Though agriculture on Vashon Island began several thousand years ago with the S’Homamish people, Japanese American agriculture on Vashon began with migrant workers around 1900, when the first Japanese appeared on the Vashon census. Over the first several decades of the 20th century Japanese American farmers created a close-knit and thriving community on the Island, despite barriers to citizenship and land ownership, as well as wartime mass incarceration.
Many of these first-wave migrants were young, single itinerant men who were students—the first population that the Japanese government permitted to emigrate. Early migrants faced several waves of anti-Japanese sentiment in the region as well as the nation, even before World War II. Laws at the federal and state levels prevented them from owning land and eventually even their American-born children eventually. The passage of the 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement” restricted immigration from Japan. However, a few families purchased land in their children’s names before this law took effect, and some had earned enough eventually to rent or lease land of their own. After the “Gentleman’s Agreement” passed, a different kind of migrant entered the United States—those who came from landed families, determined to make their new home in the United States, eager to adapt the small-scale farming practices they had learned from their own farms in Japan.
Though there was apparently some local Island resistance to Japanese workers and farmers, the Japanese Americans on Vashon formed a close-knit community and for the most part lived integrated lives with the greater Island community. They organized growers’ associations with other farmers. They held dances, funerals, and annual picnics at the centrally located Island Club, and created political organizations such as the Vashon Progressive Citizens League. Those who were Christian attended the Methodist church. They went to the same elementary and high schools as other children on the Island. Several farmers arranged for a Saturday Japanese language school on the Island, bringing a teacher from Seattle. Two Japanese farmers donated cherry trees and evergreens to the Vashon Union High School. They participated in the Island’s annual Strawberry Festivals which began in 1909, and some probably even traveled to the Alaska Yukon-Pacific Exposition for its ‘Vashon Day” that same year.
Crops and Cultivation
Japanese American farmers grew and raised a variety of fruit and livestock, but favored strawberries and poultry especially. Strawberries were first grown commercially on the Island in 1890. As a result of efforts by early Native Americans, European settlers, and the logging industry, a great deal of the island landscape was open to the sunlight. The middle of the Island was cleared so extensively that by the 1930s you could see “clear across the Island,” as farmer Bill Mann remembered: “[It was] one big berry and chicken farm.” Vashon Japanese farmers often sold their produce (berries, eggs, flowers or seedlings).
Farm work involved everyone in the family, including young children. Farm life in the early part of the century was difficult, with only a few homes operating with electricity and indoor plumbing. Many farm operations on the small farms were performed by hand, including the seeding, thinning, weeding, and watering.
By the late 1930s, the Japanese community on Vashon had grown to 140 people on the 1940 census, more than 5% of the overall Island population. Twelve Japanese families owned farms. The larger-scale farms employed seasonal Filipino or First Nations workers at harvest time.
Though strawberries are not a plant native to Japan, Japanese American farmers on Vashon and elsewhere on the West Coast were drawn to this crop for several reasons. Strawberries are highly profitable; they produce a high yield of product per area. And though they are fragile, the recent invention of refrigerated rail cars around this time also permitted a greater amount to be barreled for transport. Vashon Island’s glacial soil characteristics meant that crops such as hay or corn were more difficult to grow, but crops requiring good drainage (such as berries) were easier.
During strawberry harvest, early morning harvests would go to wooden flats and shipped onto ferries to markets such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which opened in 1912. Harvests later in the day would go to the “canners,” or the berries used for preserves or freezing. Because strawberry plants take several years to reach their full growing potential, some families rotated their crops through different parts of their land or diversified by growing other fruits such as loganberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, or cherries.
In December 1941, news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor stunned Japanese Americans on the Island, and their subsequent eviction in May 1942 was a difficult time for many. Members of the administration for the Vashon high school and newspaper both expressed their support publicly for Japanese American families. Many Japanese American families struggled to arrange for their belongings and property in a matter of days, each family member carrying a suitcase or two in order to walk to the Island Club in Vashon town where they had held community gatherings. A few families arranged caretakers for their property. They left by jeeps which took them to a special ferry, taking them to Seattle, where they boarded trains headed for the Pinedale Assembly Center and then Tule Lake in northern California (and eventually other “camps” in Wyoming and Utah). Unfortunately, not all farms were responsibly managed and unable to keep up with taxes, land management, and harvest during the war.
Postwar and Contemporary
After the war, approximately one-third of the 140 Japanese returned. The local paper had changed ownership and with it, came a new wave of anti-Japanese rhetoric; moreover, three homes formerly owned by Japanese (where families stored their belongings) were burned down by several local teenagers in an act of arson. (Notable exceptions included the Matsuda, Mukai, Otsuka, and Takatsuka families.) Nevertheless, the families who did return were mostly successful in rebuilding their farms and their lives; a small group of descendants of the prewar Japanese American community still live on the Island. From the 1980s to the present, a new wave of Japanese Americans with historic roots outside of Vashon has settled on the Island and developed their own farms.