Japanese American Farming in California: A Personal History
To mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, our Education Coordinator, Kiyoko Nakatsui, shares her family history and their multi-generational association with agriculture.
By the time I was born the farm was just a memory. Like many other Japanese American families mine started their American dream tilling the land. All of my grandparents’ families were farmers at some point. Prior to World War II Japanese Americans farmed up and down the west coast and some eventually returned to the land. On my mom’s side my grandma’s family farmed in Montana and my grandpa’s family in Orange County. On my dad’s side my grandma’s family farmed in Arcadia and my grandpa’s family in Stockton. Since my maternal grandmother’s family didn’t live on the coast they were able to stay on their farm even during the war. However, everyone else was forced to abandon their farms to be placed in internment camps.
After the war, like many others, my mother’s family had to work hard on other people’s farms to save up enough money to be able to rent their own land. Eventually, my grandpa and his two brothers were able to save enough money to buy over 30 acres of land in Stanton. This began the Okada Brothers Farm where they initially grew strawberries and then expanded into cucumbers, red leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Everyone helped on the farm to make sure all the jobs got done. I joke and tell everyone this is why my mom’s side of the family is so big, she has 36 first cousins and five siblings. Although my mom lived the first part of her life on the farm, I think of these days as being from a far off time long ago. However, when I think about the foods I’ve eaten growing up they remind me of my mom’s upbringing on the farm.
We eat a lot of okazu, which is a dish that accompanies rice. Back in the day they ate okazu made from whichever vegetable they had the most of, and a little bit of meat. My mom still makes okazu often, but with more meat than they had when she was growing up. Okazu eaten this way with rice is considered a farmer or poor man’s meal, especially if you mix your rice and okazu together, but I consider it comfort food. I never got to see the farm, but my grandparents’ backyard was a testament to their agricultural background. They had an orange tree, avocado tree, and a rotating host of other crops. Us grandkids always looked forward to their fresh squeezed orange juice.
On my dad’s side of the family neither returned to farming after the war and went back to Japan. My grandma’s family came back to California after not too long, but my grandpa was the only one of his family to return. Although they didn’t go into farming when they returned they always had an amazing garden. Eight people shared a small house, but they had an amazing yard that they filled with fruits, vegetables, and flowers. I can still remember the roses my grandpa grafted together that filled the front yard, but my favorites were the kumquat, fig, and persimmon tree. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have these until we sold their house. Now those fruits just never taste quite as good, but when I do eat them I love the nostalgia they bring.
I am fortunate to have grown up in an area with a large Japanese American population. Almost everyone I know has someone in their family who has a persimmon tree. During the fall everyone shares their crop. In Japanese persimmon is kaki. I didn’t actually learn the word persimmon until high school when one of my friends commented on my persimmon in my lunch. Although there is no longer a persimmon tree in my family, my best friend’s family now shares with me. One day when I have my own home with a yard I’ll plant a kaki tree and share my fruit with my friends and family.
Farming has deep roots in California’s past and present and the Japanese American community is a big part of this rich history. Although most of these farms are just memories, we remember and celebrate their legacy. These farms made a lasting impact, not just on the land, but also on the people and their families.
To learn more about Japanese American families and their farms please visit www.walkthefarm.org.