In search of new opportunities, Fred Yoshimura left his home in Yamaguchi, Japan, for California in 1917. There was no family to greet him when he arrived. He was 21.
After a false start as a rice farmer in San Francisco, he made his way to Southern California, where he earned a living as a landscape gardener, honed his skills as a gardener, and tended extensive lawns in the San Gabriel Valley.
While working in South Pasadena, he met Mitoko Naito, a servant girl from Hiroshima. The two first generation immigrants – known in the Japanese diaspora as issei — eventually married.
By this time Yoshimura had saved enough money to rent a piece of land which he used to open the Mission Nursery in 1923. It would grow into a major commercial success now known as the San Gabriel Nursery and Florist, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. .
But it didn’t come easy.
The Yoshimura family worked hard at their business, but lost it briefly during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—two-thirds of them nationals—in February 1942 after the attack at Pearl Haven. Their story testifies to their determination to overcome all obstacles, including rampant racism and social injustice, in the hope of building a better life.
Today, at the entrance to the flower shop, a red anthurium plant stands next to a family shrine, where a large photo of Fred and Mituko Yoshimura hangs on the wall.
“I can still hear their voices,” said their granddaughter Mary Ishihara Swanton, 55. “They never let you down. They are always there.”
As Swanton makes her way through the family’s two-acre nursery, she calls her 88-year-old father, Saburo Ishihara, who still works at the family business five days a week and who recently had cataract surgery.
Many of Swanton’s relatives who have seen the nursery grow over the years are now gone. Her aunt Margie Yoshihashi died in January at the age of 92, just a few days after the start of the new year.
“It was her goal for the company to reach its 100th anniversary,” Swanton said. “That was her dream.”
Yoshihashi greeted customers and supervised the flower shop for many years. And she kept calling Ishihara after she retired to remind him to turn off the coffee maker at the end of the day.
The family’s legacy began with cuttings, the pruned clippings of plants collected by Fred Yoshimura while working as a landscape gardener.
Swanton’s grandmother didn’t know much about gardening, but she did her best to plant the clippings in the family’s new nursery. Over time, their business grew azaleas, camellias, bonsai, and other hard-to-find plants that the Yoshimura family introduced to California horticulture.
By the 1930s, the family had solidified their reputation as community mainstays, Swanton said, as her grandfather worked to better understand Japanese and American cultures.
The Yoshimuras had four children: Hayao, Raymond, Florence, and Margie, second-generation Japanese Americans or nisei.
Their business prospered and they found community support despite the anti-Asian discrimination prevalent across the country.
In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law, which banned Asian immigrants from owning farmland. The law was spurred by fears that immigrant entrepreneurs would take over the agricultural sector, said USC history professor Susan Kamei.
“By the 1940s, Japanese-American farmers produced 40% of California’s commercial vegetable crops,” Kamei said.
Tensions ran high after December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and launched the US into World War II. The day after the attack, Fred Yoshimura was apprehended by federal agents, questioned and held for several months, Swanton said.
In the throes of war hysteria, it came as no surprise that Japanese Americans were targeted by the government, Kamei said.
“In the event of the anticipated war with Japan,[the U.S. government]knew exactly where these people were and immediately found all the homes of Japanese Americans, including my father’s family, and then arrested those they perceived as community leaders,” Kamei said. .
While Fred Yoshimura went missing, Mituko Yoshimura continued to run the nursery, but the U.S. government informed her that the family would be transferred to a war camp, Swanton said.
“It was the hardest time in her life, and my grandmother was basically doing it all on her own,” Swanton said. “My aunt or my grandmother didn’t really talk about their time in the camps. As a kid I thought camp was kind of like summer camp. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what they were going through.”
Mitoko Yoshimura rushed to settle the family’s loans and figure out what to do with the business. Several men came to the nursery and aggressively made low bids to buy the business, Swanton said, but her grandmother declined.
She received another offer from E. Manchester Boddy, the publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News, who agreed to buy the company, the remaining shares and the lease on the property, Swanton said. He agreed to pay the family in installments. Boddy would later move the nursery stock to his La Cañada Flintridge estate, which became today’s Descanso Gardens.
The Yoshimura family was eventually relocated and imprisoned in a prison camp on an Indian reservation in Gila River, Ariz.
Swanton knows that the family business ended on April 8, 1942, because the company book ended abruptly on that date. While the family was in prison, Swanton’s uncle Hayao was drafted into the United States Army.
Later that summer, the family was reunited with Fred Yoshimura.
While in prison, Mitoko Yoshimura was paid by the federal government to run the camp’s flower shop, and she arranged for a bouquet to be presented to Eleanor Roosevelt during her visit to the camp. Swanton’s family continued to attend school while at camp and posed for school portraits in yearbooks.
The trauma of the camps was rarely discussed within the family. Mary Ishihara Swanton’s husband, Todd Swanton, recalls how later in life Raymond Yoshimura became impatient with people complaining about the experience.
That mindset is common in Japanese culture, Kamei said.
“Kodomo no tame ni, or for the sake of our children. The point is that we don’t want to burden our children or our descendants with our trials and challenges,” Kamei said.
After the end of the war in 1945, the camps were dissolved and the Yoshimuras were allowed to return home. But their company was gone and they had to start over. A friend of the family, Gene Perez, watched over the family’s belongings while they were away. Many other people in the community who were hostile to the family at the start of the war suddenly warmed to the Yoshimuras, Swanton said.
It took the nursery years to rebuild its stock of flowers, trees and plants. Fred Yoshimura and his sons began building their landscaping cuttings again. He also planted pansies, Swanton said, which grew quickly and brought in some quick cash.
The family had to rename the business San Gabriel Nursery and Florist. The new nursery has been built across the street from the old business.
Other Japanese civilians imprisoned during the war were offered a place to stay, and for a time tents were set up in the nursery, Swanton said.
While the family was in the camps, Raymond Yoshimura befriended Ichiro Yoshihashi, and the two would go on to earn their horticultural degrees from Ohio State. Eventually, they would work together on the family’s nursery and expand the business by installing greenhouses and maintaining a wholesale business.
Raymond Yoshimura would go on to hybridize several plants, including the Mission Bell azalea that became a popular nursery draw, Swanton said.
In 1957, the nursery began to receive foreign exchange students from Japan. That was when Saburo Ishihara, Swanton’s father, first arrived in California.
He had attended horticultural school in Tokyo, spoke English and was fascinated by American culture, traits that impressed Fred Yoshimura. He immediately put Ishihara to work in the flower shop.
“On the first day, he picked me and told me to stay here,” Ishihara said, pointing to the floor in the store.
Ishihara stayed for a year and went back to Japan, but returned to San Gabriel to marry Florence Yoshimura. Ichiro Yoshihashi married Margie Yoshimura, Swanton’s aunt.
Shortly after Swanton’s birth, the shop was set on fire by an arsonist. Much of the family records, already scattered due to time in the camps, were destroyed, Swanton said.
While the fire destroyed the storefront, the family managed to resume their business within a few days and the new store was built within a year.
Florence Yoshimura died when Swanton was a child. Her aunt and father raised her.
At her aunt’s funeral this year, people remembered Yoshihashi as a person who could handle any challenge. Despite the confinement of family members, the fire and all the other misfortunes they faced, the nursery survived, Swanton said.
“What my grandma was dealing with is much worse than what I’m dealing with,” said Swanton.
For the past 25 years, Swanton has run the business with her father, husband and other employees. There are reminders of the past and those who came before them everywhere.
Next to the nursery is a parking lot, she points out, where her grandparents’ yellow house once stood, the family history forever linked to the family business.