They are as upstanding a group of civic leaders as one might find anywhere. Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, 66, a former educator, was once an assistant superintendent for Seattle Public Schools and visiting professor of education at Seattle University. Ken Nakamura, 63, was director of the Washington State Lottery. Jim Yoshida, 63, is a retired police officer — the first Japanese-American to serve in the Seattle Police Department. Public affairs consultant Al Sugiyama, 61, was the former executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives. And Bellevue philanthropist Scott Oki, 62, past senior vice president at Microsoft, now heads the Oki Foundation.
What do all of these civic leaders have in common? Growing up in Beacon Hill, the International District, the Rainier Valley, and the Central district, all of these men — like thousands of other youngsters from Seattle’s Asian-American community — worked summer jobs picking fruit on Japanese-owned Washington farms in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them were Sansei, or third-generation, Japanese-Americans.
At that time, berry farms were scattered all over Seattle and many parts of King County, where Boeing Field and Southcenter now stand. “In fact most of the valley from Renton to Auburn was farmland,” Sugiyama recalls. “On the Eastside, you had farms in Bellevue, Redmond and Carnation.”
Local farms recruited the youth, mostly Japanese-Americans between the ages of 10 and 15, by word of mouth, Sugiyama recalls. “Farmers would drive into the city and pick kids up in their old, dirty, beat-up trucks. Later they had old beat-up school buses. The conditions were very rough with long hours. Hardest job I ever had, and the pay was low. You usually got paid by how much you picked.”
“There were five kids in our family, and all of us worked on the farms in the summers. Most of the kids who worked on the farms were poor back then, so we had to work in order to buy school supplies and clothes,” he said.
Jim Yoshida remembers spending summers picking strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries at his grandparents’ farm in Auburn, which was operated by Stan and Kaz Tsujikawa, Yoshida’s uncles. He was a 12-year-old sixth grader at John Muir Elementary School when he started his first job in June 1960. He worked on the farm until his senior year at Franklin High School.
Most of the summer hands at the Tsujikawa Farm were boys and girls from Asa Mercer, Sharples, Meany, or Washington Middle Schools in Seattle, said the retired police officer. But even after they moved on to Franklin, Garfield, Cleveland, and Rainier Beach High Schools, they continued their farm jobs.
Many of the Japanese-American boys and girls who spent summers working at the farm lived in the coed bunkhouse. “We lodged there and were charged $1.20 a day for room and board,” Yoshida said. “Just across the way, about a hundred yards from us, was another farm owned by my aunt and uncle, Itzuko and Kart Funai. They boarded only girls.”
Darlene Suyematsu, director of development at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, recalls those days well. “My parents, Ish and Hime Suyematsu, operated a 50-acre strawberry and vegetable farm on Green Valley Road Southeast in Auburn from 1962 to 1990.”
“My dad had a big old school bus that he would drive around to pick up the workers. We had pickers in the early years, but mostly around the Auburn and Kent area. I run across many people who worked on berry farms in our area, mostly on the Nishimura and Nishimoto farms.”
Suyematsu’s cousin, Janis, is married to Al Yamada, who used to farmed the land originally owned by her aunt and uncle, George and Risako Kawasaki in North Auburn. Yamada also retired from farming a few years ago, and the family sold the farm.
Long hours were the norm for summer berry pickers, said Yoshida. “The first couple of years, we worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m, with an hour off for lunch at noon. I can remember being so happy at lunch and dinner because this meant a break and then the end of the day.”
For scores of Seattle youth, spending summers working on the farms provided valuable lessons in thrift and hard work and an opportunity to meet other kids. “There was quite a bit of boy-girl interaction between the farms, and one marriage resulted from a relationship that began at the farms,” Yoshida said.
