By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
MANHATTAN BEACH — A little-known part of South Bay history was recently spotlighted by the unveiling of a plaque at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.
Dedicated to “Camellia King” Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu, the plaque reads:
“Mira Costa sits on land previously owned by the Uyematsu family, whose patriarch arrived in California in 1904. Despite fierce anti-Asian sentiment and racist restrictions on land ownership and citizenship, 22-year-old F.M. Uyematsu successfully imported and bred Japanese camellias and cherry trees. Over 40 years, he expanded Star Nurseries to three locations, including 120 acres in Manhattan Beach, pioneered temperature-controlled greenhouses, and earned the nickname ‘Camellia King.’
“After Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. government prepared to forcibly remove and incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans, Uyematsu, with few available options, sold 300,000 of his prized camellias under duress. Interned at Manzanar, the family donated 1,000 cherry trees for a park there, which, Uyematsu cultivated throughout his years in camp.
“During detention, Uyematsu had to sell most of his Manhattan Beach land to sustain his business. In 1947, two years after the camps were closed, and with his business still below pre-war levels, Uyematsu sold this last 40 acres of his Manhattan Beach land to the Redondo Union High School District for $60,000.”
The Oct. 30 ceremony was attended by members of the Uyematsu family, students, and present and former school board members and faculty members.
Retired Mira Costa instructor Chuck Currier was instrumental in the creation of the $4,000 monument, which was unanimously approved by the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education last March.
Among those present at the unveiling were Mira Costa Principal Karina Gerger, Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern, City Councilmembers Suzanne Hadley and Joseph Franklin, Board of Education members Jen Fenton, Jennifer Cochran and Sally Peel, Superintendent Dr. John Bowes, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard, and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Irene Gonzalez-Castillo.
Currier introduced descendants of Uyematsu, including granddaughter Mary Uyematsu Kao and her husband John, and great-grandchildren Michele Hicks, Mia Suh and Valerie Kao. Daughter Marian Uyematsu Naito and granddaughter Amy Uyematsu were unable to attend.
When the memorial was in the planning stages, Currier recalled, there was a Zoom call with three generations of the family — one daughter, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“Present here today are not only people whose grandparents were in the camps, but their parents were in the camps,” he added. “And there were even a few people here today that they themselves were in the camps as children. To go even further, a Fox news reporter (Sandra Endo) showed up to do an interview here back in June, and her grandparents were in camp.”
He also thanked Murakawa-Leopard, former principal Ben Dale, and Mira Costa graduate Dennis Keen for their invaluable work on the project.
“The Uyematsu property was much larger than just the campus here at Mira Costa,” Currier emphasized. “It was 120 acres that they owned here in Manhattan Beach … To give you an idea of what 120 acres is, I’ll just say this. From the Mira Costa property all the way up to 2nd Street, that would be 80 acres … There’s probably somebody here this morning that lives in Liberty Village, [which is] 80 acres. They owned something the size of not only Liberty Village, which is 400 homes, but they also owned all of Pollywog Park. That would be 120 acres.”
A Success Story
Currier gave a summary of the life of F.M. Uyematsu, who came south after arriving in San Francisco and living in Salinas. “The 1910 U.S. Census indicated he was living in Los Angeles, and his job description was ‘proprietor, nursery.’ He had formed a nursery business with a partner … His interest was in the import and breeding of Japanese camellias and cherry trees.” Uyematsu was making “upwards of a hundred dollars per day, selling flowers off of a street car in the wealthy neighborhoods around Los Angeles. This would have been where the average worker was barely making a hundred dollars in a month …
“California had already earned a reputation as the epicenter of anti-Asian sentiment, having pushed the federal government to stop all Chinese immigration after 1882 … The same groups that had successfully banished the Chinese had reformed as the Asiatic Exclusion League. The vast majority of the affiliated entities were labor unions … The Japanese were characterized as unassimilable, deceitful, loyal to the Japanese emperor, racially inferior and unwilling to accept the responsibility of citizenship. The San Francisco School Board moved to segregate Japanese students from white students in 1906, even though there were all of 93 Japanese students in a district of 29,000.
