A massive earthquake struck the city of San Francisco in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906. But worse than the damage caused by the earthquake itself were the fires which raged through the city for three days afterward. Ships coming into the harbor were turned away because there was no place for arrivals to go, and that is how Denjiro Nishitani, immigrant from Japan, came to Seattle instead of San Francisco as he had intended.
Knowing no one in Seattle, Denjiro found his first job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. From there he made his way to northeast Seattle and worked as a farmhand. Through his determined efforts to advance himself, within five years of his arrival in Seattle Denjiro became the owner of a plant nursery called Oriental Gardens in what is now the Meadowbrook neighborhood.
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Japanese recruited to work in Hawaii
In the 1880s Americans were already developing sugar cane plantations in Hawaii. Like native American Indians, native Hawaiians had been decimated by diseases such as measles, and the population fell to the point that there was a labor shortage. Japan had the opposite problem in the 1880s: there was overpopulation and not enough jobs.
In 1884 an American recruiter obtained permission from the government of Japan to offer jobs to those willing to go and work in the labor-intensive sugar cane plantations of Hawaii. The recruiter concentrated on the southern island of Japan which was the most agrarian and where the people had a reputation for being serious and hard-working.
The USA took control of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898 and this opened the floodgates of immigration to the mainland by Japanese already working in Hawaii. It also set off a wave of immigration from Japan to the USA, so that up until 1910 about half of Japanese immigrants to the USA came from Hawaii to the mainland, and half came directly from Japan.
Japanese begin immigrating to the US mainland
The history of the USA is that of waves of immigrants, but unfortunately there is a history of “backlash” as well. Each successive group of immigrants will work at low-paying niche occupations while it is the perception of some that the immigrants are “taking jobs away” from Americans. In the 1880s the backlash response to Chinese workers was an 1882 law which prohibited further immigration.
From 1900 to 1910 Japanese immigrants primarily settled in the western states of Washington, Oregon and California and many went into agriculture. By the 1930s the Japanese operated almost all the flower and produce markets in California. By 1913 California had passed a law restricting land leases to Japanese to three-year periods. In 1920-1921 both California and Washington passed Alien Land Laws prohibiting ownership of land by Japanese. In 1924 the federal Immigration Act terminated all Japanese immigration.
In Seattle as in other areas the Japanese helped one another by forming economic support groups. A produce stand, for example, might be operated by a Japanese family and all of their products would come from Japanese farmers. The Japanese became expert at “truck farming” which is to plant fruit and vegetables that only take a short time to grow, can have several crops per year and have crops planted in rotation for successive ripening times. Greenhouses help crops such as tomatoes which need warmth, and in the 1920s there were quite a few Japanese small farm/greenhouse operations in north Seattle. The longest-running was Denjiro Nishitani’s Oriental Gardens on Lake City Way at the corner of NE 98th Street.
Immigration story: Denjiro Nishitani
Denjiro Nishitani came from that same southern island of Japan which was agricultural and where the people had a reputation for being hard-working. Denjiro had a farm background and a real knack for growing things. After arriving in Seattle in 1906, he worked for about two years on a farm in Pontiac, in what is now the Sand Point area.
Many young Japanese men were immigrating to the USA, but Denjiro was unusual in that he was 27 years old, married and the father of four children. Even more unusual was that, as the eldest son in his family, Denjiro could have stayed with his parents on the family farm which he was due to inherit. But Denjiro felt constricted by the limits of education and social status in his rural community in Japan. Since he was from a province which had had many people immigrate to Hawaii or to the US mainland, Denjiro likely knew of others who had succeeded in new lives in America.
Denjiro’s drive to improve himself and make a better life for his family caused him to leave his heritage behind. He hoped to prepare a place for his family and bring them to the USA.
Denjiro’s big break came in 1908 when he got a job as a groundskeeper on the Green Lake estate of J.D. Trenholme, a wealthy Seattle businessman. Denjiro enjoyed the favor of Mr. Trenholme, who well understood the immigrant experience and was particularly inclined to be accepting of Asians.
Canadian-born and from a farm background himself, at the age of 17 Trenholme had crossed over into North Dakota. He was able to raise his status with opportunities in North Dakota in banking and in studying law. He became a citizen of the United States, married and the father of four children. Yet he still wanted more for himself and his family so Trenholme came to Seattle following the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897.
There were several parallels to Denjiro Nishitani’s experience, because J.D. Trenholme had also left behind a wife and four children for a period of two years while he tried to establish himself in business in Seattle. His family settled permanently in Seattle in 1899 and Mr. Trenholme became successful in operations of steamship companies, fisheries and import-export. As a person familiar with international trade, Trenholme well knew the value of Seattle’s connections with the Orient, including Japan. Denjiro Nishitani could hardly have found a more hospitable place to work than the Trenholme estate, and this must have shielded Denjiro from at least some of the racism of the time period.
