Sus Ito and the Rescue of the Lost Battalion

This week, JANM opened Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, the first exhibition in Sharing Our Stories, a new series drawn from JANM’s extensive permanent collection. The exhibition looks at WWII photographs taken by Susumu “Sus” Ito while on a tour of duty through Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.

While Ito participated in such dramatic events as the rescue of the Lost Battalion and the liberation of a sub-camp of Dachau, the majority of the photographs capture the humble daily lives of a group of young Japanese American soldiers. In the essay below, JANM Curator of History Lily Anne Yumi Welty Tamai, PhD, takes an in-depth look at one of the images featured in the exhibition. Read on for a riveting account of the rescue of the Lost Battalion and its aftermath, as experienced by soldiers who lived through it.

Japanese American National Museum. Sus Ito Collection.
Japanese American National Museum.
Sus Ito Collection.

“We were in a number of dangerous situations. But the five days that I spent with ‘I’ Company and this mission, were really the most memorable. It was five days where I didn’t remember days from nights.” —Sus Ito, from JANM oral history interview, 2014.

In the last week of October 1944, after ten days of fighting to liberate Belmont, Biffontaine, and Bruyères in northeastern France, the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team received new orders. Without rest or time to recuperate, they were sent on a mission to rescue the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, made up of men from Texas. The soldiers of the 141st were trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded by German troops in eastern France with very little food, water, and medical supplies. Two other units had tried to rescue the so-called Lost Battalion without success; the Germans had a tremendous advantage in terms of position, and ambushed the American troops from their sniper nests.

There were no real roads in the mountains, just trails, and most were too narrow for large tanks. The forest was so dense in some areas that they had little to no visibility. Veteran George Oiye of the 442nd’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, “C” Battery, remembered the conditions: “The rain, snow, heavy clouds, dark fog, and the huge carpet of pine trees overhead made it hard to tell day from night.” It took six days of intense fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion. Out of the 800 Nisei soldiers who fought, around 600 suffered casualties in the process of rescuing 211 men.

“I saw so many wounded and dying fellow soldiers. There were friends holding their comrades in their arms. I ran into ‘I’ Company, which at that point only had four guys with a PFC (private first class)—Clarence Taba—in charge … the fighting had been that fierce.” —S. Don Shimazu, veteran of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery.

Japanese American National Museum. Sus Ito Collection.
Japanese American National Museum.
Sus Ito Collection.

 

General John Dahlquist had sent the Japanese American unit on this mission knowing the odds for success were slim. Years later, as told in the book Japanese American History (edited by Brian Niiya), U.S. Senator and 442nd veteran Daniel K. Inouye recalled: “I am absolutely certain that all of us were well aware that we were being used for the rescue because we were expendable.” Despite these circumstances, they all fought valiantly.

Sus Ito did not take many photographs during the actual rescue of the Lost Battalion. However, he did take one of Sgt. George Thompson (above) after the battle was over. Thompson was not even supposed to fight on the front lines, but he had begged Ito for an assignment so he could see what war was really like. Ito agreed, allowing George to carry an extra set of radio batteries for the unit.

Reflecting on this striking photograph, Ito said: “George Thompson didn’t put his hands in front of him because he was down, or because he hated the thought of war. He was just trying to hide. Maybe he was trying to erase some of the images of what the Lost Battalion mission was like.”

When remembering the mission to rescue the Lost Battalion, Ito said: “We were fighting against an enemy we could not see. To this day when I walk into a dark forest on a bright day—or even when I think about it—I get goose bumps.”

To hear more of these stories and learn more about our exhibition, be sure to catch Dr. Lily Anne Tamai’s Behind the Scenes Lecture on July 25. The program is free with museum admission, but RSVPs are recommended here.

Shiisaa: Okinawa’s Lion/Dog Guardian

An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.
An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.

 

The shiisaa (sometimes spelled shisa) is a traditional decorative icon of Okinawa. The shiisaa resembles a cross between a lion and a dog and usually appears in pairs. It is similar to the Chinese guardian lion or “foo dog,” which is commonly seen at the entryways of buildings in China. Like the Chinese lion, the shiisaa serves as a guardian or sentinel in Okinawan (Uchinanchu) culture.

