By J.K. Yamamoto — “Blossoms and Thorns: The Legacy of Richmond’s Historic Japanese American Nurseries” opened Sept. 25 at the Richmond Art Center with a capacity crowd in attendance.
The exhibition consists of a section of photos and artifacts covering the history of the Nikkei nurseries in the Richmond-El Cerrito area and a display of contemporary photos of the deserted greenhouses. The opening was part of the center’s 75th anniversary celebration.
The program opened with entertainment by the Kenmotsu Trio, featuring Michael Sasaki (guitar), Bob Kenmotsu (tenor sax), and Junko Kenmotsu (vocals); and Sakura Kai Taiko, under the direction of Mary Ann Furuichi, featuring Judy Fujita, Kimi Honda, Rena Kumai, Kazuyo Nakahara, Susan Nishizaka and Susie Sasahara.
“Today we’re honoring the 100-year-long contributions of several Japanese American families who bought land here at the turn of the century to build nurseries and raise award-winning roses and carnations. This exhibition is a tribute to them,” explained Michele Seville, the city’s arts and culture manager.
“You will see two visions here today — one of the past, depicting the nurseries as they looked at their peak, and one of the present, images of silent memories and the tenacious spirit of roses continuing to thrive against all odds. Untended, left to their own devices, they have taken over the nurseries in which they were tended and shown their spirit and their enduring will to live.”
Nancy Servis, executive director of the Richmond Art Center, stressed that the exhibition was a group effort. “Fortunately, we were in a position to receive funds from the City of Richmond Neighborhood Public Art Project, and we collaborated with many other people in the city of Richmond as well as other organizations. That was a very exciting process to see unfold. There are so many people who made this happen.”
Sponsors included the Richmond Arts and Culture Division, Contra Costa JACL, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, Richmond Community Development Agency, and El Cerrito Historical Society.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is also the City Council’s liaison to the Arts and Culture Commission, said that the purpose of the exhibition is to “capture in art form and photographic form the really beautiful contributions of the Japanese American community. That piece of history, the cut-flower industry that you all brought to us, is such a rich part of our soulfulness, just as art is so important to Richmond’s transformation. We know that without art we don’t transform. We need that creativity ...
“We are reconnecting with nature as you all came here with your love of nature. When I look at some of the exhibits, I can almost smell the carnations and smell the roses. And I know that by coming here and bringing your culture with you, you have given us so much … We want our young people to connect with nature and to have that history of a community, a community that made its living off of growing and tending and blossoming.”
The mayor thanked the National Park Service for “bringing stories together … the coming here during World War II of so many African Americans, and having that join together with the stories of the Japanese Americans and now our Latino community … It’s a wonderful unifying effort that we have.”
She added, “We know the truth is that internment camps also happened, that horrible mark on American history, and we tell the truth about that and we make amends. We show that America today has got to be a different place, or it’s not an America that any of us will want to be in.”
Speaking for Rep. George Miller was Joanne Nakamura, who works in the congressman’s district office in Richmond. She spoke about her personal connection to the exhibition: “My sister-in-law Margie, her maiden name is Sakai, and her father Roy was one of the founding brothers of the Sakai Nursery. My other connection is through my late husband, who was born and raised in Berkeley but really felt like the Ninomiya family was his second family. In fact, David Ninomiya was the best man at our wedding.”
A Sansei born in the Jerome internment camp in Arkansas, Nakamura comes from a farming family in Delano. “Luckily, when they returned back to Delano (from camp), we had a wonderful neighbor and friend who, because he had the power of attorney, took care of our land and we were able to continue farming. So we did have friends. There were good people there.”
In a congratulatory letter read by Nakamura, Miller said, “ ‘Roses and Thorns’ provides insights into the Japanese Americans who established nursery businesses in Richmond through hard work and personal sacrifice. Their story is intertwined with Executive Order 9066 of 1942, issuing the mandatory evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry to inland internment camps. On occasion, art has the unique ability to both inspire and inform. The Japanese American experience is an integral part of Richmond’s past and present. Through the lens of this retrospective exhibit, we are given a greater awareness and appreciation of the contributions from Japanese American nursery growers who continue to enrich our community.”
