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    How the Japanese-American community covered Bainbridge with strawberries

    The Japanese American community turned Bainbridge into a strawberry paradise, creating the first strawberry fields in the region. Here's their story and the sad ending caused by the internment camps of World War II.

    The Ohtohiko Koura Farm on Bainbridge in 1925, now site of Bainbridge library

    The Ohtohiko Koura Farm on Bainbridge in 1925, now site of Bainbridge library Nob Koura Collection, courtesy of Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community

    For denizens of the Pacific Northwest, the summer months of June through August mark the season for cherries, boysenberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

    Long before large-scale fruit growing became a successful staple of the region’s economy, Japanese-American immigrant families pioneered the first strawberry farms in the Puget Sound region in the early 1900s.

    Throughout the West Coast, farmers of Japanese descent became the backbone for the fruit-growing enterprise.  In Southern California, alone, Issei or first-generation immigrants virtually built berry-farming into a $1.3 billion industry.  Typical of that generation were the Hayashida and Nakao families on Bainbridge Island.

    When Hisako Hayashida’s grandparents first settled on Bainbridge Island to farm in 1908, Issei Japanese-American immigrants, were unable to purchase land.  Like many Issei farmers, her family had to lease land as the 1924 Immigration Act prohibited the sale of land to Japanese and other Asians.

    Prior to World War II, the first Japanese who arrived on the island in the 1880s worked as laborers with immigrants from China, Finland, Australia, Italy, and elsewhere at Port Blakney Mill Company, founded by Captain William Renton. Japanese-Americans performed the dangerous work of clearing the land and removing huge tree stumps left behind from the logging of old-growth firs. In the early 1900s, much of the land on Bainbridge Island was stumpage from the Blakely Mills days.

    “It was hard work clearing the land with dynamite and horses, and then getting rid of the glacially-deposited rocks,” said Hayashida, whose married name is Matsudaira.  Like the Sakuma family, which had been first began growing berries in 1915, the Hayashidas were among the first Issei generation to begin growing strawberries.  The Sakumas eventually moved their business to Burlington, becoming the largest strawberry farm in Skagit Valley, Sakuma Brothers.

    “Many Japanese families can be credited with clearing Bainbridge since they had to move to other locations when their leases were up,” she said.  “In many cases, the family had to wait until their American-born son or daughter was of age before buying land under the family name.  Some families bought land, but under the name of a Caucasian friend.”  Many of the leases were five to seven years.

    Hayashida’s maternal grandparents eventually purchased about 20 acres of land and grew currants, strawberries, tomatoes, and other produce to sell at Pike Place Market.  Her grandfather worked on the land until he earned enough money to return to Japan in the late 1920s.  His oldest daughter, Shigeko Nishinaka, bought the land.

    “She got married and lived on the land and raised her children,” Hayashida said.  “When her husband, Frank Kitamoto, said that he would not send the daughters to college, Shigeko started farming in the early 1950s.” Eventually she became successful raising raspberries, selling the berries to produce markets in Seattle and Frederick and Nelson.  As she grew older, she raised Christmas trees.

    “My father’s parents raised strawberries,” Hayashida said.  “As the boys grew older, they took over much of the clearing of land and farming.  When my grandparents went back to Japan, the older boys stayed and took over the farm.  The two youngest boys went back to Japan with them.”

    "The sons bought 20 acres when the family home was under her uncle’s name,” Hayashida said.  “My father, although he was the oldest, was born in Japan and could not own land.  Later they bought another 40 acres about four miles from the house and cleared the land.” The family began planting strawberries and soon established the largest strawberry farm on Bainbridge Island. The great specialty of Bainbridge was the Marshall strawberry, large and juicy and not meant to be a keeper. (These delicacies are very hard to find today.)

    But the incarceration of West Coast Japanese during World War II dealt a devastating blow to Japanese families, not only on Bainbridge Island, but also other farming communities on Vashon Island and Bellevue.

    The Bainbridge Island families were the first of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans nationwide sent to World War II internment camps under President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066.  Most of those relocated were American citizens.   A total of 227 Bainbridge Island men, women, and children were herded onto a ferry on March 30, 1942 and shipped off to relocation center camps, where they would spend up to the next four years.

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    Posted Fri, Jun 24, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Great article.

    It is interesting how actions in the past cause ripples into the present. Take for example Kemper Freeman Jr. His current fortune began with his grandfather, Miller Freeman. Here is a bit about Miller:

    ...That same year, Freeman began to take an interest in Japanese- American relations; i.e., Americans should understand that Japanese “yellow” clashed with red, white, and blue. Until his death in 1955, Miller Freeman avidly pursued his anti-Japanese obsession, and his Eastside real estate business grew as a direct result.

    Freeman owned several newspapers, including the Bellevue American and Town Crier, and used them as vehicles for his racist blather. “Japanese population and power in the western Unites States is increasing at a sure, accumulative rate,” he once said, “which will inevitably give the white man his choice between subjugation and retreat.” As the president of the Anti-Japanese League of Washington, and as a Washington state legislator, he led a campaign that culminated in the passage of the Alien Land Law of 1921, which forbade people of Japanese descent from owning land– or even leasing it. Shortly thereafter, Freeman began buying up cheap land on the Eastside, formerly home to thousands of successful Japanese farmers. In 1925 he bought land in Medina; three years later he moved his family into a new mansion there.

    After Pearl Harbor, Miller Freeman saw another opportunity to screw over Japanese Americans, and make a profit, too. He went to Washington, D.C, to urge the Tolan Committee to lock up people of Japanese descent. And he kept up his racist rantings in his newspapers, calling the Japanese an “insoluble race” bent on “infiltration.”

    With Japanese Americans tucked away in internment camps, Freeman was able to reap the full benefits of the new Mercer Island Floating Bridge (which he had lobbied to have built, and which opened in 1940). The Eastside, cleansed of its Asian-American population, was now safe for white businessmen, largely due to the efforts of Miller Freeman. His son, the first Kemper Freeman, built the original Bellevue Square, after convincing his father to buy a piece of land along 104th Avenue Northeast.

    Kemper Freeman Jr has build upon this nest egg handed to him by his father and grandfather to become the so called "King of Bellevue". The money obtained from Japanese displacement and state highway largess have tremendous influence in the decisions being made today.


    Posted Fri, Jun 24, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks, Andy, for bringing this story to light once again. It's been a long time since I first learned about it. I'll bet a lot of today's East-siders will be surprised.


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