The Uchinanchu people place the two shiisaas either on their roofs or at the gates to their homes. Doing this is believed to ward off bad spirits. Stories about the pair’s genders can vary, but most people believe that the one on the left is male because his mouth is closed to prevent bad spirits from entering the home, while the one on the right is female and has her mouth open to draw in good spirits and energy.

A shiisaa dance on Kukusai Street in Haebaru-cho, Okinawa. Photo by Kenneth Taylor Jr via Flickr.
A shiisaa dance on Kukusai Street in Haebaru-cho, Okinawa.
Photo by Kenneth Taylor Jr via Flickr.

 

The shiisaa also appears in Okinawan festival dances. Performed by two people wearing a costume that includes a prominent face and thick, shaggy yellow or brown fur, shiisaa dances are accompanied by traditional folk songs performed with a sanshin, the Uchinanchu cousin of the shamisen (traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument). Shiisaa dances are most commonly seen at Okinawa’s annual Shisa-mai (Lion Dance) Festival.

At JANM’s Free Family Day on July 11, held in conjunction with the opening of the new exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—the Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, children can learn more about these charmed creatures at our two shiisaa-making craft stations. Other Okinawan-themed activities will include Okinawan lei-making, Okinawan pastry sampling, an Okinawan gift raffle, and performances by Okinawan musicians, dancers, and taiko drummers.

This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawaii. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

New Exhibition Touches on Okinawan History

At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing. Photo by Allyson Nakamoto.
At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted
every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing.
Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

 

On July 11, JANM will open a new exhibition, Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. The two artists in the exhibition examine their mixed-heritage roots in Okinawa and Hawai‘i, drawing heavily from ancestral histories. The opening day will coincide with a JANM Free Family Day, which will feature many crafts and activities inspired by Okinawan culture.

Although it is currently part of Japan, Okinawa for most of its history was an independent island kingdom called Ryukyu. Because of its location between the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, sailors, traders, scholars, and travelers from Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond visited the Ryukyu Kingdom. Over time, elements of the languages, arts, and traditions from those countries found their way into the Ryukyuan culture, enriching it and making it even more distinct from its neighbors. In the Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi), this mixing of cultural influences is called champuru.

A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.
A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

In 1609, the kingdom was annexed by Japan. Trading continued under the banner of Japan, while the Ryukyuan court system, performing arts, literature, and crafts flourished. In 1879 however, Japan officially took over the kingdom and renamed it “Okinawa Prefecture,” dissolving the Ryukyuan monarchy. The Japanese government then attempted to eliminate Ryukyu’s native culture, replacing it with Japanese language, culture, and laws.

A variety of factors tied to changing social policy in Okinawa soon led to economic hardship and social unrest. At the same time, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 created a need for more immigrant labor in the United States. In 1899, the first group of laborers left Okinawa for Hawai‘i. Emigration then began in earnest from Okinawa to Hawai‘i, to the mainland United States, and to South America.

It is the history of these immigrants that is explored in the art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. How did the former Ryukyuans make their lives in Hawai‘i? How did their culture continue to evolve in Hawai‘i, mixing with even more cultures? Despite all this champuru, there is still something that is distinctively and identifiably Okinawan.

An Update on the Eaton Collection from JANM Board Chair Norman Y. Mineta

This letter from Norman Y. Mineta, JANM’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees, is an expanded version of one that appeared in The Rafu Shimpo earlier this month.

After a relatively short period of time, though an arduous journey, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) has acquired the Allen H. Eaton collection of Japanese American art and artifacts. The Eaton Collection consists of some 450 items produced by those of Japanese ancestry and those who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. The acquisition occurred after Rago Arts and Auction Center cancelled its scheduled public auction, which threatened to break up the collection and would have scattered the art pieces to numerous individuals and institutions.

The cancellation occurred as a result of thousands of people who raised awareness through social media, grassroots organizing, the threat of an injunction by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and a personal appeal by George Takei to David Rago, a principal of the auction house. Without a doubt, this was a victory for the total community.

In the rush to “wrap up” as quickly as possible, since the window of opportunity was short, the process was abbreviated and certain individuals and organizations were not contacted, to their dismay. For that, JANM apologizes.

