CHANGING LANDSCAPE: The Japanese American experience and the California landscape

Greetings to the Nichi Bei community. My column this month will introduce you to the upcoming ethnic studies course I will begin teaching at Cal Poly Pomona on the Japanese American experience and the California landscape. After reading this, if you have any questions or information you’d like to suggest to include in this class, such as your own family’s history, feel free to e-mail me.

In 2019, the California State University system made the landmark decision to require an ethnic studies course for a CSU degree beginning with this Fall 2021 term. As stated on the California State University Website:

These (ethnic studies) courses can encompass one or more of the four traditional ethnic studies groups of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino and Latina Americans. (www2.calstate.edu)

This requirement created a demand for new courses on ethnic studies to be offered at Cal Poly Pomona where I teach, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to propose a course that cross listed with the Landscape Architecture program about the Japanese American experience and how it parallels California’s landscape development over the past 139 years. My professional landscape architecture practice, academic career and family history have all closely aligned with this subject, so this class is an amalgamation of life experiences for me.

The goal of this class is to examine complex issues on race, immigration, cultural identity, and the legacy of anti-Asian policies at the state and federal levels through the lens of the Japanese American experience in California. Course topics will cover the following:

1. Late 19th-century/Early 20th-century and the Japanese Pioneer Immigrants

2. Racial Hysteria and Incarceration of Japanese Americans in Concentration Camps During WWII

3. The Role of Japanese Americans in Postwar California Urbanization

4. Current Evolving Issues of the Japanese American Community and Its Impact on the California Landscape

Many books and articles have been written on the topic of Japanese pioneer immigrants, and my plan is to focus on analyzing how they were often limited to hard labor, such as farming, gardening, and landscape construction. Racist and anti-immigration policies such as the Alien Land Law and Asian Exclusion Act will also be examined to give context to how Japanese immigrants such as Jukichi Harada successfully fought for civil and individual rights to own property.

On the topic of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in concentration camps, a key part will involve the discussion of how those incarcerated within the camps showed resilience and compassion for one another’s mental wellness and health through the grassroots efforts to build tranquil gardens between the barracks to provide beauty, shaded rest areas, and a temporary respite from the harsh environment in which the Japanese Americans lived for three years.

My personal connection with this subject is highlighted in the era of California’s urbanization during the postwar era as many prominent figures in landscape architecture and the environmental design profession were of Japanese ancestry including my father Takeo Uesugi. He was a Shin-Issei (new first generation) who immigrated to California in 1970 after his graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley as an international student in landscape architecture.

As this field is not commonly known compared to its allied professions, including architecture and civil engineering, it did not occur to me how there were so many Japanese Americans not only in landscape architecture, but also in landscape construction and gardening. As a child growing up learning kendo at my local Japanese community center, many of my sensei were gardening and landscape maintenance professionals.

Upon further exploration, it turned out that a number of Japanese American landscape architects were children of farmers, nursery owners and gardeners. This direct linkage to the era of Japanese pioneer immigrants is fundamental in analyzing how Japanese Americans have come to have such a uniquely strong influence in California’s landscape development.

The institutionalized racism and public animosity in the early to mid 20th-century that resulted in the Japanese American concentration camps will also be studied from the perspective of the racial challenges affecting our society today as hate and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has reached unprecedented and dangerous levels. My hope with this class is that sharing these stories of the Japanese American experience will result in better understanding of the current issues which will in turn motivate us to make the adjustments necessary for racial, social, and individual justice in not only California, but in our country.

Keiji Uesugi, PLA is the principal of the landscape architecture firm, TUA Inc. in West Covina, Calif., and a faculty member of the landscape architecture department at Cal Poly Pomona University. A licensed landscape architect with more than 20 years of professional experience, he is an expert in cultural landscapes and Japanese gardens of North America. He can be reached at keijiu@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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