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Exhibition on JA Gardeners on View at San Diego History Center

SAN DIEGO — “A Disappearing Breed: Japanese Gardeners in San Diego,” presented by the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, has been extended through May 31 at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.

The exhibition was originally scheduled to close in March.

The Issei who arrived in San Diego County found jobs in places where they didn’t need to speak English to succeed. After working on railroad construction and in the salt ponds at the southern end of San Diego Bay, many Issei dreamed of owning land, but instead found themselves doing other manual labor working as fishermen, farmers and gardeners.

Gardening became a viable job opportunity near the turn of the 20th century when Japanese-style gardens were introduced at expositions and world fairs throughout the country. Fascination and popularity for these gardens grew during a time of limited job opportunities.

Anti-Asian prejudice and discriminatory legislation prevented many Japanese from owning land and seeking professions outside of manual labor. With no boss and little startup cash or English proficiency required, many Issei took to gardening as a way to make a living.

Though these pioneer Issei came from diverse backgrounds, Japanese immigrants with their Eastern philosophy were stereotyped as having a natural talent for all things plants and landscaping. Many did not have prior experience or professional background in landscaping, but they used this stereotype as an opportunity to enter the profession, improve their skills, and grow their businesses.

In the aftermath of World War II, there still remained anti-Japanese sentiment. Nikkei who returned to the West Coast after their removal and incarceration encountered continuing questions about loyalty and trust. The American-citizen sons of the first generation of gardeners sometimes had trouble finding jobs that took advantage of their education and experience. There are many stories of college-educated Japanese American men who became gardeners, not because they wanted to, but because it was all that was available to them.

Faced again with limited opportunities, the Issei fathers and Nisei sons took to what they knew and either resumed or began gardening after the war. With little financial resources, many started without any tools, borrowing from their clients on-site. Some didn’t have much more than a push mower, a rake, and a cloth tarpaulin to haul away clippings. They carried these items from job to job, and learned by trial and error how to care for the clients’ property and plants.

As their business grew, they could afford the tools, equipment and vehicles needed to develop their businesses and grow their clientele. Work was nearly seven days a week and also strenuous, lasting from dawn to dusk. The Nisei sons were sometimes pressed into service on the weekends, spending their time off from school assisting their fathers.

Gardening became a professionalized business for many Japanese Americans after the war. Associations and partnerships with auxiliary businesses like nurseries were formed to protect their livelihood and garner respect. Vibrant social networks developed and a sense of community was formed. Having earned a reputation for meticulous and thorough work, Japanese gardeners became a status symbol for many Caucasian American families. This self-made profession reached its pinnacle in the post-war years and was a golden age for Japanese gardening in America.

Today, Japanese gardeners are a disappearing breed. Labor-intensive styles of gardening have become devalued due to increasingly limited homeowner budgets and time. For many of the original Japanese gardeners, gardening was never a profession to aspire to, but a means for living. With established later generations of Japanese Americans moving on to higher-paying occupations, new immigrants have entered the gardening profession and filled the need for lower cost labor as the Japanese did years ago.

This exhibit is dedicated to those Nikkei gardeners who labored with their hands, made sacrifices of family time so that their children would have a better future, and through their profession helped garner a lasting respect and understanding between the Japanese and American cultures.

“A Disappearing Breed” was curated by Linda A. Canada and Marisa Takeuchi Lin with research, installation and technical support by Jon Obayashi, Barbara Busch, John Kanegaye, Meghan Kanegaye and Duane Siefers.

The San Diego History Center is located in the Casa de Balboa, at the east end of El Prado, near the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Bea Evenson Fountain. Casa de Balboa also houses the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. For a location map, write to Balboa Park Map 1649 El Prado, Suite #3 San Diego, CA 92101; call (619) 232-6203 or visit

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except March 19 and 23, when it will close at 4 p.m. There is no admission fee but tax-deductible donations are accepted.

For information on other Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego programs, visit

Photos courtesy of JAHSSD

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