The Japanese American National Museum, as its name implies, is the appropriate organization to become the stewards of these art objects. JANM is national in scope and outreach, with a curatorial staff to preserve the history of its collections while protecting and conserving their significant holdings. The Eaton Collection has just arrived at JANM, and it will require extensive conservation to preserve it and to establish a baseline for future care. JANM is the right institution to steward these precious artifacts on behalf of the Japanese American community and the total community for generations to come.

JANM has, and will continue to play, an active leadership role to involve multiple community stakeholders in shaping the collection’s future. As many are aware, there was a conference call on May 13, 2015 that was moderated by Dr. Franklin Odo that included representatives from the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the Japanese American Citizens League, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Wing Luke Museum of Seattle, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose the Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts, JANM, and many other individuals and organizations to start the discussion for a positive and collaborative healing path for our community. This was the first of what will, no doubt, be many such conversations around the Eaton Collection.

As the conservation process and discussions progress on the Eaton Collection, we view it, along with all of our artifacts, as a shared community treasure of which the Japanese American National Museum is the guardian. As with many museums, there are ways to share the art objects through traveling exhibitions and long-term loans to other museums and institutions where the public would be able to see and have access to these artifacts.

We look forward to working with all of the community stakeholders to come to a positive, jointly shared solution.

Norman Y. Mineta
Chair, Board of Trustees
Japanese American National Museum

Executive Order 9066 vs. Civilian Exclusion Order

Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco's Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco’s Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

In Japanese American history, Executive Order 9066 and the Civilian Exclusion Orders are often confused with one another; many people mistakenly believe that they are the same thing. In fact, they are two different decrees that acted in concert to legitimize government-sanctioned racism during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This two-page, typewritten order was simply designed, in broad strokes, to give the Secretary of War the power to establish designated military areas from which people could be evacuated as he saw fit:

I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.

Executive Order 9066 is what opened the door for the exclusion and removal of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and into World War II American concentration camps. This was then put into action by a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders.

Posted on signs in large, bold lettering, the orders appeared first in Bainbridge Island, Washington, on March 24, 1942 and were subsequently posted all along the West Coast of the United States. This series of sequential orders issued by the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration informed people of Japanese ancestry that they were required to pack up, leave their homes, and report to designated locations.

National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

 

Following is a key excerpt from one of the orders:

Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 9, 1942.

Note the highly strategic use of language in this paragraph. The persons to be rounded up are both “alien and non-alien”—these words are used instead of the designations “citizen and non-citizen.” Imagine the reaction these orders might have generated among the general populace, had they in fact made plain that that the government’s intention was to incarcerate persons who were citizens of the United States.

By the same token, the order states that all persons of Japanese ancestry are to be “evacuated”—a word commonly used during natural disasters, when citizens are evacuated from an area for their own safety. History has made it clear that it was in fact the safety of non-Japanese Americans that prompted these extreme actions from the U.S. government.

These egregious instances of legalized racism have since been widely recognized and officially apologized for by the government. February 19, 1942—the date President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—is now annually commemorated as a “Day of Remembrance” by Japanese Americans and all people interested in the protection of civil liberties.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 1: How It All Began

One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, is a candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Court. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court and what it means for the princesses and the community at large.

Mrs. Ito presents Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate with a card, California, September 7, 1955. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Collection Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.
Mrs. Ito presents Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate with a card, California, September 7, 1955. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Collection Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.
I always knew about Nisei Week growing up. As a Japanese American in Los Angeles, it was just one of those things you grew up going to. I remember seeing the Nisei Week Court featured in the Rafu Shimpo, sitting on a float in the parade, wearing beautiful dresses and crowns. I never thought that one day, I would be doing that.

I was working at JANM on a busy Saturday when I bumped into an old friend’s mom. She didn’t even recognize me at first. We chatted and caught up with one another, then toward the end of our conversation, she said, “You should apply for Nisei Week Court! You would be the perfect candidate!” The idea caught me so off guard that the only reaction I could come up with was to reject it. I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” but she wasn’t backing down. She insisted on putting me in touch with a former Nisei Week princess. By the end of the conversation, I was saying “I’ll think about it.”