“This effort preceded President (Theodore) Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement of 1908, when restricted Japanese immigration began. By 1924, Japanese immigration was ended completely and remained that way for the next 40 years until the Immigration Act of 1965. The Japanese had replaced the Chinese as the major source of farm labor, but had quickly moved on to purchase or lease farms of their own. While never more than a single-digit percentage of acreage of farms in California, Japanese dominated what was known as truck farming, the fresh fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores. At one point, Japanese farmers produced 75 percent of all the strawberries in California …
“California began trying to restrict Japanese ownership of agricultural land in 1910, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the first Alien Land Law was passed, which prevented aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning agricultural land or leases beyond three years. The law targeted Japanese farmers … The law was approved overwhelmingly by state lawmakers and tightened further in 1920 by statewide voter initiative … . The Alien Land Law was made even more stringent in 1923 and upheld by the California Supreme Court …
“The mid-1920s through the 1930s were a relatively quiet time where land law enforcement seemed a low priority … That period ended abruptly with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Enforcement and forfeiture known as escheat actions against Japanese farm owners accelerated with the state offering monetary incentives to municipalities that found violations …
“In the face of anti-Japanese sentiment, racist land and immigration laws, and exclusionary citizenship, Uyematsu managed to acquire five acres in Montebello in 1910 and started his own Star Nurseries in the 1920s. He added 10 acres in Sierra Madre and 120 acres in Manhattan Beach in 1940. Japanese immigrants sometimes acquired land in the names of their children, who were U.S. citizens by birth, or through guardianships … or the assistance of Caucasian partners.
“The Depression years had actually been very good for Uyematsu’s business as he had imported many new breeds of camellias as well as cherry trees from Japan, just before a foreign plant embargo around 1915. He was a pioneer in new methods of breeding and cultivating flowers using temperature-controlled greenhouses, and had established himself as the Camellia King. He served on many boards and organizations throughout his career. including Southern California Japanese Chamber of Commerce … Southern California Flower Market Company, All Japan Agricultural Society’s Southern California Chapter, and Southern California Shizuoka Club.
“In 1937. he was approached by an oil company about the possibility of drilling on his Montebello nursery propert … He was contacted by some real estate agents about a property in Manhattan Beach. The oil tests never panned out, but Uyematsu was so completely taken with the 120-acre parcel in Manhattan Beach and his business had done so well that he purchased the entire property in 1940. He loved the property so much that … the property bore the handwritten title ‘Manhattan Beach Estate’ … Certainly more than just a place to grow flowers.
“F.M. Uyematsu was 60 years old at that time. He had improved the Manhattan Beach property with greenhouses, roads and a water system. Hundreds of cherry trees lined the roads and camellias were also cultivated on the property. No one could have foreseen how their lives would be changed later that same year. Even before Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. tragedy had struck the Uyematsu family. One of their sons, 16-year-old Star, died as a result of a head injury from a school playground accident. That was Oct. 2, 1941.
“Then came Pearl Harbor … and the hysteria and racism that followed, leading to (President Franklin) Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, and the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans … They were given a relatively short period of time to decide what to do with their homes, businesses, and belongings as many bank accounts were frozen …
“Uyematsu was visited on Feb. 22 by Manchester Boddy, publisher of The Los Angeles Daily News, and Charles Jones, president of Richfield Oil Company, both amateur collectors, who wished to buy camellias for their wooded estates near Los Angeles. About 300,000 plants were involved in the deal. Manchester Boddy’s property was in La Cañada and known as Rancho Del Descanso, later to become Descanso Gardens with one of the most prominent collections of camellias to be found anywhere.
“Uyematsu, under duress, sold his prized camellias to Boddy that day. Many were unique breeds he had imported and cultivated himself. Uyematsu left the management of Star Nurseries to his accountant while he and his family were taken to Pomona Assembly Center … to await transfer to one of the 10 hastily constructed war relocation centers. The Uyematsu family spent three to four months at Pomona before being taken by car to between Lone Pine and Independence in the Owens Valley … They were originally scheduled for relocation to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, but the family managed placement at Manzanar, the closest camp to Los Angeles, and donated 1,000 cherry trees for a park there.
“It was August 1942 and the Uyematsus were now family number 22772. They lived in barracks, Block 6, Building 10, Apartment 2. Their space was approximately 20 feet by 24 feet for six family members. Latrines and showers were communal and meals were served in mess halls. Approximately 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Manzanar. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens.
“Although there are many stories of how the majority of Japanese Americans lost literally everything in a short period of time through forced sales of personal and business property at pennies on the dollar or outright vandalism, Uyematsu was able to hang on to his business and some properties at a substantial cost. In his biography, Uyematsu stated that although he was able to have his accountant run the business in his absence, the manager looked upon Uyematsu as an enemy alien. Soon, the very profitable business began to run significant losses.
“Once at Manzanar, many of the internees immediately set to work, improving a desolate, windblown landscape into something more pleasing to the eye. Uyematsu received permission to return to Los Angeles and using his own trucks, brought upwards of a thousand cherry trees and some 80 wisteria to Manzanar and created what became known as Japanese Cherry Park. The park occupied three to five acres and was immediately adjacent to Children’s Village, an orphanage within Manzanar.
