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How the Japanese-American community covered Bainbridge with strawberries

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

The forcible relocation and incarceration of Japanese-American strawberry farmers on the Eastside already has been well-documented by David Neiwert in his book, Strawberry Days.  Neiwert, an ex-reporter for the Eastside Journal-American and a former editor at Crosscut, described the internment’s consequences for those communities.

As he recounted in a 2005 Seattle Times interview, “The relocation destroyed the livelihoods and careers of thousands of citizens, based on an unconstitutional mass presumption of guilt.  It humiliated a whole population of largely loyal and patriotic citizens by identifying them with the national enemy.  It uprooted families, destroyed their close-knit structures, and laid waste to whole communities like the one in Bellevue.”

For the Hayashida family, the evacuation brought major changes.  “When the evacuation came along, the hired Filipino workers moved from their bunk house into our home.  I believe there were six workers.” During the harvest, Hisako’s uncle went to British Columbia and brought back Native Americans to harvest the berries.  “Before the World War II, there must have been 20 families for the harvest,” she said.  During the war, our workers went to work in the shipyards, so our berry field went fallow.”

After their return from the camps, the Hayashidas resumed farming.  “Two years after we got back from the evacuation, our workers started up farming again, but on a much smaller scale,” Hisako said.  Eventually, one of the brothers, Saburo Hayashida, went to work for Boeing and moved his family to Seattle.   Her father and uncle farmed until their retirement in the 1960s.

When Kay Nakao’s parents, Sunoji and Yoshiko, bought their 10 acres of land in 1920, her father knew little about strawberry farming.  Although his knowledge of berry growing was miniscule, he quickly gauged the profit-making potential of that land. “This property will be worth a lot,” he told his family.  Like the Hayashida’s, the Nakao’s initially leased their property from 1920 to 1935, eventually moving to a new farm.  In subsequent years, the strawberry farm’s success exceeded their expectations.  At the time of their evacuation to Manzanar in California, the Nakao family farm reaped its best season ever.

During their wartime incarceration, the daily operation of the farm was turned over to a Filipino manager, who shared part of the profits from the sale of the strawberries with the family.  During the war, however, the local shipyard needed workers, and many of the Filipino workers left the Nakao farm after the harvest leaving the farm to languish. In 1946, when the family returned after the war, the farm had been abandoned, and circumstances led the family to sell the property to the Bainbridge Island School District at cost the following year.

The Nakaos are no longer involved in strawberry farming.  Kay Nakao’s brother and sister bought another property across the road.  At its height, close to 30 Japanese-American immigrant families on Bainbridge Island owned strawberry farms, but there are next to none today.

In spite of the lingering anti-Japanese sentiment in other parts of the country during the war’s aftermath, Bainbridge Island seemed the exception. “Bainbridge Island is a very unique place,” Nakao said.  “We’re like one family, she added, praising island residents for their support after the return of Japanese-American families from the internment.

Nakao singled out one individual in particular, the late Walt Woodward, a former Seattle Times reporter.  Woodward and his wife Millie were editors of the Bainbridge Review, a weekly newspaper that published editorials condemning the relocation of 227 Bainbridge Islanders of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. Along the West Coast, theirs was one of the few voices that spoke out against FDR’s decision to remove Japanese Americans out of their homes on the West Coast.

In 2006, Bainbridge Island residents broke ground on the first of four phases of a memorial to commemorate the families who were exiled. On August 6, the community will celebrate the completion of the second phase of the Memorial Wall, built on the very site where Japanese-Americans boarded the ferry nearly 70 years ago.

The community has raised $2.2 million towards the $6.4 million project, said Clarence Moriwaki, a board member of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial Committee. The memorial is appropriately named Nidota Nai Yoni, Japanese for “Let it not happen again.” 

This story is adapted from the International Examiner. Reprinted with permission.

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