Quintessential Japanese American nursery closes

Yabusaki Dwight Way Nursery. photo courtesy of Yabusaki Dwight Nursery

Yabusaki Dwight Way Nursery. photo by Ben Hamamoto/Nichi Bei Weekly

On June 25, the Yabusaki Dwight Way Nursery in Berkeley, Calif. closed its business. The space had been a nursery since before World War II, had been in Nikkei hands since 1947, and had been owned by the Yabusaki family for 30 years.

For the entire time they owned it, they ran the nursery as a true family business — Frank and Tomoko Yabusaki initially ran it with help from their children Ken and Emi. Even after Frank died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 60, Ken and Emi took over the shop. However, when Emi passed away from cancer this April, at the age of 47, Ken made the decision to shutter the beloved business. 

“I love the nursery and the community,” Ken told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And business is still good, but it’s also really hard work, way more than a full-time job. And I can’t see myself doing it without Emi.”

While the gates of the physical business have been closed for the last time, the nursery endures as a memory in the hearts of a devoted customer base and as a quintessential Japanese American small business story. 

Ken’s father, Frank, was an immigrant from Japan. Born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, he came to the U.S. in the mid-1950s. 

“He was searching for better opportunities,” Ken explained. “My grandfather was sick with tuberculosis. My dad wanted to earn money to send back to him in Japan.”

Frank arrived in Los Angeles, but eventually found work on a Japanese American-owned farm in Stockton, Calif. He was soon drafted into the Army, however, and it was during this period that he met Ken’s mother, Tomoko, a fellow immigrant from Japan. They moved to Seattle, but later settled in Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

There, Frank became involved in the local Nikkei community. In his spare time he taught calligraphy and bonsai and performed rakugo (comic storytelling) for which he won awards.

“He was self-taught in all of these things,” Ken said. “He would just find a passion and then get to work on it.”

It was in this period that Frank became a gardener, applying some of the plant-growing know-how he picked up on the farm.

According to author Naomi Hirahara, there was huge boom in demand for “Japanese-style” gardening in the post war years. This created a viable industry for Japanese Americans. Historians estimate as many as one in four Nikkei men were gardeners at one point. 

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Frank continued to work as a gardener, and while Ken was a student at Kennedy High School in Richmond, he picked up the trade from his father, eventually getting into the gardening and maintenance business himself. 

“My dad gave me a choice. He said he’d pay for me to go to college or I could work in the family business,” Ken said. “I chose family.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that the Yabusakis would get their own storefront. At that time, the Dwight Way Nursery was owned by two Nisei brothers, Ricky and Charles Shinomoto, and the nursery was a hangout for Japanese American gardeners. Frank became good friends with the brothers and, when they began to grow tired of running the business, they offered to sell it to Frank. 

“My dad didn’t have a whole lot of money at the time,” Ken recalled, “He didn’t think he could afford it. But (the brothers) wanted to sell it to him and they managed to work it out.”

At the time, Ken remembers being skeptical. The West Berkeley neighborhood was blighted and impoverished and he was concerned business there would not be viable.

“‘We’ll plant good seed,”” Ken said, recalling his father’s words. “Dad said, ‘We can help change the neighborhood, one tree at a time.’”

While Frank and Tomoko initially ran the business by themselves, Ken and Emi soon joined. Ken kept the bonsai and nursery grounds, in addition to doing sales and consultation work. Emi handled sales, inventory and administration.

The business flourished. Ken attributes the success to low overhead and providing a greater variety of plants, particularly native and rare Japanese plants for food and gardens. But more than those things, he feels that customer service is ultimately what made the business what it was. 

“Our approach was always to provide people with whatever help or information they need, regardless of whether it was going to lead to a sale,” he explained. “People recognized that and appreciated that we were the little guy and we weren’t just after the dollar.” 

In 1998, Frank passed away due to stomach cancer. It was his wish that his children take over the nursery and Ken and Emi obliged. 

“Your parents raise you, and you have to give back to them somehow,” he said. “You can never repay them, but we’re only second generation, we still have that Japanese sense of family — so you have to try.”

At this time, they also made a decision to go all organic. 

“My dad died at 60, so my sister and I decided, ‘no more chemicals,’’ Ken explained. “We had to relearn a lot. It took three or four years, but we became fully organic.”

Ken and Emi ran the nursery with help from their mother Tomoko who “retired” in 2004, but continued to come to work every day thereafter. They continued working in this way until Emi died in April.

“It was nice working with my Emi,” Ken said. “I got to see her every day. She was my sister, my best friend, my business partner. I lost so many things all in an instant.”

From April through June, Ken and Tomoko ran the nursery. One of Ken’s sons is 22, and old enough to learn the trade, but ultimately wasn’t interested in taking over. 

“It’s something you have to have passion for,” Ken said. “It requires a lot of commitment, a lot of hours.”

Ken currently takes care of Tomoko and is job-searching. He stays in contact with many of his customers who continue to ask for gardening advice, particularly on pest management. He’s considering starting a blog to respond to these requests. 

Emi’s memory is held fondly, not only by her family but also by the countless customers she connected with in her years co-running the nursery. 

“When I went by (the nursery) today… I found out that (Emi) who helped me plan my container garden has passed away,” one customer wrote on Yelp. “My container garden is thriving, so it’s now a memorial to her.”

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