“The park, designed by landscape architect William Katsuki, had beautiful ponds and water features. Uyematsu’s daughter Marian recalled that her father spent most days during the three years in detention working on the park and caring for the plants and trees as time went by at Manzanar and Star Nursery’s losses mounted. Uyematsu was forced to sell parcels of the Manhattan Beach property to raise needed funds to maintain his business …
“In June of 1945, three months.after Uyematsu family was released from Manzanar, a second 20 acres at the corner of Peck and 2nd Street was also sold. All that remained of Uyematsu’s beloved 120-acre estate was 40 acres near the intersection of Peck Avenue and Artesia Boulevard …
“Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo Beach grew rapidly during the post-war boom and the trustees of the Redondo Union High School District set out to find a parcel of land suitable for building a second high school in the northern end of the district … Less than two years after the camps were closed and with his business still below pre-war levels, Uyematsu sold the last piece of his Manhattan Beach property to Redondo Union High School District for $60,000 … The school board resolution was dated Feb. 18, 1947 …
“Uyematsu was now 66 years old. He had lost his son just months before Pearl Harbor and then lost his oldest daughter, Alice, age 23, to tuberculosis that she had acquired while at Manzanar. She passed in the spring of 1947. The wonderful family picture taken on the Manhattan Beach estate (in 1941) must have seemed like a dream.
“In the 43 years since immigrating to the United States, Uyematsu had literally succeeded against all odds. He was denied a path to citizenship. He had witnessed Japanese immigration choked off completely. He had seen racist land laws with no other purpose than to throttle the Japanese passed and tightened repeatedly. He had heard a U.S. senator from California whose campaign motto was ‘Keep California White.’ He had been unjustly incarcerated for almost three years … He had heard a California governor (Earl Warren), a man who would go on to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, say he didn’t want any of the Japanese to return to California once the camps were closed …
“The family members would continue to run the business, but F.M. Uyematsu would retire by 1950. He continued to donate plants to public spaces and foster relationships between the U.S. and Japanese governments. He would live a long life, but not long enough to hear President Ronald Reagan apologize in 1988 for the incarceration and state it was caused by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. The business would operate until 1988. continually pushed further east as communities developed … The final location was Ontario.”
“A Special Privilege”
Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) said, “This is such a special privilege for me … You will hear a lot of Japanese Americans talk about generations the Issei, the Nisei, the Sansei. I’m a Sansei, third-generation Japanese American, and I have the privilege of representing Manhattan Beach and the South Bay in the California Legislature. But I know that I would not have this privilege but for the sacrifices of the Issei, people like Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu.
“When I was doing my research last night about the history of the Uyematsu family, I saw that he had immigrated to the United States in 1904. My grandfather, Genjiro Muratsuchi, immigrated to the state of Idaho in 1907. Like many of the Issei, the first-generation Japanese Americans, he was also a farmer. When I learned more about the struggles … all the obstacles that F.M. Uyematsu had to overcome to succeed and to make a difference in the lives of so many, it really moved me.
“So it is so wonderful to see the Manhattan Beach Unified School District … voting to support this memorial that’s going to be unveiled today … This is going to be part of the living history of this community. Every day, the students are going to be walking by this memorial and be reminded of the history of those who came before them on this land.”
Before presenting a commendation to Mary Uyematsu Kao, Muratsuchi described her as “a legendary activist in the Asian American community. She worked for 30 years at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. I am a product of the Asian American studies movement, of the ethics studies movement. So I feel a connection, not only to the history of Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu, but I feel like there’s a connection through you, Mary, and to me, because this is a not only a monument to teach the history of the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in hopes that this will never occur again to any other community, but this is also a monument to the power of education to change lives.”
School board members Fenton and Cochran thanked Currier and Dale for proposing the Mira Costa History Project to the board in 2017 and for working on it ever since.
“We now have a written history of Mira Costa High School,” said Cochran. “We made this very important connection with the Uyematsu family, and now understand the history of the land where we’re standing. MBUSD is a teaching and learning organization. We recognize how much we have to learn from what happened in the past …
“While those of us standing here today will be able to pass this history down orally, we won’t always be here to do that. So it’s our hope that by dedicating this plaque, by teaching this history in our classrooms, and from all of Chuck Currier’s written and recorded history, the future generations of Mira Costa students and our entire community will learn from this history.”
Dale recalled reading through all of Mira Costa’s yearbooks for a summer project. “One of the early yearbooks, there was a dedication to the Uyematsu family … thanking them for being able to put the school here. That started our journey and I’ve admired Chuck and tried to support him as best I could in that endeavor. But he definitely was the driving force behind this … bringing people together to have a conversation about our history, the good and the bad.”
