By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
MONTEBELLO — Hard work, trust, dedication, caring, and humanity are the words to describe Nikkei gardeners who helped build the foundation of today’s well-established Southern California Japanese American community.
Approximately 150 people gathered in a banquet hall at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello on Feb. 1 to honor and celebrate the Southern California Gardeners Federation’s 60th anniversary.
“Our founding members had the foresight and wisdom to create this organization, to not only protect the interests of the Japanese American gardeners, but also to support a strong sense of community and responsibility to help each other out,” said SCGF President Derek Furukawa, whose late father served as a president in the 1970s.
He acknowledged a few old-timers who were present at the ceremony, such as Harry Uneda, who served as president during the 1970s, when the federation had over 6,000 members.
According to Furukawa, the federation currently has 800 members with 18 chapters from San Maria to San Diego. The average age of the members is 75, and 250 members are 85 and older.
“Even though there aren’t many Japanese gardeners left, our legacy remains. You see it in the success of our sons, daughters, and grandchildren. The children have witnessed the strong work ethic of their parents and the sense of community volunteerism,” Furukawa said.
Considering the declining membership rolls and the advanced average age of the organization’s participants, the federation has had many discussions about its future. Furukawa said, “Our goal this year is to come up with the next plans for how to use our financial assets to create a long-lasting legacy, not only for the Japanese American gardeners, but also for SCGF. We’ll still have to be supportive of garden-related activities to be involved in the Japanese American community.”
Advisors Shinkichi Koyama and Secretary Brian Yamasaki shared SCGF’s 60-year history by presenting a slide show with rare photos dating back to the 1930s and the internment camps.
Morio Kaneda, president of Vancouver Japanese Gardeners’ Association, Masami Kobayashi, president of Nanka Kenjinkai Kyogikai, Yoshio Aoki, president of Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, and Harry Horinouchi, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, made congratulatory addresses to show respect to the triumph of the gardeners’ can-do spirit over countless hardships.
After the lunch was served, Sankyaku Seki, the author of “Gardeners’ Pioneer Story” (2007), delivered a lecture about the Nikkei gardeners’ history. He admired their volunteer work and numerous contributions to the community.
He mentioned that Seiryuen, the Japanese garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, created by 100 volunteer gardeners, won the National Landscape Award of the American Association of Nurserymen in 1981. First Lady Nancy Reagan presented the award to the SCGF at the White House.
“On their 60th anniversary, there should be a plaque to commemorate those 100 volunteers. There’s no such monument in Little Tokyo. That’s not right,” Seki said.
“Because of the gardeners’ hard work, Japanese American history blossomed. So this year’s Nisei Week Parade, I’d like to see it being led by gardeners. When you participate in the parade, bring your own lawn mowers, put them on full power, and then proudly walk through the streets of Little Tokyo,” Seki reverentially suggested.
At the ceremony, special awards were presented to Robert Iwasaki, who passed away late last year, Edward Kamiya, John Kabashima, Machiko Yamanaka, Hisashi Matsue, Sankyaku Seki, and Naomi Hirahara for their dedication to the organization.
Furukawa told The Rafu that he understands that the discussion period is over and it’s time to make a decision: “In order to secure the federation’s legacy and continue our volunteer work, I’m considering launching a foundation.”
The SCGF History
Before World War II, the members of the Uptown, Hollywood, and West Los Angeles chapters gathered to establish the Southern California Gardeners’ Association Federation with Seiji Nagumo, known as the “Father of the Gardeners,” as the first president.
This organization, the predecessor of the current federation, played an important role in maintaining horizontal ties among Nikkei gardeners. Nagumo issued a monthly publication, “Gardener no Tomo” (Friend of the Gardeners) to its members with information related to gardening until the war broke out in 1941.
Nagumo, who was interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Inyo County, expressed deep concerns about future generations: “Children who grow up in this desert environment with no grass and no trees will become people who cannot find joy in anything and will not be able to appreciate nature and its beauty.”
He then worked with volunteers to create a Japanese garden in the camp.
After the war, residents who hired non-Japanese gardeners during the war raced to find Japanese gardeners for their higher skills. The Issei gardeners had worked very hard before the war and earned trust in their communities.
Thanks to the Issei’s hard work and dedication, many Japanese Americans were able to establish their new lives as gardeners and send their children to college.
However, gardeners of other ethnicities felt their jobs were threatened. They filed a complaint with the government by proposing the Maloney Bill (AB 1671). The bill mandated that all gardeners obtain a license, which would have made it difficult for Japanese Americans who spoke little English to qualify.
Matsuji Nishimura called upon all the Japanese American gardeners to form the Southern California Gardeners Federation in 1955 to voice their opposition to the Maloney Bill. This call to action yielded 15 chapters with 1,800 original members. The bill was scrapped, protecting new Japanese immigrants’ opportunities to establish their lives as gardeners and farmers.
The federation soon faced another issue with a labor union that aggressively approached them to become members. The federation determined that legal actions needed to be taken to resolve this issue, and Robert Iwasaki became the first advising attorney for the organization.
In 1956, the federation established group health insurance and restarted publishing a monthly magazine in both English and Japanese. By 1970, the membership had grown to 6,000 people, and the SCGF had become the largest trade organization in the U.S.
In 1972, the federation building was erected in Little Tokyo with $100 donations from each member. The new building allowed the federation to hold various educational programs and club activities for its members.
Over the years, SCGF members have been actively involved in numerous community volunteer works, including creating Seiryuen, landscaping Little Tokyo Towers and Keiro Nursing Home, and helping with several fundraising events for other organizations, which they still continue to do.