And I really did think about it. All I knew about Nisei Week Court was what I remembered from childhood, so I did some research and spoke with two former Nisei Week princesses about their experiences. I discovered that being part of the court meant so much more than just sitting on a float in a beautiful dress; for 74 years, they have acted as representatives of the Los Angeles Japanese American community, helping to promote its image and build positive relationships worldwide. Members of the court receive training in public speaking, etiquette, and Japanese history and culture; they also have opportunities to travel to different cities, meeting all kinds of people and learning to be leaders of their community.

It quickly became apparent to me that becoming a Nisei Week princess is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as well as an extreme honor. I became really inspired and excited to apply for the position, and hoped that I would be able to get an interview.

Chester Hashizume Helps Japanese Americans Explore Their Roots

Chester Hashizume. Photo: Carol Cheh.
Chester Hashizume, longtime JANM volunteer and consultant

 

Twice a year, JANM offers a workshop called Discovering Your Japanese American Roots, a primer on amateur genealogy specifically geared toward Japanese American patrons. This workshop is JANM’s longest running; it’s been offered since 1992 by Chester Hashizume, a Sansei information technology project manager by profession and genealogy hobbyist.

Born in Illinois and raised in New Jersey, Hashizume’s interest in genealogy began at a family reunion, when one of his uncles shared the beginnings of a family tree. Resources to help Japanese Americans trace their roots were not readily available, and so Hashizume embarked on a personal journey of discovery. He was able to find some information, including immigration records, at a Mormon Family History Center and at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. His most valuable resource turned out to be his mother, who was fluent in Japanese and knew relatives back in the home country. Through her, Hashizume was able to meet family members and gain access to some elusive village records during trips to Japan.

Hashizume moved to Los Angeles in 1988. Seeking to connect with the local Japanese American community, he checked out a 1989 JANM-organized Nisei Week exhibit that featured internment camp records on microfilm. At that time, the museum was still in its infancy, organizing pop-up shows while working to secure a permanent facility. Fascinated by the historical information contained in those records, Hashizume signed up to volunteer with JANM the following year. When the museum opened its doors in 1992, Hashizume began offering his workshop.

Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)
Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)

 

“I was a Japanese American with no Japanese language skills and no knowledge of my own background,” Hashizume explains. “I wanted to help others like myself.” Having already gone through much of the process of researching his own background, he now wanted to share his findings with others. He found it rewarding to help others go through the same process of discovery that he did.

Hashizume supplies each workshop participant with a binder full of helpful information, including: the basics of constructing family trees, where and how to conduct preliminary research, the unique characteristics of Japanese genealogy, the meanings and origins of Japanese names and family crests, and how to do research in Japan. Hashizume even includes a simple koseki (household registry) request form, written in both Japanese and English, that people can mail or bring with them to present to government officials in Japan.

“You have to go back to Japan,” Hashizume stresses. “This is how you really do research.” Japan, which for much of its history was a feudal society, has no central archive; koseki are maintained by townships and are still, to this day, updated by hand. The language and cultural barriers may seem daunting, but overcoming them is well worth it; Hashizume’s own trips back to Hiroshima and Ishikawa (his maternal and paternal prefectures of origin, respectively) were life-changing.

Additional spaces have been added to this weekend’s edition of Discovering Your Japanese American Roots! Visit janm.org to register.

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera Captured Japanese American History

Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.

Toyo Miyatake's Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.
Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.

 

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.

Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.

A well-known photograph taken by Toyo Miyatake at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.
A well-known photograph by Toyo Miyatake, taken at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.

 

Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.

It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.

To explore more works of public art in Little Tokyo, sign up for JANM’s Edible Adventures: Public Art and the Sweets of Little Tokyo tour on March 28.

Pilgrimages to WWII American Concentration Camp Sites Starting in April

Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp. Photo: Richard Murakami.
Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Photo: Richard Murakami.

 

During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast without due process. Most of them were sent to one of ten concentration camps located throughout the United States: Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake, as they are commonly referred to. The War Relocation Authority selected these locations because they were remote, owned by the federal government, and often near rail lines.