Jim Oshima spoke on behalf of the nursery families. “I was probably 6 or 7 when we shut down our nursery in Richmond/El Cerrito. But I’d like to tell you a few stories that I heard from my families … what life was like to this American immigrant family. When I say American immigrant, I’m trying to make a picture away from the Japanese American aspect into what life was like for many American immigrants who came here from various different countries and didn’t speak English. They were just pioneers of America …
“Many of the pioneers started off in jobs picking fruit on the farms. Somehow they saved up enough money or pooled enough money to buy properties in Richmond, El Cerrito, wherever else in the country, to start a business. My grandparents actually were partners together in their first nursery in Richmond on Wall Avenue and San Pablo Avenue.
“What they would do is they would grow their roses and cut them seven days a week. Grandpa would take two baskets of roses on a trolley from Richmond down to the first ferry stations in Oakland and later in Berkeley. We didn’t have bridges across to San Francisco at this time … So they would take ferry boats across the bay with their baskets of roses, walk it over to the flower market in San Francisco to sell the flowers, buy their supplies in San Francisco, lug it back in their baskets and come back over to Richmond just to do the same thing the next day …
“We didn’t have freeways in these early years … Visiting friends in the city would be an all-day event, taking an old car down around the bay or crossing by ferry boat.”
Oshima, who now works at Otis Spunkmeyer in San Leandro, recalled asking his mother who looked after him when everyone was busy in the nursery. “Mom would tell me that they would bring the crib into the packing building for the roses and Grandma would be off to the side and it was her job to work and to watch me in the crib.
“I was talking to a co-worker of mine who’s Mexican American who grew up in the Fresno area and said, ‘Did you grow up on a farm too? … Who watched after you?’ ‘Well, the ladies out in the field would take bundles of hay and build a little crib and put us in there, a tarp over there for the sun, and as they were walking down the field they would move our crib along.’
“So this goes back to not just the story of Japanese American immigrants. These pictures out here are a portrayal of many American immigrants in our country … I think we’re very fortunate to have preserved a little bit of America in an art form that (allows us to) see what life was like … see what their clothing was like, back as our grandparents or parents were toddlers to what it is now. Kind of a full cycle of America.”
Oshima also complimented the photographers for the “incredible job that these artists have done contrasting the before and the present day, and just the beauty and the strength of these flowers that have resurrected themselves throughout the dilapidated greenhouses.”
Present-day talk about losing jobs to foreign countries reminded Oshima of what happened to the family business. “Back in 1970, these Japanese nurseries in America, throughout the country, were faced with their globalization in that flowers were being produced in Colombia, Ecuador and other countries. So (due to) the downturn of our industry, my family went out of business in the mid-’70s. I think the last nurseries to close were probably the Oishis and Sakais just this last decade, so they’ve struggled on through tough times of globalization. It’s not something new. It’s been happening a long time.”
Contemporary and Historical Perspectives
Emily Anderson, curator of the Richmond Art Center and curator of the contemporary photographs, introduced three of the photographers, Ellen Gailing, Fletcher Oakes and Ken Osborn. The fourth, Matthew Matsuoka, was unable to attend. “They’re all local Richmond photographers, and it just brings tears to my eyes … because each one of these photographers have a really high sense of creative uniqueness in their vision along with a sensitivity and a respect for the families and the nurseries and really a sense of pride for all of us. Somehow these images really reflect that.”
Each of the photographers wrote an artist’s statement. Anderson read Matsuoka’s: “The spirit embodied in the flowers that continued to grow and thrive at Miraflores without help from the stewards that used to tend to them is a perfect symbol for my Japanese American ancestors. The flowers of Miraflores are a visual representation of our human spirit, our ability to face hardship, to survive, and to love.”
Miraflores is the name of the site of three nurseries bounded by South 45th Street to the west, Wall Avenue to the south, Interstate 80 to the east, and the BART tracks to the north. The housing development there will include design features reflecting the site’s history.
Seville said that the exhibition was inspired by Osborn’s “amazing photographs” of the nurseries, which he had posted on his website. As more people in the local arts community saw the photos, they agreed that there should be a public showing, and the participation of the Richmond Art Center and three more photographers “who have done extraordinary work” was secured.
“But telling this story of the way the greenhouses look today is incomplete without telling the history of what they looked like and how they came to be originally,” Seville said. “That meant we had to have a historical component. So we needed a historian, and that meant that we needed the foremost authority on Richmond’s Japanese American nurseries, Donna Graves. I contacted Donna and she agreed to curate the historical component of the exhibition.
