On Interdisciplinary Connections and History

By Ashley Zhou ’17

As the Annual Report Intern in the Publications department, I’m fortunate to be able to interact with all the different branches and areas of study at Dumbarton Oaks. Through my work in copyediting the Annual Report text, conversations with department heads and staff, and my own research, made possible by the library here, I have become somewhat more acquainted with academic fields I had not previously encountered. In particular, I recently have been perusing some of Dumbarton Oaks’s publications in Garden and Landscape Studies—an area that I wouldn’t have imagined would resonate with my academic interests in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Asian American studies.

Blog ImageOn a whim one day, right before lunch, I opened a book on the shelf adjacent to my cubicle that was being displayed as a recent Garden and Landscape Studies publication, entitled Food and the City: Histories of Culture and Cultivation, edited by Dorothée Imbert. In the volume, I came across the paper, “Transforming a Hostile Environment: Japanese Immigrant Farmers in Metropolitan California” by Donna Graves. Graves traces the relationship between Japanese labor, particularly that of Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), and Southern California’s agricultural economy from the 1880s to post-internment. Facing the consequences of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the accompanying anti-Asian racism, California’s particular racist anxieties about Asian immigration, bars to naturalization as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” and circumscribed economic opportunities, Issei and other Japanese living in California—at this time, like in contemporary Filipino-American community, the majority were men—nevertheless claimed a niche market for themselves by truck farming, or growing crops for shipment to local markets, and cultivating nurseries. By the early twentieth century, Graves writes, they were pulling ahead as market leaders, particularly in growing flowers, and continued to build on their profits through interethnic organizing, vertical integration, and close collaboration with other Japanese Americans.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the atmosphere of the nation grew increasingly anti-Japanese. During this time the efficacy of Japanese Americans’ organizational efforts, as exemplified by their financial success, became recast as suspicious behavior. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes by the U.S. government in 1942 and imprisoned in relocation camps until the end of World War II, a punishment that the Canadian and Australian governments also extended to their Japanese citizens. Upon returning two years later, many Japanese Americans were unable to access the land they had owned, and those who did often found their plots and farm equipment rendered unusable. However, even deprived of their livelihoods and their homes, they resisted federal policies discouraging resettlement with or near large groups of other Japanese and defied the racism and violence of the communities where they had lived before. With limited options and still facing lingering, postwar anti-Asian sentiment, many took up contract gardening, with its low barriers to entry, while others in Northern California found success in selling flowers to national markets as airfreight expanded.

But today, most Japanese Americans no longer work as fruit or flower farmers. The years after WWII eventually pushed them out of the industry entirely, due to corporate consolidation, changing demographics, postwar urbanization, and outsourced growing. Their decreased visibility in non-professional service jobs, their high rate of educational attainment and achievement, the prevailing myth of East Asians as the “model minority,” the fear that Asian countries will usurp the United States’ status—compounded, these factors have all but erased the history of struggle that Graves illuminates. Of land being taken, then taken again. Of what was never offered or allowed to begin with. Graves cites Asian American Studies scholar Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, who writes that the American “concentration camps had a devastating impact on the entire social fabric of the Japanese community, one that continues today, nearly forty years later.” This on top of stolen land. This on top of Jim Crow laws, the closeness of slavery. This—an America I and many more taught ourselves to see.

Learning about the tremendous amount of time and effort necessary from all parties—authors, editors, proofers, designers—for the publication of a single volume has allowed me to reconsider the implications of the materiality of a single book, or even a single article. I think about what it means that I can read about a Japanese American history of land cultivation in California from the comfort of my office here at Dumbarton Oaks. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I am excited by this scholarship and hopeful that it rings of something changing for a field of study frequently dismissed as a minority interest. I am heartened to see this essay published alongside the works of other prominent scholars in Garden and Landscape Studies and heartened that this kind of knowledge is gaining traction, even in this little corner of Georgetown.

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