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Waxing Poetic

October 20, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

An Oxnard gardener who puts pen to paper in the ancient Japanese art of tanka recalls being honored by Emperor Hirohito for a delicate, courtly submission to an annual competition.

As Emperor Hirohito lays dying in Tokyo, Himechika Yamashita reminisces in Oxnard.

The 70-year-old nursery owner recalls the time nine years ago when one of his five-line, 31-syllable poems--written in the 2,000-year-old Japanese poetic form known as tanka --beat out more than 30,000 other entries and won for him a royal audience.

There, at an annual New Year's Day celebration in Tokyo's Imperial Palace, the celery grower's poem was one of 11 recited by professional poetry readers before Hirohito, the man whom the Japanese until 1946 revered as a divinity.

Today, Yamashita ponders his fateful encounter with Hirohito each morning when he flips on a Japanese TV cable station to devour the latest news about the 87-year-old emperor, who has pancreatic cancer.

"I have a lot of sorrow and will be saddened . . . because I got to meet him and was honored by him," Yamashita said through a translator, his nephew, John Akune.

Yamashita recalls his disbelief when the telegram arrived at his tract home with the impeccably trimmed bonsai trees, summoning him to Japan with all expenses paid. He recalls embarrassment at his paltry high school education and apprehension about mingling with scholars and learned poets in Fukiage Palace, located in a lush green oasis at Tokyo's center.

But most of all, Yamashita recalls his pride as Hirohito sat on a dais just 6 feet away and thanked him, an obscure Oxnard gardener, for penning such a delicate and courtly poem.

"This is a nationally known competition," said Peter Nosco, a professor of Japanese culture at USC. "It's an extraordinary, remarkable honor that is much coveted throughout Japan."

Yamashita is a small, frail man who is almost swallowed up by the soft recesses of his living room couch. As he talks, he presses his hands together between his knees and focuses on a Japanese landscape painting across the room. But the words that spill forth are clear and strong, capturing the poignant legacy he shares with all West Coast Japanese-Americans of his generation.

Yamashita's parents were immigrants who owned a small grocery on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. They called their first son Himechika, an unusual and prophetic name that means "Japanese-American of Good Will."

The family moved to Japan when the boy was 2, settling in the southern village of Kagoshima, population 500. There, Yamashita learned the trade of chicken-sexing--the skill of distinguishing day-old male chicks from the egg-producing females.

In 1937, with war clouds astir in Japan, the 19-year-old youth, who had retained his U.S. citizenship, returned to the land of his birth, where peace and economic opportunity abounded.

After all, "I was an American," Yamashita said proudly, his tanned face crinkling into a smile.

Trips to Idaho

He quickly found work at a cousin's farm in San Pedro and a sister's nursery in Inglewood. He also made trips to Idaho to work as a chicken-sexer. It was then, while pining for his family and traversing the broad expanses of the American West, that Yamashita felt the poetic muse stir.

"Every time I experienced something different, I would write it down," he said.

He also joined a group of Japanese poets who met monthly in Los Angeles to critique each others' works.

Although Yamashita had left the brewing war behind, it followed him across the Pacific. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, soon after, in what is now recognized as a shameful episode in American history, the federal government ordered all Japanese Americans to leave the West Coast and, within months, began interning them in camps like Manzanar in California's Owens Valley.

Rather than face internment, Yamashita and his relatives abandoned their property and fled to Denver, where they opened a new nursery.

'Couldn't Be Helped'

Today, Yamashita says he bears no grudges.

"It couldn't be helped," he said. "I am an American citizen and I understand why it was done."

But the budding poet also understood the anguish of his fellow Nisei--American children of immigrant Japanese parents--who had been uprooted and thrust into a harsh and often hostile new life.

In a poem that has been included in a Japanese anthology, Yamashita wrote:

"I am afraid

I have to bury my remains here

In the soil of Colorado.

I am too old to see the end of War,"

Said our old man.

Yamashita did see the war's end. He moved back to Southern California with his relatives and started the Oriental Gardens nursery in Port Hueneme. He also found a bride, via an arranged marriage set up by a family friend in Japan.

In 1964, Yamashita opened his own business--the small, family-run Santa Clara nursery--which sells farmers celery plants that Yamashita grows in greenhouses from seed. Still active in the nursery, he often puts in 10-hour days during busy seasons.

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