“So next we needed historical photographs, which Donna had of course, and also Tom Panas from the El Cerrito Historical Society … He shared with us some photographs because last year he did an extraordinary exhibition on the same topic and he was very gracious in assisting us with doing ours.
“Next we needed artifacts, so I thought of Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, having been a park ranger myself for two years back, at the inception of the park … I know that the passion of the park is beyond compare when it comes to telling about local history, and I thought they might have an artifact or two …
“Also, one of the pieces to the artifact component that would not have been complete was to have some examples of … the artifacts that were created at internment camps. (Former Albany Mayor) Jewel Nishi Okawachi was gracious enough to share her collection with us.”
Calling them “the glue that held things together,” Seville also thanked the Japanese American Advisory Committee: Charlotte Sakai, Marjorie Fujioka, Flora Ninomiya, Jill Shiraki, Chizu Iiyama, Barbara Saito, Joan Matsuoka and Larry Oishi. “Their guidance and input, their support throughout the planning process for this exhibition, has been crucial.”
The committee also put together lists of books and films about the Japanese American experience and organized a film festival that was held Oct. 9 in the City Council Chambers.
Shattered and Reassembled
Graves has been project manager of the Bay Trail and MacDonald Avenue historical signage projects in Richmond and project director of Preserving California’s Japantowns, a statewide survey of 50 prewar Japanese American communities. She said a quote from poet Derek Walcott — “Break a vase and the love that reassembles its fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted as a whole” — was appropriate for the occasion.
“The vase we’re celebrating today is the community built by Japanese Americans in Richmond over the last century. During the decades prior to World War II, they crafted that vase, that container, to hold flowers, to hold community, and to hold the dreams for their children. That vase was shattered during World War II by forced relocation and imprisonment … Through incredible strength and tenacity, most of the Richmond families came back, rebuilt their businesses, and reclaimed their place in this community …
“It’s up to us to remember this legacy, which his both bitter and hopeful, and to pass it on to the future as our shared history. It’s really been fun and an honor to work on this exhibit … I will say personally that the real privilege for me over the last 10 years has been getting to know so many people from the Richmond nursery families who helped me understand this story.”
Tom Leatherman, former superintendent of the Manzanar Historic Site and acting superintendent of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, spoke for the National Park Service. “The stories of the city of Richmond and of our country during the war are stories of ... the people that are sitting in this audience, the people who are part of history, and the people who grew out of that history,” he said. “We think about Rosie the Riveter and the women who worked in the shipyards, but … what else was going on on the home front?
“Some of those things I think we can be proud of in our country, and some of those things I think we’re not very proud of. One of those things is what we did to Japanese Americans during the war, and I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know that story. That’s what we’re here to do, the National Park Service working with the community, to tell those stories. All the stories, not just the ones that we’re proud of … but the ones that we can learn from and, as we move forward, make our country stronger.”
Seville said in conclusion, “I would like to take this opportunity to thank our Japanese American community and honor you today. You left your country and came to the United States to take advantage of new opportunities. Up until 1913 (when the Alien Land Law was enacted), you could buy land here. You developed that land, you built nurseries, you became a part of Richmond … a part of who we are, an integral part of what made Richmond happen. You became the top sellers of cut flowers in the state of California.
“Then with World War II, you lost it all — your businesses, your homes, and the life that you had built and come to know. Even while many were in the internment camps, you continued to be dedicated to beauty. You created art, some of which is on display here today. When the war was over, you simply returned and picked up the pieces. You started again, and you succeeded again. I know that I speak for many when I say that I am so sorry for your loss and humbled by your courage. Your community serves as an example to us all. We thank you for 100 years of flowers.”
Other activities held in conjunction with the exhibition include bus tours given by the National Park Service and a haiku contest for students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
“Blossoms and Thorns” runs until Nov. 13. The Richmond Art Center is located at 2540 Barrett Ave. at 25th Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (510) 620-6772 or visit www.therac.org.
Another exhibition on the same topic, “One Small Story from Richmond’s Hidden History: The Japanese American Nurseries,” opened Sept. 12 and closed Oct. 24 at the Richmond Museum of History.