By John Sammon
When we think of Facebook, we often envision young people sharing photos and experiences, however two Southern California men are using the social medium to preserve a unique chapter of history—-that of early-day Japanese American farmers.
“David Shimasaki and I were playing golf one day and we said to ourselves, we should do something to honor the Issei and the Nisei growers who helped pioneer the country’s fruit, vegetable and floral industries,” said Ron Inatomi.
Inatomi, co-founder along with Shimasaki of the Facebook page, “Japanese Americans in the Produce & Floral Industry,” said Japanese American growers in the early 20th century helped turn the Ag business into the multi-million industry it is today.
Shimasaki agreed that Facebook is making a little-known chapter in the history of the country available to the general public.
“We want to make certain future generations of Japanese Americans understand their roots and that all people learn about the contributions Japanese Americans made,” he said.
Searchable on Facebook under “Japanese Americans in the Produce-Floral Industry,” the site’s written declaration says it was set up to honor pioneer Japanese American growers who laid the foundations of the Ag industry over the past century. The page invites people to post historic photos of farming scenes or individuals involved in farming, videos, and descriptions of their family’s involvement in agriculture.
Some of the photos the site is posting had been previously reposing largely unknown in a shoebox in someone’s closet, Inatomi said.
“The economy of California is what it is because of the contributions of these farmers and their families,” he noted. “It’s amazing what they helped create. California and its San Joaquin Valley have been feeding the world.”
Inatomi is in an Ag-related business as produce manager of Gelson’s Market in Orange County for 34 years. Aged 59, he said he has no plans to retire.
Shimasaki, a resident of West Los Angeles, also works in the industry, for Ready Pac Produce, a producer of bag salads, fruit trays, dressings and convenience foods.
The pair urged people including youngsters to search through family photos to find pictures that would be of interest.
“It would be awesome if more people could look through their old photos and send them to us,” Inatomi said. “They should provide us with a description of the photo and the identities of those in it.”
Like many Japanese Americans in the early part of the last century, Inatomi’s grandparents and parents were farmers, tilling fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Their lives were shattered in the early part of World War II when the government declared them potential enemy aliens for no other reason than ancestry. Approximately 115,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast were herded into a dozen guarded, barbed-wire-enclosed concentration camps, many located in remote desert areas of the Southwest.
They lost farms, livelihoods, possessions and citizenship.
“My whole family, my grandparents and parents, were sent to the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona,” Inatomi said. “It was so painful for them that I remember as a boy they rarely talked about the experience of the camps. That was pretty typical. I only learned about it through bits and pieces, and from other people.”
Inatomi’s father Richard and his wife Helen didn’t own the land they worked in the dusty Depression-era towns of Dinuba and Reedley in the San Joaquin Valley. Some of the photos submitted to the Facebook page include pre-World War II scenes of farming in such towns.
Inatomi said he would like to see farming photos from all over the country.
“Two places of interest for example would be Japanese American farmers in Oklahoma City and in Brighton, Colorado, where a group of Japanese American farmers lived,” he said.
In a grotesque example of paranoid illogic, the U.S. government told some Japanese Americans they could avoid imprisonment in camps if they would abandon property and possessions and flee into the interior of the country.
“A lot of these farmers ended up in places like Brighton,” Inatomi said.
Inatomi said after the war his family had to start all over again.
“They lived in Chicago for a time and then moved to Los Angeles,” he explained. “My dad became a landscaper and gardener, and my mom opened a beauty shop and then a restaurant.”
Located in Gardena (Southern California), the restaurant, no longer in business, was called “Rickye” (named after Inatomi’s sister). It was a sushi bar serving Japanese food and had live entertainment.
Shimasaki’s family were also imprisoned, his grandparents on his mother’s side at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California on the Eastern side of the Sierra Mountains, and on his father’s side at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
Shimasaki said part of the reason Japanese Americans made such a profound contribution to the produce industry was that even after the war, because of prejudice, few other occupations were open to them.
“This hasn’t been touched on very much, but they didn’t really have too much in the way of opportunities like other people, so often Japanese Americans went into domestic work, farming or the produce industry,” he said.
Inatomi said the Facebook page to date has had a large number of “Likes,” votes of approval, posted on it.
“It’s reaching out to the past,” he said. “We want to see photos posted but also videos. I have some archival photos of my own and we hope to get young people interested in the site. We want them to ask questions and to learn.”
Inatomi urged people to go to their grandparents to ask them about their experiences and see if they have old photos. He said California State University at Sacramento and Washington State University are sending some early pictures of farmers, some dating from the period of the 1920’s.
One photo for the site was provided by A.G. Kawamura, California’s former secretary of agriculture from 2003 to 2010.
“I played the part of a farmer in a television commercial that was filmed on his (Kawamura’s) farm,” Inatomi said. “This was in Irvine in Orange County and it was for a Farmer Boys Restaurant, a Southern California restaurant chain. I got Kawamura interested in the Facebook project.”
Unlike Facebook personal sites, sending a photo to “Japanese Americans in the Produce & Floral Industry” does not require you to be a posted “friend” of the site. If you’re currently on Facebook, you can send photos to the page directly. If you don’t have Facebook, you can scan a photo, attach it and send it by email to janproduceindus[email protected]. Inatomi will take your photo and post it for you.
He said he and Shimasaki would like to eventually do a documentary about early Japanese American farming and have the film exhibited perhaps at Japanese American museums in Los Angeles and San Jose.
Shimasaki said he wants to get interviews with as many of the older generation of Japanese Americans as possible using Facebook and other means.
He said the Facebook project has been a highly successful venture.
“It’s been growing pretty rapidly, and it’s been a wonderful experience to get these contributions of photos and histories to the site,” Shimasaki said.
“I learn something new about the subject every day,” Inatomi added.