Now, the gardening profession in Southern California is comprised of mainly Latino workers, including immigrants who came to the U.S. for many of the same reasons as Japanese immigrants.

Remembering a Lifetime of Labor

When I ask these Japanese Americans, all of whom are in their 20s, about how they view their grandparents’ work in inventing the gardener occupation as we know it today in California, many admit to not fully learning or appreciating their family’s history until adulthood.

Childhood photo of Iszac and his sister at their grandparents' flower business. Photo courtesy of Iszac Gaton.

“I had to grill my mom and jiichan for a lot of those details in college,” Iszac said about his grandparents’ flower business. “As a kid, I never wondered about their immigrant story — it was just a place in my mind. But because college sparked an interest in Asian American culture for me, I began asking more questions.”

Many younger descendants of Japanese American gardeners can’t return to their families’ nurseries or the yards they worked on to see the evidence of their grandparents’ hard work, but then again, I’m not sure if they would want to if they had the choice. From what they’ve learned, they all understand that gardening work was less of a passion and more of a means of keeping their family afloat, especially during hard times after WWII and immigration to a new country.

“I’m sure my grandparents would’ve been happy if my mom or my uncle or one of us grandkids had wanted to take over the nursery, but I think in the end the nursery for them was never meant to be a generational thing,” Kaitlin said. The land her grandparents’ nursery was on has since been turned into a park by the city of La Palma. “It was a way to support the family using the skills they had.”

From what they’ve learned, they all understand that gardening work was less of a passion and more of a means of keeping their family afloat, especially during hard times after WWII and immigration to a new country.

These days, the evidence of their grandparents’ hard work is still present in the home gardens that occupy their free time in retirement. Iszac’s grandpa tends to his home garden, and his grandma teaches Ikebana, or flower arranging, at their local Buddhist temple.

“I don’t feel the need to preserve or bring back the nurseries for business,” said Iszac. “But I like the preservation on a small, self-sustaining scale. Now, my grandparents grow kyuri and other small greens privately and share with family. I think that intimacy is worth preserving.”

For some descendants of gardeners, honoring their family legacy involves helping their family with gardening chores or simply taking home fresh vegetables. My friend Kyler Motoyasu’s grandfather used to be a gardener in the San Fernando Valley.

“Even though he passed a few years ago, I still visit my grandma to cut the bonsai that he used to tend to,” he said.

Joseph's grandmother, pictured with his father and uncle. Photo courtesy of the Tsuboi family.

Though Joseph Tsuboi never got to meet his grandfather, he’s learned a lot about him and his family’s history through his grandmother, who still lives in the same house in Sawtelle and has a backyard garden that she tends to. Now that Joseph lives closer, he often visits his grandma to help her garden and take home any vegetables she pushes his way. For Joseph, preserving and honoring his grandfather’s memory looks like enjoying the life he has been given, as well as the literal fruits of his family’s labor.

“Us as people in our 20s are in a moment where we’re not able to clearly envision our futures,” Joseph said, referencing COVID-19 and climate change. “So there are small joys we have to locate and cherish. Making a dish to end my day using my grandma’s vegetables, I get to honor her work in keeping up this tradition and honor the obvious toils and obstacles my grandpa had to face, too. The world is crumbling, and I just want to connect with things that make me feel happy.”

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