Issei founder and leader of maintenance gardening organizations in Southern California, accomplished writer. An introspective figure, Shoji Nagumo (1890-1976) organized Issei and Nisei gardeners in the face of both prewar and postwar discrimination. During World War II, he and his family were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where he arranged for the planting of trees and a victory garden. Well educated in Japan, he helped to launch a trade publication and produce a collection of essays.
Born in the mountainous Niigata region in Japan, Nagumo graduated from Tokyo Koto Shihan Gakko, a highly regarded Japanese teaching college, in 1917. Inspired by democratic ideals, this Christian convert decided to come to the U.S. on a study abroad program while his wife Umeo remained in Tokyo to teach grade school. Arriving in San Francisco in 1918, he worked as a migrant farm worker in various Japanese American communities through California's San Joaquin Valley.
Believing that land ownership was the key to self-sufficiency, Nagumo contemplated moving to Mexico to escape anti-Asian alien land laws in the U.S. Illness caused him to change his plans and after Umeo joined him in Los Angeles, he embarked on a venture to produce Japanese-language teaching materials. Again, unforeseen circumstances forced him to seek other employment to support his growing family. This time, it would be maintenance gardening, a trade embraced by a significant number of Issei men in West Coast cities.
Nagumo moved his family to Hollywood, where he started gardening at five dollars a day. After some time, he found gardening work with a small building developer. In spring of 1933, Nagumo saw the need for regional associations for Issei and Nisei gardeners, who, by his estimate, numbered 7,000 to 8,000 in the Southland. Campaigns to limit Japanese American gardeners had started in wealthy neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills. To combat such restrictions, Nagumo helped establish regional gardening associations, which led to the formation of the League of Southern California Japanese Gardeners Association in 1937.
The League grew to 900 members by 1940. Using his publishing expertise, Nagumo launched the Gadena no Tomo (The Gardener's Monthly), a source of diverse Issei points of view, which sometimes went beyond the gardening trade. The last issue of the prewar magazine was dated December 1941.
Heart Mountain Victory Garden
While Nagumo was not arrested by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the membership list and minutes of the League were confiscated by authorities. Nagumo and his family were sent to Pomona Assembly Center and then later moved to Heart Mountain, where Nagumo served as block manager, council leader, and organizer of the camp's Victory Garden. He also made arrangements for fast-growing poplar trees, which could be irrigated with the waters of the Shoshone River, to be planted around the camp.
"When I thought about children being raised in the desert without grass or trees, I was sure they would become human beings who would not feel joy or pleasure in anything. They might even grow up not understanding the beauty of nature," Nagumo wrote.
Southern California Gardeners' Federation
After the war, Nagumo and his family returned to Hollywood. Facing an anti-Japanese postwar climate, an increasing number of Japanese American males—22% of Issei and 17% of Nisei men in Los Angeles—entered the gardening trade. Attempts to unionize the Japanese American gardeners and a proposed state licensing proposal were perceived as tools to limit the success of non-English-speaking gardeners. As a result, Nagumo and younger gardeners organized themselves again and successfully defeated movements for both unionization and licensing. In 1956, the Southern California Gardeners' Federation was formally incorporated. At its height, 4,000 households were members of the trade organization, which, in addition to becoming a political force, also offered tangible services such as occupational training, medical insurance, and social activities.
While caring for his wife, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1956, Nagumo served as an advisor for the organization and submitted regular articles to the Federation's publication, which was renamed Turf and Garden in 1958. In 1960, the Federation published his collection of essays on gardening and observations of life, Gadena Goroku: A Gardener's Essays. (It was republished in 1970.)
He received a Japanese medal, Fifth Order of the Sacred Treasure, from the Japanese government in October 1970, a day after his wife Umeo passed away. Nagumo, who wrote about the health benefits of cultivating a garden, continued to garden until his early eighties. He passed away on February 22, 1976, at the age of 85.
For More Information
Hirahara, Naomi ed. Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California. Los Angeles: Southern California Gardeners' Federation, 2000.
Nagumo, Shoji. A Japanese Pioneer in America: An Autobiography of Shoji Nagumo. Edited by Reiko Nagumo. Translated by Misue Sautter. Unpublished, 1982.
Tsuchida, Nobuya. "Japanese Gardeners in Southern California, 1900-1941." In Labor Immigration Under Capitalism. Edited by Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich, 435-69. Berkeley: University of Californa Press, 1984.
Tsukashima, Ronald Tadao. "Cultural Endowment, Disadvantaged Status and Economic Niche: The Development of an Ethnic Trade." International Migration Review 25:2 (summer 1991): 374-399.
- Naomi Hirahara, ed., Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California (Los Angeles: Southern California Gardeners' Federation, 2000), 77.
- Hirahara, Green Makers, 55.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 11.