Taking a look back at history its difficult for me to picture a time when commercial flight was nonexistent. I have not considered taking a ship when going overseas - have you? I don’t know of anyone in present day that thinks of taking a ship to Hawaii for a summer getaway. However, when many people were migrating to North America the only option was by sea, as the commercial aircraft was yet to be.
My great-grandfather left Japan with basically the clothes on his back and very little money in his pocket. He set sail on the Pacific aboard the Tosa Maru and landed in Seattle, Wash., during the early 20th century. It was during this time when large numbers of people were migrating to North America. This was the same period when over half of the total Italian migration took place, the German potato blight led to emigration, and the Irish famine and large increases in population encouraged many to immigrate to North America.
Regardless of their country of origin, people came in masses to this country seeking a higher quality of life, in pursuit of jobs, health, and potentially wealth. My great-grandfather was amongst those seeking every possible opportunity that this country had to offer.
Amidst the anti-Japanese sentiment in California, my great-grandfather, with some persuasion from an elementary school classmate, moved from Spokane to San Francisco. It was Independence Day 1910 when he arrived in San Francisco. His journey from Japan to Washington, then ultimately to San Francisco, wasn’t without a few bumps in the road: during a particularly wet winter he had lost all of his material possessions in a flood. Washed away were his clothing, money and documentation.
Bay City Flower nursery, my family's business, was started in 1910 - not in Half Moon Bay, but further south along the Peninsula in Redwood City. Believe it or not, the Bay Area was a very prominent agricultural region at that time. Decades before the region transformed into the Silicon Valley, the land in the South Bay and Peninsula primarily consisted of large fruit orchards, well known for its production of carrots, almonds, tomatoes, prunes, apricots, plums, walnuts, cherries, and pears. These farmers had access to an abundance of well water. Coupled with the area's proximity to the railroads, it allowed for rapid agricultural growth.
During this time in our country’s history, there was a significant anti-Japanese campaign launched against this immigrant population. In San Francisco in the early 1900s the Board of Education implemented an Asian segregation movement. Shortly after the segregation, America entered into a Gentlemen’s Agreement which stated that Japan would no longer issue passports for laborers to migrate to the United States.
Purchasing land in the early part of the 20th century wasn’t like it is today, where one could walk down to their neighborhood realtor and basically purchase land that same day. During this time there were many successful Japanese farmers and growers all throughout California, which increased tension toward the Japanese (and others of Asian descent). The success of the Japanese farmer caused such rapid hostility that it led to the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which banned the Japanese from purchasing land. The Alien Land Law was also applied towards those of Chinese, Indian, and Korean descent.
Although the law prohibited the purchase of land, it did permit leases of land in 3-year increments. In 1952, the California Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. My great-grandfather was lucky; he had purchased his land before the law was passed.
Meanwhile, during all of the turmoil, my great-grandfather got married and began to start a family. He and my great-grandmother raised 4 boys and 2 girls. Some were born in Japan during trips back, and others were born in California. The boys of the family were all recruited to work our family's nursery business: each son had a different area of responsibility, such as shipping and purchasing, maintenance, and sales - in addition to the many other responsibilities.
Prior to the move of the family business to Half Moon Bay, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. This attack is credited as the event that drew the America into WWII. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in two waves of 343 bombers that took off from six aircrafts on the Pacific. Four US Navy Battleships were sunk, while four others were damaged; three cruisers and three destroyers sunk, while 188 US aircraft were destroyed; last but not least, 1,282 were wounded and 2,404 lost their lives.
It was just over two months following the attack on Pearl Harbor when my great-grandfather was arrested and questioned extensively by the military prior to being sent to a detention camp in Bismarck, North Dakota, while the rest of his family was uprooted and sent to an internment camp in Idaho. The family was separated for three years before my great grandfather was released from the detention camp and reunited with his family in Idaho.
Although Japanese Americans were excluded from the military draft due to the declaration by President FDR as “Alien Enemies,” my grandfather wanted to show his patriotism, so enlisted in the United States Army. My grandfather served his time by completing a tour in Europe and was discharged as a SSG in the US Army.
The anti-Japanese sentiment was well felt throughout the country as quoted to Congress from a Major and a Lieutenant General in the Army: “I don't want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty...but we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
Despite these feelings from leaders of the military, the 442nd Infantry Regiment which was comprised of Japanese Americans, is the most decorated regiment in the United States Armed Forces history, including 21 medals of honor. Their motto was “Go for Broke.”
In early 1946, the family returned to California and resumed business at the flower nursery in Redwood City. During the war, a family friend had graciously watched over the business which allowed for my family to resume business upon their return.
In the early 1950s, the nursery was incorporated as Bay City Flower Company. The growth of the company and the favorable growing conditions along the coastside inspired the move to Half Moon Bay in 1960, where Bay City Flowery Company has been in operation ever since. Roughly a decade after the land was purchased in Half Moon Bay, President Gerald Ford proclaimed the internment was “wrong” and a “national mistake” which “shall never be repeated.”
President Ford’s proclamation was one of the many moves that spawned redress for Japanese Americans who were the interned. The government started to make redress payments in 1978. The last payment for the time spent in internment was made in 1999. In 2001, all ten of the detainee camps were declared as U.S. Historical Landmarks. This past January 30, 2011 was Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. The annual celebration was also the first to commemorate an Asian American.
I did not have the opportunity to meet my great-grandfather, as he passed away 11 months before I was born. I know for sure, though, that if I did have the chance to have a conversation with him, it would be one I would never forget.
My grandfather is approaching 90 years of age and once a week he and my grandmother make the drive from their home in Santa Clara to Half Moon Bay, not only to poke their heads into the nursery, but also to stop by and spend time with my two little boys - their great-grandchildren, who are the first of the 5th- generation of Higakis in California.