LIVING LEGACIES: The past, present and future of Nikkei agriculture at Tanaka Farms

FRESH FROM THE FARM — Glenn and Kenny Tanaka at Tanaka Farms in Irvine, Calif. continue a family tradition. Strawberries and more are sold at the produce stand. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald 

Just south of the 405 Freeway in Irvine, Calif. — nestled between an open space preserve and a golf course — stands an unexpected monument to the history of Japanese American farming.

Constructed out of old wooden boards, this monument is roughly the height and length of a shipping container, and at least twice as wide. Along its exterior hang some 80 square placards, each commemorating different Nikkei families of the past who worked in agriculture. Illustrated with personal photos from bygone eras, these placards document lives spent coaxing sustenance from soil, conveying with a few paragraphs of text the essential details of family sagas now fading from public consciousness — if they were ever known at all.

Near the top of the structure, a larger placard reads, “The Issei and Nisei Farmers: Their Legacy” in bold red type. A statement follows underneath proclaiming that the first two generations of American Nikkei made a lasting agricultural impact, despite the disruptive blow of the community’s World War II incarceration. Although “false fears of traitorous actions enabled the government to order all Japanese from the West Coast,” the statement declares that Nikkei farmers persevered through this injustice by drawing on the concept of gaman, “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

Built in 2021, the monument occupies a gravel lot on the grounds of Tanaka Farms, a 40-acre property dedicated to raising some 60 kinds of fruits and vegetables while hosting close to 200,000 visitors a year. The crowds come to explore agriculture — touring the fields, picking strawberries, learning about growing methods, interacting with barnyard animals, and watching cooking demos — so the chance to check out the monument adds an enriching historical perspective to their experience.

“Japanese farmers played a real prominent role in the success of agriculture here in California,” affirmed Glenn Tanaka, a middle-aged Sansei who runs Tanaka Farms with his son Kenny. Glenn welcomed the Nichi Bei Weekly onto the property in February to share an insider’s glimpse at his business. Standing in front of the monument under the harsh glare of the midday sun, he explained how this unique tribute fit into the broader scheme of his operations.

“Tanaka Farms has evolved over the years from strictly wholesale to now a total direct retail and agrotourism spot, and in that transition, we were able to open the farm up more to the community,” he said, pointing out that, consequently, “of course me being Japanese American, I really opened up to the Japanese American community.” Establishing the monument served as the newest way of “celebrating and highlighting my ancestry” in a series of efforts that have also included Glenn’s decades-long involvement with Orange County Optimist Club basketball and his 2011 launch of Walk the Farm, an annual fundraiser to benefit farmers affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

DOCUMENTING NIKKEI FARMING LEGACY — Glenn Tanaka observes an expanding exhibit, “The Issei and Nisei Farmers: Their Legacy,” at Tanaka Farms. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

With this latest endeavor to honor his heritage, Glenn said he wanted to create a project “to highlight the struggles of our ancestors,” because “we’re getting to the next generations now — the Yonsei and the Gosei — where they’re so far out of touch, they don’t know what grandma, grandpa, great-grandma, and great-grandpa did.” He called the monument “a conversation piece” to spark meaningful dialogue between youth and elders. Furthermore, he contended it filled a gap in the education system’s coverage of the U.S. government’s wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, as “we don’t get that in school — there’s maybe a little paragraph talking about the concentration camps during World War II” in the textbooks. “So we have to tell that story,” he said.

The monument portrays that story beautifully, and is not done telling it yet. Eventually, Glenn wants to amass more than a thousand family profiles, submitted from descendants themselves, the way the current collection came together. Fitting so many placards on the monument would require a significant design expansion, but at least the project’s accompanying Website, walkthefarm.org/jafarmhistory, seems capable of accommodating that number rather easily.

As the monument expands to further document the agricultural legacy of the Issei and Nisei, a more modern Japanese American farming story will be unfolding here. No one will be fashioning any handsome placards for it, and none of its narrative twists and turns will carry the shocking drama of a sweeping civil liberties violation. But for anyone who values the profound relationship Nikkei have had with agriculture, this story demands attention. It is the tale of Tanaka Farms itself, and it reckons with the most pressing question facing Japanese American agriculture today: Who will do the work?

For now, a tentative succession plan appears to be in place at Tanaka Farms, with Kenny likely to one day take over full control. But a few decades ago, the business didn’t seem like it would ever reach this point. Having suffered through an incredible amount of anguish trying to make ends meet, Glenn admitted that, “I didn’t want my son to be a farmer.” He couldn’t bear the thought of Kenny having to deal with the same level of stress, and would have rather seen their family farming tradition die out, even though it traced back to the turn of last century when Teruo Tanaka came to America from Hiroshima Prefecture.