The Nishitani family establish Oriental Gardens
Denjiro was able to send for his wife Jin to join him in Seattle in 1909, and two more children were born to them while living on the Trenholme estate at Green Lake. With Mr. Trenholme’s encouragement, in 1912 Denjiro set out to establish his own plant nursery, including a cut flower business and landscaping services. Denjiro then sent for his eldest son, Hiromu, who was twelve years old and had been living in Japan with grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Hiromu entered Maple Leaf School where he was tutored intensively in English and was able to graduate from eighth grade by the time he was 15 years old. At school Hiromu acquired the nickname “Kelly” because of the kelly-green tie he wore. Later in life he legally changed his name to Kelly.
Kelly went on to Lincoln High School and also worked with his father in the landscaping business. As the eldest son, Kelly inherited the Oriental Gardens business and worked there the rest of his life.
The Nishitani family operated Oriental Gardens on a lease basis starting in 1912, and then, in 1920, they purchased the property in the name of George, their first son to be born in the USA (in 1912 on the Trenholme estate.) This was a way to get around the Alien Land Law which took effect in 1921; by 1923 more laws were passed to close the loophole of buying land in the name of an American-born child.
The Nishitanis seemed to stay just ahead of the closing of opportunities. They brought their three remaining children from Japan during the period 1917-1919, before all Japanese immigration was stopped by a federal anti-immigration law in 1924.
Four more children were born to the Nishitanis at Oriental Gardens, completing a family of five sons and five daughters. Their tenth child, Connie, was born August 13, 1921, exactly twenty-two years from the birth of the eldest, Kelly Nishitani.
Nishitani children attend the local school
Kelly married in 1920 and his two sons, James and Samuel, were contemporary with Kelly’s two youngest sisters, Martha and Connie. In 1919 the Nishitani’s third and fourth children, Yutaka age 15 and Misao age 13 arrived from Japan. They entered first grade at Maple Leaf School. Their American-born, English-speaking brother George, age 7, was in second grade in the same room of the Maple Leaf schoolhouse on NE 105th Street. George could speak some Japanese and he often had to help Yutaka and Misao understand what was going on.
In 1993 I interviewed Misao, fourth Nishitani child, about her experience of entering the USA. She had been born in Japan in 1906 and when she came to Seattle in late 1919 she had no memory of her mother, and she had never met her father.
Along with the shock of being transported to live with her parents and other siblings in the USA was Misao’s difficulty of entering school. Misao told me that the teachers of Maple Leaf School spent hours tutoring her and her brother Yutaka, just as they had done with the first and second Nishitani children, Kelly and Sadako. Like their older siblings, Misao and Yutaka were able to finish through eighth grade at Maple Leaf and go on to high school.
The Morningside Church in the neighborhood
A fond memory of Misao’s was her participation in the Morningside Sunday School Union, an outreach ministry of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle. The Morningside Sunday School met in a building used for the purpose, on the present site of houses 2548 and 2558 NE 92nd Street. Property records show that the site was purchased by First Presbyterian in 1917 for use as a branch location.
Morningside was the development name for that area close to NE 95th Street, and it was often used as the neighborhood name before the 1940s when “Wedgwood” came into use.
With limited English Misao Nishitani could still enjoy the participation with other children, including “singing school.” Several times per year the children learned songs and then travelled to First Presbyterian in downtown Seattle for performing and hearing other branch-church groups. Misao remembered being awed by the powerful preaching of Rev. Mark Matthews, and by the large attendance at the downtown church.
First Presbyterian sponsored outreach all over northeast Seattle and founded churches which still exist, including Lake City, Fremont/Wallingford and University Presbyterian churches.
In 1923 the Morningside Branch Sunday School moved to the corner of NE 95th Street, present site of Northeast Veterinary Hospital, 9505 35th Ave NE.
Morningside Branch Sunday School at NE 95th Street organized as an official Presbyterian church on February 16, 1947 with 31 charter members. It changed its name to Wedgwood Presbyterian on September 10, 1950 as the church prepared to move to its present site at 8008 35th Ave NE.
Japanese form a community association
By 1930 there were about fifty Japanese families scattered through the northeast Seattle area from the University District out to present-day Lake City. Because Green Lake was a local landmark and site of commercial districts, it was chosen as the name when the Green Lake Japanese Association was formed in the 1920s. The association’s meeting place was closer to what we would consider the Northgate area today, though that term did not exist at the time. A donated building was used as a community hall for meetings, social gatherings, Japanese language classes and youth group activities. Judo classes, basketball and softball were some of the activities for the young people.
Kelly Nishitani’s wife Pearl taught American cooking classes and she was an advisor to the Young People’s Club at the Green Lake Japanese Association. In 1933 the girls’ cooking class put on a banquet for the boys’ basketball team in celebration of winning the league championship. Sixth and seventh-born Nishitani children George and Tom were star players on the basketball team.
Oriental Gardens business benefits from visibility on highways
When Oriental Gardens was first established, their advertising sign faced east onto Ravenna Ave NE which was called the Old Bothell Highway or Erickson Road. NE 98th was a through-street and Oriental Gardens was at that intersection.
