Los Angeles Women Working in the Flower Fields


caption: Issei women, wearing bonnets and dresses, work in the flower fields. (Courtesy of the Mizufuka family. Please do not duplicate.)

(Note: I will be periodically posting excerpts from the many history books I’ve written over the years. This is from A SCENT OF FLOWERS: The History of the Southern California Flower Markets, 1912-2004 [written by Naomi Hirahara and published by Midori Books  in 2004].)

It was not unusual for Japanese American wives and children to work in the fields alongside adult men. Women and girls, with their smaller hands, seemed naturally suited for certain production techniques like the disbudding of carnations. Other tasks often adopted by wives and children were sorting and packing of flowers, usually conducted in a covered area.

This agrarian life was not always suited to new wives from the urban parts of Japan. According to family folklore, Shiku Satow, the wife of Tomijiro, was deathly afraid of insects and removed small bugs from flower using a pair of chopsticks. This fear soon subsided; Shiku, in fact, devoted her life to the grading or classifying of carnations for the family corporation until she retired at age 84.

While the Japanese relied on the hard work of all of its members for both economic survival and success, the outside world sometimes did not look kindly on these efforts. When the Southern California Flower Market was open seven days a week, various regional chambers of commerce attempted to force Japanese families to curtail work on Sundays. The Japanese Association of Long Beach was one organization that supported the elimination of Sunday work at least officially in November 1919. Even the Southern California Flower Market decided in a special meeting to abolish work on Sundays, aside from the picking of flowers for Monday market. Whether the members adhered to this rule cannot be verified.

Another issue was women working in the fields. Again chambers of commerce sought to change the Japanese growers’ cultural values and discouraged them from allowing their wives to do manual labor on the farm. Even the Flower Market agreed, telling its members that women should not work even on weekdays. If they did work, however, women should wear women’s work clothes–probably referring to aprons and white cotton caps with scalloped edges.

A Japanese American leader at the Long Beach meeting elaborated on the role of women in the family: “For our point of view we are in fault in using women, for their supreme duty is to build the home; that is what she is, she is queen of the home. We must better our living standards and thus overcome the anti-Japanese feeling in the community. Women’s main duty is to attend the home, to care for the children. I know there are economic reasons which we cannot apply to all; but I believe if you can help it, do not put women in the field. Keep your wife at home, and you will see improvement at once in the home.”

In spite of the rhetoric and public announcements, most Japanese farmers seemed to ignore these directives. Why listen to these leaders when they needed to put food on the table for their growing families?

Topsy-Turvy World

  

I was a bit depressed this afternoon because it’s finally starting to sink in that this new way of life is not just a two-week or a month-long situation but something long-term. Everything we’ve experienced or known so far is now topsy-turvy. I’m a person who likes to plan, knowing full well that plans do change. Now I’m realizing I can’t even attempt to plan because this is such unchartered territory. I mean, we can look at the 1918 influenza or what my parents went through–the bombing of Hiroshima, but this is a very specific time with new global connections, high-technology and economies.

On a very micro, personal level, Tulo is old, estimated age of 14 years, who probably has Cushing’s disease but I don’t want to put him on strong (and expensive) medication. He has to pee all the time, especially at night, so even though I took him on two walks today, I go out at sunset for his third. And lo and behold, the sky is gorgeous, streaks of pink against the blue, and I find myself angry. Like why is the sky so beautiful? Does the Heavens know how we are suffering right now? Nonetheless, I chase the skyline–not only because I want to take pictures to put it on social media (!) but also because I want to capture its fleeting beauty. As my dog and I walk home, I tell myself that I need to savor these small, good moments even though in some ways, it’s weirdly painful. And walking underneath some trees, I smell jasmine (a good sign because I heard you lose your sense of smell when you have COVID-19). It is strong and fragrant. I don’t know if I can be as fragrant during this time of unknowing. But the fact that I saw and smelled must mean something.

The Great Pause and Writers of Color

I’ll be honest with you all. I’m decimated by this Great Pause and how it will affect writers and specifically writers of color. Just when it seemed like we were gaining traction in certain circles–the publishing world seemed to finally be listening to Latinx writers and their criticisms of AMERICAN DIRT and #ownvoices contracts seemed to be flourishing. Young friends were getting streaming deals for their diverse content. The African American mystery writer, Barbara Neely, whose novels made me feel less alone, was chosen to be feted at the Edgar Awards.

Now we have to take some steps back. Okay, Naomi, don’t be so dark. I know my family are fighters–damn, we survived a nuclear holocaust, so we got this, right?

A part of me just wants to be more passive and “realistic” and continue to look at my projected income and expenses in the next few years and cross out some numbers. I still am going to do that in anticipation of a worst-case scenario but it occurred to me this morning that I have also consider a best-case scenario. A scenario in which we fight this force with ingenuity and optimism.

This is going to require all the smarts, skills, creativity and camaraderie we can muster. If we are complacent and think that life will be restored exactly how we left it pre-coronavirus, we will most likely be battered by the killer wave that’s coming for us. There’s no doubt that we need to do something different.

On Sunday I participated in a virtual Potluck and Poetry reading on the video conference platform Zoom, organized by Scott Oshima, Sustainable Little Tokyo Program director. In this session in which we were eating our individual meals in different locations, I was exposed to the literature and concerns of Tongvans who are native to Southern California. For a couple of hours, I was transported to a world that I didn’t know but should know.

Frankly I was skeptical of what an online exchange could do for me, but you know what, it was actually sustaining. Nothing will beat a face-to-face meeting, but the use of this technology is an alternative that has possibilities.

Come back here and look for new ideas that we need to employ. If you want to contribute a blog post, let me know at bachi@naomihirahara.com.