Dale — who has moved to New Mexico but still owns his home on former Uyematsu land — also thanked the school district for not trying to “sugar-coat” that history. “That’s what Mira Costa High School stands for, that you can have those conversations and we can grow together.”
In her remarks on behalf of the Uyematsu family, Kao shared personal reflections as well as the broader historical context of the story.
“Today we stand on the land that once belonged to my grandfather. He had a brief ownership, but one that left an indelible mark in our family history. My father, first son of F.M. Uyematsu, used to take our family on Sunday drives down Pacific Coast Highway. Every time we neared Manhattan Beach, my mother would say, ‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ forcing my father to turn the car around.
“I’ve lived most of my life in Southern California, but the first time I actually visited Manhattan Beach as an adult was earlier this year for the Fox News story about Mira Costa High honoring my grandfather’s story. His story gives us a window into a history of land theft that continues today, as we witness an unprecedented multitude of people that have been uprooted from their homes. Our homeless people are a constant reminder that there is something very wrong going on in this country, the most powerful nation in the world.
“I want to acknowledge the long history of stolen lands that have been committed or supported by various U.S. government entities. The original caretakers of the Los Angeles basin long before white Europeans ‘discovered’ America are the indigenous Gabrielino-Tongva peoples. This same land was taken as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when the U.S. government defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War. All of California, Nevada, Utah, and significant parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Texas became U.S. territory for a mere $15 million. And those that we ironically call Mexican immigrants said it best at one of the biggest May Day demonstrations in recent history in LA. when a banner read: ‘We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.’
“In 1938, about 10 years after the Bruces and other African American families were forced off their land through the use of eminent domain, my grandfather bought 120 acres that was lovingly called the Uyematsu Family Manhattan Beach Estate. My grandfather had found the most suitable climate here to grow his beloved cherry trees. For those of you who have seen the breathtaking scenes in Japan when thousands of cherry trees bloom, it was Grandpa’s dream to recreate scenes like that here in Southern California. He defied what people in Japan told him — that he would never be able to grow cherry trees in the Southern California climate. It was cherry trees that were growing here on his Manhattan Beach estate that were moved to the Manzanar concentration camp to create Manzanar’s Cherry Park.
“From 1953 to 1956, F.M. donated 60 cherry trees, 18 different varieties, some as old as 20 years, to the City of Los Angeles. They were planted at Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park. At that time he wrote these words: ‘It was like the happy father of the bride that I donated and transplanted my cherry trees to Los Angeles. Among the trees I gave were ones I had prized highly through the years … With a prayer that the cherry trees I donated will grow ever luxuriantly through the years to come … displaying the beauty which makes their blossoms queen of flowers in Japan, standing as a memorial to the Issei long after they are gone from this world and fulfilling their responsibility of beautifying this city, I lay down my pen.’
“Sadly, L.A. City Parks did not have the expertise to keep these trees alive. After a few bountiful years, they shriveled up and died.
“Not long after Japanese Americans returned from the concentration camps of World War II, and as the African American struggles for civil and human rights rocked the nation, Japanese Americans were held up as the ‘model minority.’ It was a statement to militant Black activists to be more like the Japanese — just work hard and be quiet, and you can be successful like the Japanese. Hardly!
“I bring this up because in today’s racial climate, and with the return of Bruce’s Beach to its rightful owners, there will likely be those who point to this monument in an attempt to negotiate down what gets returned to the Bruce descendants.
“At best, please allow this monument to my grandfather be a reminder of the many land grabs and outright thievery that have been committed on all people of color in the name of the U.S. government. We need to work together and not allow ourselves to be pitted against each other in the many fights for restitutions, reparations, and retributions at hand.
“In closing, the Uyematsu family is very thankful to Mr. Chuck Currier for his many years of work and dedication to this project, including students Maya Hernandez and Mia Murakami Cho, and Lindsey Fox for her video on this story; to Professor Wendy Cheng, who researched F.M.’s camellias that grace Descanso Gardens today.
“I wish to thank my aunt Mare, the last surviving child of F.M., my sister Amy, who started researching Grandpa long before I did, and to George Floyd and the countless victims of police murder that ignited the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It is these massive movements that open the way for changes in our country where racism and economic injustice is deeply embedded in its bedrock.
“Thank you Mira Costa High School and the Manhattan Beach School Board for funding this monument and to all the future students who will learn from these bits of American history that never find their way into school textbooks.”
Mira Costa High School is located at 1401 Artesia Blvd. between Peck Avenue and Meadows Avenue.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo