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A city enveloped in Blossoms and Thorns

on October 22, 2010

It was standing room only on Saturday at the Richmond Art Center for a presentation of the short film The Chessmen and a discussion led by historian Donna Graves about life in the nurseries during and after World War II.

The exhibit and event series, titled Blossoms & Thorns, covers the history of the Japanese greenhouses in Richmond, a once-thriving part of the local economy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, sending approximately 110,000 Japanese into internment camps and stripping many of their property and possessions. A few fortunate greenhouse owners found friends and neighbors to take care of their property while they were in the camps.

“It was a very scary and unsettling time where people didn’t know what was going to happen and their rights were being steadily eroded,” said Graves.

Over the years, through financial troubles, disuse, and vandalism, the nurseries that remained in the hands of the Japanese after they returned from internment have fallen into disrepair. Of the structures that remain, all but a few remnants will soon be demolished. The exhibition captures the look and feel of these historic sites in their last days.

Graves started the programming by introducing filmmaker and East Bay native Kenneth Kokka. Currently a visual effects producer, Kokka made the short film while a student at UCLA studying for a masters in film. He adapted the film The Chessmen from the short story of the same name by Bay Area native Toshio Mori. In it, a greenhouse owner and his head grower struggle to keep their carnation nursery alive in the resettlement period after the Japanese internment.

“I wanted to examine the sense of why some people managed and some people didn’t,” Kokka said. “Because I felt like that’s part of the resettlement story that wasn’t often told.”

Graves, Kokka, and others, are currently working on a documentary about Japanese American life during World War II that will screen at the Rosie the Riveter National Home Front Visitor’s Center when it opens next summer.

Following the film, Graves introduced Flora Ninomiya, who grew up at the North Richmond nursery founded by her grandfather in the 1920s. Ninomiya was a young child when her family was sent to an internment camp in Colorado.

Ninomiya explained that when her parents realized they were going to be forced to leave Richmond, her father reached out to their Swiss neighbor who was also in the floral business. The neighbor, Francis Aebi, agreed to take care of the Ninomiya property while the family was gone. Aebi paid their property taxes, took care of the business, and even visited the family where they were interned in Colorado.

“He took care of the place as if it were his own, and when we came back from Colorado he met us at the train station, he brought us home, and we had our home to come back to,” Ninomiya said.

Graves then introduced James Oshima, whose grandfather purchased a chicken farm on Wall Ave., and then with the help of another resident bought a carnation nursery across the street from it. Oshima explained how his grandparents and the many Japanese- American workers in the Richmond nurseries operated their businesses.

James Oshima (center) says, “some of my heroes in the nursery business are the women in the nursery business.”

Many of the nurseries were built long before the freeway came through, and in the 1910s the Japanese, Chinese, and Italian immigrants banded together to create the San Francisco flower market. Making the trek to the market, though, was no easy task.

San Pablo Avenue, now a main thoroughfare, was at that time just a dirt road. Oshima explained that there was a Key train system that ran all the way into Oakland and Emeryville where workers would catch a car -ferry to get to San Francisco. (The Bay Bridge was not completed until 1936).

“So my grandparents would take cut flowers in wicker baskets under their arms, jump on the Key train, go out to the ferry building in Oakland, take the ferry across to the ferry building, and take the trolley in San Francisco to the flower market; and this would be done probably at 4:30 each morning,” Oshima said.

“It’s a story that has so many powerful layers," said historian Donna Graves at Saturday's event at the Richmond Art Center.

Despite the time it took to get flowers from the nurseries to the market, the flower market provided the growers retail opportunities and business support.  The flower market board decided that it was time to hand the presidency to a Japanese American, so in 1940 Sam Sakai, of the Sakai Nursery in Richmond, took up the post.

Graves explained that it was critical to put the board’s leadership in the hands of a American-born Japanese because at the time the U.S. government was so suspicious of the activities of the Issei (first-generation Japanese).

“Issei were prohibited from becoming citizens so they were in this double bind; they couldn’t prove their loyalty and they needed to pass things on to the younger generation quickly as the drumbeat of war and anti-Japanese hysteria grew after Pearl Harbor,” Graves said. Meanwhile, Oshima said that when his family was in an internment camp, a tornado hit Richmond and toppled the family greenhouses. They returned to a mess of wood and glass. It wasn’t easy to make the needed repairs, he said.

Flora Ninomiya (not pictured) said, “right after the war there were about 20 nurseries and about ½ were growing carnations and the other ½ were growing roses."

“Imagine you’re twelve to fifteen feet above the ground on a glass house on a small plank. Some of these men did fall through the glass. Fortunately, in our family we had rosebushes to catch them,” he said followed by resounding laughter.

It was people who destroyed the Ninomiya family greenhouses. “Our place was vandalized so severely that there was no way that we could repair the greenhouses or the nursery itself, so we made the painful decision to demolish all the greenhouses,” Ninomiya said. The Ninomiya nurseries officially closed in 1999.

In 2006 the Endo, Sakai and Oishi families sold their 14 acres of property to the Richmond Redevelopment Agency for $7.6 million.

The Sakai and Oishi homes, two greenhouses, and a water tower will be preserved and integrated into the redevelopment plans. The remaining greenhouses will be demolished to make way for affordable housing.

Photographer Fletcher Oakes (center) says he first saw the greenhouses when, “I was driving on the freeway and saw this incredible scene below.”

Graves closed the presentation with a comment that she would like to see part of the site near the freeway, which can’t be developed, become a community agricultural spot.

“I think it would honor the legacy of these nurseries and create a space for Richmond in the future,” she said. “Preserving the buildings and telling those stories allows the past and the present and the future to be woven together at that place.”

After the discussion, attendees wandered out into the galleries and decorated hallways of the Art Center.  Attendees admired historic family photos, examined the artifacts on display, and viewed contemporary photographs. The Blossoms and Thorns exhibit features photographs by four Richmond photographers: Ellen Gailing, Fletcher Oakes, Matthew Matsuoka, and Ken Osborn.

Featured photographer, Ken Osborn (red shirt), said, “I’m part of a much larger whole. I didn’t start all this but I was able to capture it.”

Osborn, who began visiting the greenhouses in 2006 and has returned 12 times since, said of the site, “When I first went in there it was a photo opportunity; I’m in there and I’m feeling like I walked back in time just like science fiction.”

With his Pentax around his neck, Osborn talked about capturing the vibrant historical site as more than just a photographic assignment. He said, “When I got finished I felt I had made a difference. One person. Me.”

The Blossoms & Thorns photography exhibit runs through November 13th at the Richmond Art Center. For more information about related upcoming events, see the sidebar.

For more information, call (510) 620-6952, or e-mail
|Related upcoming events|


  1. Betty Soskin on October 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

    What a remarkable story of restraint, perseverance in the face of unspeakable adversity is this story of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. I was under the impression that I knew it — but that was simply not so. The experience over the past few weeks of hearing the untold stories associated with these remarkable Americans is a testament to the enduring power of our democracy. It may take time to turn the Ship of State around — but the potential for justice to prevail under our constitution is ever present. Now if we can only come to terms with our history of slavery. Time is running out for me … .

  2. Michele Seville on October 25, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Creating the exhibition, Blossoms & Thorns: the Legacy of Richmond’s Japanese American Nurseries, has been a remarkable journey. A collaboration of many dedicated people helped this story be told. It speaks to the commitment of the Richmond community to make sure that our history is represented accurately. It also speaks to our combined love of the place we live.

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