A century of growth

Kitazawa Seed Company. 
photo by Art Kobayashi

One hundred years ago, Gijiu Kitazawa established the seed company that still bears his name. He first worked as an apprentice for a seed company in Japan before immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 22. In 1916, Gijiu and his brother Buemon started the Kitazawa Brothers Nursery and Seed Company in San Jose, Calif. Just a year later, they agreed to split the business — Buemon kept the nursery while Gijiu opened the Kitazawa Seed Company.

Gijiu soon built a successful business selling bulk seed primarily to Japanese American farmers in California and Oregon, and he began retail sales of dento yasai (Japanese heirloom vegetables) using seed packets with the familiar yellow envelopes with green printing. As he worked to establish his company, Gijiu and his wife Kikuno also started a family. Their first of six children, Mai, was born in 1922. While some family members continued to work with the seed business, Mai went on to earn graduate degrees from Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley and later become a notable landscape architect and UC Berkeley faculty member.

All the effort of building a successful business and raising a family came to an abrupt halt when World War II broke out. Gijiu and his family were forced to shutter the company and abandon their home as Japanese  Americans were moved to the camps. The Kitazawas were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., but were able to find a sponsor and were released to work in Detroit. After the war they were finally able to return to San Jose where they could begin the arduous process of rebuilding their lives.

However, upon their return, they found their house had been occupied by squatters. Once they managed to evict them and regain possession of their home, Gijiu had to restart the business out of his basement. Because many of his commercial customers had lost their farms or had been scattered to other parts of the country, he began to market seeds nationally through mail-order sales. He slowly rebuilt his business, and managed it successfully until his death in 1963.

Ownership of the company was then passed on to Gijiu’s eldest son Ernest, who sold it to Sakae Komatsu, husband of Helen Kitazawa, the youngest daughter. Sakae ran the business until his passing in 1997, whereupon Helen and her children took over operations until she retired and sold it to Maya Shiroyama in 2000.

Recently, I spoke with Maya from her Oakland office about the business. Kitazawa Seed Co. now offers over 600 seed varieties, up from the 50 or 60 available when she assumed ownership. In addition to Japanese favorites, their offerings have expanded to include other Asian selections found in Thailand, India, Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Burma. The most popular item for retail sales? Japanese cucumbers (their Website lists over a dozen types of Japanese cukes). In a 2011 interview she explained their popularity: “They’re not in stores. Once you’ve eaten them, you know you want them!”

Kitazawa Seed Co. is a seed dealer, which means that they do not grow their own stock but source their seeds from many suppliers in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Maya is particularly proud that Kitazawa Seed Co. supports U.S. agriculture by exporting U.S.-grown seed internationally to countries such as Canada, Mexico, South America and the UK.

The seed business continues to evolve, as it too strives to keep pace with changes in technology and consumer tastes. Maya still continues the mail-order catalog and phone sales along with their retail displays, but now you can also purchase Kitazawa seeds over the Internet, through their Website (www.kitazawaseed.com) and even from online retailers such as Amazon.com. While most of their business continues to be bulk purchases from traditional growers, a new market for “microgreens” has emerged in recent years — young sprouted seedlings used in the upscale restaurant industry as a visual and flavor accent or sold as a health food in supermarkets.

Maya credits the success of the business to her loyal customer base as well as to the broadening of the American palate. This has opened the door to more adventurous garden and menu selections. Maya laughs, “When you can find Japanese Shishito peppers at Trader Joe’s, you know we are making some headway!”

Scientists tell us that a typical cell phone user checks their device over 100 times per day. Combined with watching television an average of 40 hours per week, no wonder many of us feel distracted and anxious at how quickly the time slips away. An antidote? Plant a garden. Growing something invites us to put down our phones, turn off the electronics, and reconnects us with the cadence of nature.

Compared to the all-consuming pace of technology, nature is slow, patient, and deliberate. There is a lot of mystery in the process of how a tiny, dry seed can germinate, progress through complex stages of growth and development, and then produce something as delicious as a tomato, as odd and tasty as an eggplant.

It’s not too late to grow something this summer or fall. There are many varieties that can be planted later in the growing season. Or try microgreens — nothing new to those of us who have grown up on moyashi (mung bean sprouts) or alfalfa sprouts — those you can even grow indoors, year-round.

It doesn’t take much to get started. A container, a handful of soil, a few seeds. Add water and sunshine and a bit of patience. The slow drama of nurturing a plant to maturity is a healthy counterpoint to our normal rush through the day and when you finally get to pick and taste your own produce, you’ll surely savor and appreciate the flavor and texture like no packaged store-bought variety!

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