For many years after the war, Japanese Americans did their best to get on with their post-camp lives, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasant experience of incarceration. As the years passed however, the community became more interested in grappling with this part of its history. Trips back to the camps began, with some organizing group pilgrimages to facilitate the experience.

Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

Now, more than seventy years after resettlement, there has evolved what could be called a pilgrimage season. The 2015 “season” begins in April and ends in August. Following is a complete schedule with links to more information about each of the organized pilgrimages, including registration and fees.

Pilgrimage to Manzanar (California): April 25, 2015
Pilgrimage to Amache (Colorado): May 16, 2015
Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): June 25–28, 2015
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): August 21–22, 2015
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one is scheduled for July 2016.

These are the five sites that have regular pilgrimages; we encourage you to visit the others as well. With the exception of the Gila River camp in Arizona, permits are not required. In February, President Obama recognized Honouliuli in Hawai`i as a National Monument, so perhaps Hawai`i will one day be added as part of the pilgrimage season.

A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

No matter who you are—whether you were incarcerated or not, whether you are of Japanese descent or not—you might consider visiting one of the former camp sites. There is nothing like standing there, feeling the air, seeing the mountains, sensing the scorching heat or the bitter cold. It is definitely worth a visit, even though they are remote and the conditions are harsh; in fact, that is the point.

Descanso Gardens’ Renowned Camellia Collection is Rooted in Japanese American History

Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens
A camellia in bloom at Descanso Gardens. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

 

Through a special partnership agreement, all JANM members are invited to visit Descanso Gardens this Sunday, March 1, free of charge. Located 20 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, Descanso Gardens is a 160-acre nature preserve known for its botanical collections and seasonal horticultural displays. This weekend will be an especially good time to visit as the Gardens will be hosting their annual Camellia and Tea Festival, during which patrons can enjoy the blooming camellias and participate in a variety of celebratory activities.

The camellia collection at Descanso Gardens is said to be the largest in the world; it boasts rare and familiar camellias and has been designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society. The collection is worth seeing for these reasons alone, however, its origins are also closely tied to Japanese American history, giving it an added significance for members and friends of JANM.

Descanso Gardens started out as Rancho del Descanso, the home and ranch of newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy. A horticultural enthusiast with a particular interest in plants of Asian origin, Boddy started a camellia collection in the 1930s with plants purchased from local nurseries, some of which were owned and operated by Japanese Americans.

F. M. Uyematsu, owner of Star Nursery. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.
F. M. Uyematsu, owner of Star Nursery. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

When Japanese Americans faced mass incarceration following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, Boddy was sympathetic to their plight. He admired Japanese culture and had in fact written a book in 1921, Japanese in America, extolling the contributions of Japanese immigrants. Boddy decided to purchase the entire camellia inventory of the Star Nursery, owned by the Uyematsu family, prior to their removal to Manzanar. He also purchased the Mission Nursery business owned by the Yoshimura family in San Gabriel, continuing to operate it while the family was imprisoned at Gila River.

Unlike many opportunistic investors who offered to buy the nurseries at a fraction of their value, Boddy paid fair prices to the Uyematsus and the Yoshimuras, enabling both families to put their financial affairs in order before being incarcerated. The camellias from Star Nursery were planted in the shade of live oak trees on about 25 acres of Boddy’s property, where they continue to flourish today. After the war, Boddy closed down the Mission Nursery and moved all of its stock to his estate.

F. W. Yoshimura, son of the founder of Mission Nursery and then, after release from Gila River, founder of the San Gabriel Nursery in San Gabriel. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.
F. W. Yoshimura, son of the founder of Mission Nursery and then, after release from Gila River, founder of the San Gabriel Nursery in San Gabriel. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

In 1953, Boddy sold his home and ranch to the County of Los Angeles. A volunteer-run support group called the Descanso Gardens Guild, formed in 1957, took over the management and development of the property, eventually turning it into the public institution it is today.

A more detailed version of this story is available on discovernikkei.org. You can also read a history of the Mission Nursery, which was reincarnated after the war as the San Gabriel Nursery and Florist, here.

If you are a JANM member, simply present your current membership card to receive FREE admission to Descanso Gardens this Sunday.