IT'S a little after 8 a.m. on a slumbering block of tract homes in Panorama City, but Roy Imazu is already deep into a routine any choreographer would admire. There's not a wasted movement as he cuts up the floor with his partner, a trusty Honda power mower. He promenades briskly around the perimeter of the lawn, then closes in with an ever-tightening box maneuver. With a final pivot and push, he polishes off the last clump, leaving a tidy emerald carpet.
"When you get through and the lawn has that clean-cut appearance, that's what it's all about," says Imazu, 75, a constant gardener whose handiwork has kept homes and churches around the valley groomed for almost 50 years. At an age when thoughts turn to lawn furniture, not maintenance, Imazu continues to carry on a tradition that's played a key, yet overlooked, role in the greening of Southern California -- Japanese American landscaping.
For much of the last century, Japanese Americans were the region's unofficial groundskeepers. Tending and landscaping yards from Hollywood to Long Beach, they left a living legacy that can be seen around the Southland. There's the poodle-clipped foliage gracing the Sawtelle and Crenshaw districts, Zen gardens in Venice, and a Beverly Hills mansion with a garden straight out of a Kyoto highlight reel.
Japanese American gardeners pretty much invented the yard care business as we know it, an industry now the domain of Latino emigres as Imazu's generation hangs up the shears. They helped shape the space of suburbia, which emerged on their watch, setting standards without which we might have descended into weed-choked dereliction.
The contributions of these vanishing pioneers are coming to light in an exhibition opening Sunday at the Japanese American National Museum called "Landscaping America: Beyond the Japanese Garden."
"The history of Japanese American gardeners is a core part of the history of Japanese Americans and definitely Japanese Americans in Southern California and the whole West Coast," says Sojin Kim, curator of the show, which documents the personal stories and artistry behind these low-profile stewards of the public face on our private worlds.
Some gardeners were painters, some poets, some only interested in making a living, but all brought a tenacity to will a piece of the American Dream out of turf and planter boxes.
BEFORE sushi, before Godzilla and the Smog Monster, one of the earliest windows on Japanese culture for Americans was gardening. The classic Japanese garden debuted at the U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, introducing the signature elements of manicured trees, flowing water and layered foliage. By the early 1900s Japanese immigrants had carved out a niche -- and a living -- in yard maintenance and landscaping. Gardening seemed an earthy Esperanto across the two cultures.
It was also a means of cultural expression. "In working with nature and caring for the yard, people had an opportunity to express their aesthetics and creativity," Kim says.
Even if the maintenance gardeners weren't doing anything particularly Japanese in the early days, they came from a tradition in which arranging flora is an art form; nature a sacred space and guidepost that keeps folks on the path of harmony and balance.
In time, that relationship with the natural world would alter how many viewed the stuff growing outside the picture window. Perceptions of gardens would shift from mere decorative props to inspirational agents, able to restore lost bearings to the urban zombie through sylvan simplicity.
That notion drives the contemporary interest in Japanese garden design, says Maryanne Yamaguchi, manager of the Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles, a place with a storied chapter in this tale. Her father started the nursery in 1949 and was instrumental in the spread of bonsai, the art of miniaturized plants and trees.
"A lot of people live a pretty hectic life in L.A., and they have this sense that they want a Zen garden," she says. "I think people find them very relaxing and calming."
But the garden as inner experience was a long way off when the first wave of Japanese hit the turf in the early 1900s. Prevented from owning farms by alien land laws, the immigrants gravitated to gardening as the next best option for survival.
By 1918, 1 out of 10 men from Japan in Southern California was a gardener, according to Ron Tsukashima, a professor in sociology at Cal State L.A. In the pre-mini-truck era, they made their way to gigs at wealthy homes in the Hollywood Hills by bike and wheelbarrow, doing more tending than designing.