Glenn never knew his grandfather, whom he thinks immigrated in 1910. The details are sketchy, but Teruo earned his living through farm work and in 1922 had a son — Glenn’s father George, born in the town of Dinuba in California’s Central Valley. Following a period of study in Japan as a middle school student, George returned to the Golden State to join his dad in farming, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they headed for Utah to avoid the mass incarceration. That’s where George met Chris Yamashita, the daughter of a farming family from Fukuoka Prefecture. The pair got married in Utah and had a daughter of their own before relocating to Orange County in Southern California; another daughter came along before Glenn’s birth in 1957.

Glenn Tanaka tries the new crop of strawberries on the rolling farmland. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Glenn grew up steeped in farming, and as a youth was loading trucks and driving tractors around various plots in Orange County that George leased for raising tomatoes and strawberries. By the time he was a teenager, Glenn had assumed a significant role in his dad’s operations. He graduated early from both high school and college, because, “I was kind of ambitious wanting to get out, wanting to get started working,” he said. He married Shirley Namekata in 1978, the same year he finished his degree at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and right away jumped into farming full-time with his dad.

A couple years later, George got hit with diverticulitis, an intestinal inflammation that prevented him from working for about six months. “When he came back, the farm was still there,” Glenn said jokingly, identifying that episode as having triggered the generational transition of the family business: “Everything was still running, so after that, it was like, green light.”

By Glenn’s account, he sped through that green light a bit overzealously. He expanded Tanaka Farms on several fronts, leasing new properties, extending their tomato season, and branching out with sales and shipping ventures. Looking back on those times, Glenn spoke with self-deprecating humor, frequently professing that he lacked enough competency to run the business, despite having spent his whole life around agriculture.

“I didn’t know anything about farming, didn’t know anything about sales, didn’t know anything about marketing, so I was screwed all over,” he asserted before deadpanning, “I knew how to get into debt, though.” With Glenn at the helm, Tanaka Farms rode a roller coaster of volatility, buoyed by the good years and hanging on perilously through the bad ones. “During the ’90s, it was probably the worst years of my life — I mean I had a stack of credit cards, just shuffling things back and forth,” he recalled.

The pressure could have crushed him both professionally and personally. However, Glenn testified that, “I was very fortunate with my wife, because she came from a farm family. She knew how tough it was, so she was prepared for it. Any other woman, I probably would have been divorced.” He praised Shirley for managing the roadside produce stand that kept them afloat through the lean years, and credited her with initiating the pivot that ultimately saved Tanaka Farms.

Kenny was their only child, born in 1983, and after he started attending preschool, Shirley brought his class to see the farm. The kids responded enthusiastically, and the Tanakas started inviting more classes out for visits, gradually investing greater effort into showing their young guests an enjoyable and educational time. In 1998, when they moved into their present location, Glenn figured, “We got to make some money” on these visits. They incorporated features like a wagon ride, a petting zoo, and a big vegetable patch, and in less than a decade, the farm finally started turning a consistent profit because of agrotourism.

This financial success enabled Glenn to feel comfortable about his son taking over the family business. Kenny came on board full-time in 2005 after graduating from college, and is currently in charge of the agrotourism programming. In looking to the future, the Yonsei speculated that, “I don’t think the thirst for the agrotourism will go away,” but in order to continue attracting visitors, “we have to keep on coming up with new activities for them.” He conceded worrying a bit about “spreading ourselves too thin, but we have to keep changing.”

Kenny has three children of his own now, and so the future is something he has to think about a lot. If his dad finally threw in the towel and left him to assume sole control of Tanaka Farms, he reasoned that, “I would probably have to do it — I mean, I don’t think I could let it die.” However, he acknowledged that, “it’s a lot of work,” and in considering the prospect of passing down the family legacy, he admitted, “I don’t know if I want my kids doing this or not.”

And so that pressing question lingers still: Who will do the work? Not just for Tanaka Farms, but for any Nikkei agricultural operation. As Glenn or anyone else in his position can confirm, running a farm is incredibly difficult, both physically and psychologically. While past generations of Japanese Americans were pushed out of farming by racial oppression and wartime politics, the forces keeping their descendants off the land today relate mainly to personal choice. As Glenn observed, cultural norms dictate to people that their occupation should not require them to “get in the dirt, using your hands” — they should instead “get out, use your brains.”

He disputed this conventional logic, though, insisting, “we need farmers.” And as the Issei and Nisei proved, getting in the dirt is honorable work. Perhaps after visiting Tanaka Farms to learn more about that kind of work, and seeing the monument there in tribute to their ancestors, the next generation will be inspired to fill that need.

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