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In Praise of Newcomers Who Beautified the Landscape


On a stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard between Santa Monica and Olympic boulevards, the last remnants of an authentic Southern California subculture can still be seen--the nurseries that once supplied the Japanese American gardeners who turned tract housing into shady suburban neighborhoods.

Only a few nurseries remain open for business on Sawtelle, which still anchors a thriving Japanese American neighborhood. But the street once boasted 13 of them, along with flower shops, lawn mower shops and boarding houses that catered to Japanese gardeners and provided them with box lunches of onigiri (rice balls).

These memories are celebrated in "Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California," edited by Naomi Hirahara (Southern California Gardeners' Federation, $19.95, 160 pages). It's a remarkable effort by a trade association of working gardeners to preserve their history and traditions. "Green Makers" presents itself as a kind of family scrapbook, a study of a colorful and distinctive ethnic community, and a unique chapter in the labor history of Southern California.

Gardening and landscaping are ancient and highly refined art forms in Japanese culture, of course, and the role of Japanese immigrants in the beautification of Southern California dates to 1892, when a man named Sotaro Endo sold carnations and violets on a leased parcel of land at the corner of South Main Street and West Jefferson Boulevard. By the 1930s, a third of all Japanese in Los Angeles reported that they earned their livelihoods from gardening.

"Green Makers" allows us to glimpse the artifacts of a trade that can also be seen as a culture and a way of life. On display are gardening vehicles that range from an elaborately custom-fitted Model A truck to the open trunk of an old Chevy sedan. The basic gardening tool was the old-fashioned "push" lawn mower. In fact, the iconic image of a lawn mower can be seen in a stained-glass window at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Los Angeles that honors the first generation of Japanese immigrants. And, as we discover, the shops where mowers were taken for sharpening played a special role in the lives of Japanese gardeners.

"Lawn mower shops in particular were popular retreats," recalls Ronald Tadao Tsukuashima in a chapter on "Politics of Maintenance Gardening," "where gardeners gathered to drink, play hanafuda or Japanese poker, and conduct tanomoshi or rotating credit associations."

Of course, like so much else in the area's history, the experience of the Japanese American community is tainted with racism. Early Japanese immigrants were forced into maintenance gardening because the so-called Alien Land Laws prevented them from owning or leasing agricultural land.

Only rarely were the immigrant gardeners invited by their customers to design and install an authentic Japanese garden. More often, their work consisted of mowing the lawns and trimming the trees and shrubs that define the suburban sprawl of Southern California.

But, all the while, they managed to preserve some of the most cherished traditions of their homeland. "Green Makers" includes recipes for "Alice Onishi's Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles)" and "Marie Koga's Steamed Fish," and short verses in the senryu style of Japanese poetry: "Working shoulder to shoulder/Robust wife/Cuts the grass" goes one such poem, written by Emiko Kunimasa in 1961 and first printed in a Japanese American gardening journal.

"By creating something Japanese in America," explains Kendall H. Brown in a chapter on "Prewar Japanese Gardens and Garden Builders," "they made themselves into Japanese Americans."

"Green Makers," with text in English and Japanese, is available at the bookshop of the Japan America National Museum in Los Angeles or from the Southern California Gardeners' Federation, 333 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA 90013, (213) 628-1595, or by e-mail at


West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at

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