Story of Nikkei nurseries told at Richmond Museum of History

Oishi Greenhouse, 1920s, courtesy of the Oishi Family

RICHMOND, Calif. — For Nisei Tom Oishi, the Sept. 12 opening ceremony at the Richmond Museum of History was cathartic.

“I couldn’t believe what the U.S. government did to us when they sent us to the camp,” said the 88-year-old Oishi, who during World War II was sent to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, then to the concentration camp in Topaz, Utah. “I’m really surprised Richmond would do this for us after more than 60 years,” said Oishi, who takes great pride in the nursery his family used to own in the city. Richmond, he said, is the best place to grow carnations and roses.

The Richmond Museum of History held a reception for the new exhibit, “One Small Story from Richmond’s Hidden History — Japanese American Nurseries.” It includes artifacts from nurseries in Richmond previously owned by the Maida, Oishi, and Sakai families.

This is the first time the city has hosted such an exhibit to honor the Japanese American nurseries, said Michele Seville, Arts and Culture Manager at the City of Richmond.

These nurseries, which survived through the wartime incarceration of persons of Japanese descent, are some of the oldest in Northern California. The exhibit portrays the untold stories and the wisdom of Japanese American families who prospered with their flower nurseries and cut flower businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite the Great Depression and internment.

“If my parents were alive, they would have enjoyed the show,” said Robert Sakai, whose father Tetsuma, with older brothers Sam and Roy, owned and ran nurseries in Richmond. Robert was at the opening ceremony on Sept. 12 along with his relatives, joining members of the Oishi family and the Maida family. “This exhibit shows our family’s hard work as immigrants in this country,” said Sakai, who was born Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

THE SWEET SMELL OF NOSTALGIA — Nursery family members attended the opening of the exhibit, which features nursery artifacts. Pictured from left: Charlotte Sakai, Asako Tokuno (Maida), Tom Oishi, Junko Kimura (Maida), Meriko Maida and Flora Ninomiya. photo by Ayako Mie/Nichi Bei Weekly

“I have mixed feelings,” said Meriko Maida, whose father also ran a nursery up until the 1960s when he returned to Japan to take care of his relatives. “It’s an eyesore because the current condition of the nursery is really bad, but at the same time, that’s where we grew up,” said the 90-year-old Maida, who came to the opening ceremony with her two sisters.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner also attended.

“We teach Japanese American interment camp experiences at schools, but not about individual families, who went through the hardship. I think it’s great Richmond has a history museum to capture their history,” said Skinner.

In the early 1900s, the Issei, or first generation of Japanese Americans, established nurseries in Richmond, planting and tending a variety of flowers including roses and carnations. The Oishi and Sakai families were some of the first to start businesses there. The Oishis came to San Jose before the Sakais, and started their nursery in 1906 in Richmond. The Sakais followed suit prior to the 1913 Alien Land Law, which prohibited Asians from purchasing property and prevented many Japanese American families from going into the nursery business.

When President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, all of the Japanese American families in Richmond were forced to leave their businesses and homes behind and were moved to relocation centers and concentration camps. Some of them lost their property while they were incarcerated because they could not keep paying property tax. The Sakai, Maida and Oishi families were fortunate and vigilant enough to maintain their nurseries.

“My father was smart,” said 65-year-old Charlotte Sakai, the daughter of Sam Sakai. The Sakais asked the Oakland Flower Shop owner to lease the Sakai Nursery during the war. The family’s longtime friend Clara Heineman took care of the Sakai family’s belongings during that tragic period.

Their life was hard after their return to Richmond. According to the Sakais, the Oakland Flower Shop owner told the family that if they returned, all of the workers would leave, because no one wanted to work for “Japs.” In fact, only one man stayed on. Sam went to Colorado to recruit workers and to close the farm and sell the house. Tetsuma remained in Richmond to take care of the nursery. The Sakai family even expanded their business in 1948, purchasing about 30 acres of land in Hayward to start another nursery.

“My father started working at 4:30 in the morning. He took a street car and transferred to an electric train, which would take him to the San Francisco ferry in Emeryville. He carried the flowers on his back,” said Charlotte Sakai, whose father Sam eventually became the president of the San Francisco Flower Market (today’s San Francisco Wholesale Flower Market). She also said their father had to sleep in the greenhouse in December so that they could keep running the boiler.

Robert Sakai said he learned many important lessons from his parents.

“We were poor. Most of my clothes were bought at the secondhand store, and my bike was secondhand. We learned the value of a dollar by looking at our parents’ hard work,” said the 65-year-old Sakai, who is now a lawyer in Hayward.

“Only one child of the Sakais took over our family business because we know how hard it is to run a nursery business. Our parents also felt good education was important and every one of the children of the Sakais graduated from four-year universities,” said Robert, whose father Tetsuma worked at the nursery until he was 90 years old. He died in 2000 when he was 94.

Although Japanese American nurseries enjoyed prosperity, the industry went downhill in these parts after the U.S. signed a Free Trade Agreement in 1994 with Latin American countries and cheap flowers from those countries entered U.S. markets. Some of the nurseries shuttered their doors in the late 1990s and early 2000s because they could not compete. In 2006, the City of Richmond bought their 14-acre nursery property to redevelop the area and build a 230-unit affordable and market-rate housing complex. Last December, the City passed a resolution to preserve some greenhouses and other structures of the nursery.

“I think the buildings [the City is trying to preserve] do not really represent our history. The story is about people and their hard labor. I think the story is told enough by the exhibit,” said Robert Sakai.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 24 at the Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave. in Richmond, Calif. Museum hours are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call (510) 235-7387 or visit www.richmondmuseumofhistory.org.

There are also other concurrent exhibits nearby celebrating Japanese American nursery history.

“Roses & Thorns: The Legacy of Richmond’s Historic Japanese American Nurseries” exhibits from Sept. 14 through Nov. 13 at the Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (510) 620-6772 or visit www.therac.org.

The El Cerrito Historical Society’s “Remembering our Local Japanese Heritage: The El Cerrito & Richmond Flower Growers” is on display now until Oct. 7 at El Cerrito City Hall, 10890 San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, call (510) 215-4318.

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