Not until later in the 1920s was the present Lake City Way put through, which was at first called Victory Way and then was called Bothell Way. With increased car traffic on this new road, the Nishitanis built a new retail outlet facing west onto Victory Way. Prior to that time they had mainly been wholesalers, supplying produce and cut flowers to stands operated by other Japanese in northeast Seattle.
Increased road traffic and the general prosperity of the 1920s benefited the Nishitanis and they were able to make a living at Oriental Gardens to support their large family including Kelly’s wife Pearl and their two sons.
The Nishitani family in the next generation
Tragically Denjiro Nishitani did not live to see his family grow up; little did he know when he arrived in Seattle in 1906 that he would have only twenty more years to fulfill his dreams. He had an operation in 1924 and was never well again after that. He died on June 6, 1926, at age 46.
The ten Nishitani children all distinguished themselves with lives of service, dedication to family and an emphasis on education, a legacy of Denjiro Nishitani’s hopes and dreams for a new life in America.
Like most other Japanese on the West Coast, in 1942 the Nishitani family were sent to an internment camp for the duration of World War Two, even the family members who were born in Seattle and were US citizens. They were able to leave Oriental Gardens in the hands of reliable operators and that is one of the reasons why the Nishitanis were able to retain their business and pick up their lives again after the war. Many other Japanese families in Seattle lost their businesses because they were leasing, or because they went elsewhere to live after the war.
In the postwar period Oriental Gardens’ location proved ideal. The business was well-situated along the busy arterial Lake City Way NE as car traffic continued to increase in the 1940s and 1950s. There was a postwar housing boom throughout northeast Seattle, including the Wedgwood and Meadowbrook neighborhoods, with people interested in buying yard and garden products for their new homes, so Oriental Gardens had continued success as a retail outlet.
Oriental Gardens closes in the 1970s
Kelly Nishitani died in 1969 and even though his sons had been helping run the business, economic conditions were changing. In the early 1970s Oriental Gardens closed.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time when many other local businesses also closed, such as McGillivray’s Variety & Gift Store, McVicar Hardware, and Bud Gagnon’s Wedgewood Pharmacy. There were many factors which led to these business closings, including retirement or death of the owners. Other factors were competition with big-box chain stores and the economic slump called The Boeing Bust which began in 1968 and deepened in the early 1970s.
In the case of the Nishitani family, all of the above were factors in closing the Oriental Gardens. Kelly’s two sons, who had been helping to run the Oriental Gardens, were transitioning into other careers.
In 1971 the Oriental Gardens property was sold to the Bode family who built a new building for their Weight Watchers program. Fortunately the Bode family loved the Japanese landscaping and the creek which flows through the site of the former Oriental Gardens, and they preserved the layout of the property with its plantings as much as possible. One of the trees still on-site today is a George Washington Elm tree dating from about 1932.
The (former) Weight Watchers building is nestled in a ravine next to the creek. Bridges connect the building with the landscaped parking area. Willow Creek flows under NE 98th Street and joins the main Thornton Creek at about NE 100th Street, off of Fischer Place behind the LaVilla Dairy building.
In the 1990s Willow Creek was officially named in honor of the large willow tree which had been planted on the grounds by the Nishitanis.
The Weight Watchers closed in 1999 and the building was acquired by Dexter + Chaney (Viewpoint Construction Software) for their office. They later built a separate building to the south on the site, for their company. In 2022 the building at creekside is undergoing interior remodeling to become Willow Creek Childcare.
On-line background info:
Alien Land Law of 1921: HistoryLink Essay #2124 by John Caldbick, 2018.
Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project: Essay: White Supremacy and the Alien Land Laws of Washington State.
Densho: history of the Japanese- American experience including World War Two. There are oral history interviews including one with Martha Nishitani.
Pacific Bonsai Museum: In the 1950s and 1960s Kelly Nishitani taught the art of bonsai. The Pacific Bonsai Museum has an exhibit in Kelly’s honor.
The Green Lake Japanese American Community: 1900-1942. 979.7772 G8238, Seattle Public Library. Green Lake was the name used by the group as a central point in north Seattle. The building where they met would be more like Northgate now, but that term did not exist at the time.
The Japanese Americans. Tony Zurlo, 2003. 973.04956 Z89J, Seattle Public Library.
The Presbytery of Seattle 1858-2005, by Robert L. Welsh, 2006. Book in the library of the University Presbyterian Church. Book gives background info about the outreach of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle and how they established branches in northeast Seattle.
In 1993 I interviewed Martha Nishitani and her older sister Misao Sakamoto about their experiences growing up at Oriental Gardens, their school days at Maple Leaf Elementary and relationships in the neighborhood.
Martha’s lifelong love of modern dance was inspired by the natural environment of the plant nursery grounds with its trees and creek. Martha was the last family member to live on the site. For the rest of her life, she returned each spring to see the blooming flowers and leafing out of the trees.
Martha Nishitani’s career as a modern dance teacher is described in HistoryLink Essay #10637 by Seattle historian Paula Becker.
Misao Nishitani, the fourth-born of the siblings, was the widow of James Sakamoto, a newspaper publisher and leader in the Japanese-American community.