Living in such close quarters, Yoshida and his coworkers forged new friendships. “Working and living with others was an interesting proposition, and we all had our idiosyncrasies. I remember one of the guys wore the same pair of pants for an extended period of time, and they became so dirty and berry-stained that we joked about how his pants were so stiff they could stand up on their own. Or the guy who wanted to avoid sharing his snacks with everyone, so he ate them at night under his covers with a flashlight.”
By today’s standards, the pay for a day’s work picking berries was paltry, but back then it was a princely sum for teenagers and meant extra money to buy school clothes for the fall.
“We were paid based upon how many berries we picked,” said former state lottery director Nakamura, who worked six consecutive summers from age 12 to 18. “The working conditions were great. We were treated kindly and with respect. It was hard work, but a great experience.”
“There was a bonus for the two primary seasons, strawberries and raspberries,” Yoshida added. “For the blackberries, we were paid at a higher flat rate because the season required us to work weekends after school started.”
“We picked them with a smaller crew, oftentimes on the weekends after school started. The hourly work — weeding, thinning strawberries and raspberries, dipping raspberry poles in creosote, and prepping the fields — was done during the summer after the strawberry and raspberry seasons,” he said.
“I made about 60 cents for a flat of strawberries, which included the 20 cents bonus per flat for staying the whole season,” Yoshida said. “We were paid 75 cents for a flat of raspberries, which included a 15 cent-per-flat seasonal bonus.” He still recalls how many of his friends bought transistor radios with their summer earnings. “We attached these AM-only radios to our berry carts while we were picking and listened to rock n’ roll music while we worked to make the time pass.”
Still, retired educator Lawrence Matsuda is thankful for the summer earnings he made. “Keep in mind that a Van Heusen dress shirt cost $5, so in two-and-a-half days I could earn enough for a shirt.” Ken Nakamura earned $82 his first summer and bought a three-speed bike and spent the rest on school clothes.
Toiling away under the hot sun was not always a picnic, Scott Oki said, recalling the many long hours and backbreaking days he and his brother, Bob, spent. “My brother and I picked berries and beans during the summer. I first started when I was about 10 years-old and continued going for about five summers,” he said. “I was never very good at it, but I still like to eat strawberries, raspberries, and green beans!”
“My grandmother, who was living with us, wanted us to go work at the farm. Because we didn’t live on the farm, we commuted. We would get picked up early in the morning, around 5 a.m., on the back of a flatbed truck that had plywood walls. Pick all day and get dropped off at home around 5 p.m. I think my fingers are still stained with strawberry juice!”
Matsuda, was an 11-year-old sixth grader at Beacon Hill Elementary when he started farm work. He picked strawberries for one season on the Kiba Farm near the Duwamish River, followed by a short stint at the Koba Farm near Carnation. Later, he spent two seasons at the Nishimura Farm in Auburn picking strawberries, beans, and raspberries. He also worked several summers at the Smith Brothers Farms picking beans.
In spite of the long days and arduous labor, all look back on their experience with appreciation. “My father was a Nisei from Bainbridge Island, where they were farmers before the war,” said Nakamura. “My mother was from Japan. Both of them were extremely hard-working and taught us a strong work ethic.”
Sugiyama found working on the farms an opportunity to meet other Asian kids from Mercer and Sharples [later renamed Aki Kurose] junior high schools. Matsuda agrees. “I made a lot of new friends, met some girls, and earned enough money to buy clothes for school in the fall.”
Nakamura looks back on other intangibles. “The first summer I didn’t have a choice, because my father made me go to learn the value of a dollar and help out on family expenses. After surviving the first summer, I gladly returned on my own.”
“Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was a transformative experience and prepared us for our adult working lives. Most of the friendships we formed during those years remain to this day. It was hard work, but a great experience.”
For Jim Yoshida, working on the farms as a youngster was a life-altering rite of passage. “All in all, I learned a lot about myself and others. The older I get, I realize more and more just how valuable those lessons were, and how they ring true to this day.”
An earlier version of this story appeared in the International Examiner; it is reprinted under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.