Here a debut writer shares what she’s doing to launch her book “in the middle of a global pandemic”:

Launching a Debut Novel in Middle of a Global Pandemic

This Season of Discovery

What a difference a week makes!

Just last week I was writing about my quandary about attending a couple of out-of-town mystery events and now both have been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Since Sunday I’ve been sheltering in place with my husband and, of course, Tulo.

It’s an uncertain season with many people suffering, either physically, financially and emotionally. I mourn that. I’ve been spending my time writing and cleaning our second bedroom for a possible displaced college student. This bedroom has been in disastrous, my dumping ground for research and correspondence. In sorting through papers, I found a memo pad with the name and phone number of my first acquiring editor. I realized that was from 2003, when the first Mas Arai mystery was purchased by Bantam Dell, an imprint of Random House. I also came across the commemorative booklet that I had created for my father’s funeral in 2012. It reminded me of my parents’ legacy as Hiroshima atomic-bomb survivors. They both went through one of the most horrific singular events in the 20th Century. It was something that did haunt my father at times, but he mostly led a life of joy–joy for fishing, joy for games, and joy of family.

Hold onto those things during this season. We will get through this.

Coronavirus Dilemma: Cancel or Not to Cancel?

It’s so stressful to figure out whether to cancel out-of-town book appearances during this time when we don’t know enough about the coronavirus.

This is my writing year, so I don’t have much lined up but I do have two events (more than a hundred people) for this month. I will be attending Left Coast Crime San Diego, but always planned a low-key presence. I have one panel, an improv performance, a small celebratory dinner for one of the honorees, and a few small get-togethers. I’ll be driving and I’m not staying the conference hotel (more because of financial reasons plus I was considering bringing Tulo–I’m not going to).

The following week, I was planning to travel to Chicago participate in Murder and Mayhem writers conference at Roosevelt University and Noir at the Bar at one of the Chicago’s new bookstores. I also intended to do more research on my manuscript-in-progress, which is set in Chicago. As I’m a working novelist, I usually travel bare bones–like Spirit Airlines with one bag without my laptop and staying in my own room in a hostel-like hotel. Thinking of about this kind of solo discount travel through LAX with also the looming cloud of the coronavirus did me in. I’m healthy, but I do have regular contact with my 83-year-old mother. And my old neurotic dog will probably have a nervous breakdown if I’m away for a length of time.

So it’s yes to the drive to San Diego with proper precaution (bringing Lysol and sanitizing wipes) and limited activity and no to Chicago. I’m sad about the decision about Chicago, but it feels right to me.

No Writer’s Block Here

I recently heard that writing leads to more writing, which I’ve found that is true. While being immersed in my novel-in-progress, I’ve been called to contribute some unrelated essays, short stories as well as new installments to my serial, Silk, on Discover Nikkei. What I’ve found is that the words and ideas have come easier than usual. A relief, because as I age, I seem to be checking the thesaurus more for synonyms because a word seems out of reach.

This weekend I met a high school student who asked me what I do about writer’s block. “Are you a perfectionist?” I asked her. She reluctantly admitted that she was and I told her that perfectionism holds creativity back. How can you be creative if you are afraid to make mistakes? I told her about Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, which is my go-to resource for writing. As I’ve referred to here, she writes about shitty first drafts. Know that the first words you type in your computer may be terrible. Awful. But when you move from that and dig deeper, you may uncover the glimmer of a beautiful mineral hidden beneath the surface. Keep digging and keep polishing. If you don’t break ground, you won’t discover anything underneath. I told this young woman to just start typing, “I have writer’s block. I don’t know what to write. BLAH BLAH BLAH.” Inevitably when you start doing that, truth emerges. A story appears. A characters speaks.

I’m a strange one because some people have been very hard on me, but I give myself a lot of grace (maybe too much!). Grace perhaps comes from my faith or my late father. I love giving grace and mercy to people around me, so I figure I need to sprinkle some on myself. It’s not that I don’t have high expectations for myself, but I know that I will be missing the mark as I go through life as a writer and person. The worst is not to try when you’re capable.

 

What to Do in a Pandemic?

People–well, to be specific, members of the CDC (Center for Disease Control)–have said that it’s only a matter of time before the COVID-19 novel coronavirus comes to the U.S. in full force.

I’m the type that doesn’t get overly fearful about such pronouncements, but I also have a neurotic side that Googles “how to prevent coronavirus infection.” Fear itself will not solve the problem; in fact, it may fan the flames of xenophobia, producing physical, emotional and financial harm. (Chinese restaurants throughout the nation are definitely adversely affected right now.) Your everyday mask will not protect you from contracting the virus but may mitigate others from getting your germs if you happen to have it or any kind of viral infection.

Full-time novelists who are mostly writing rather than promoting are in a more protected position. I fall into this category.

I’m mostly living in my head and doing research online or in libraries this year. My final Mas Arai mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, will be coming out next year in 2021 and I’m saving my pennies to go out to Japan for the book launch that summer. As it stands now, the Tokyo Olympics is still on for this year, but that may change in a few months. (How horrible for the athletes and organizing committees–but shikataganai, it cannot be helped.)

There’s no sense in isolating ourselves from other people; that’s no way to live. But I think 2020, the year of our national elections, may call for me to work more on internal matters, such as these:

  • As mentioned before, write like a madwoman!
  • Make a real dent in the TBR (to be read) pile of books and catch up on books that I’ve wanted to read.
  • Continue with the weight loss effort. Ten pounds lost so far, but I’ve plateaued for a month. I’ve downloaded the app, loseit, and I’m loving it so far. I’m not into tracking calories, but I think I have to do it to break through. Also, during this summer, start running at least three times a week. (Right now I’m just doing it once, in addition to strength training and zumba.)
  • Become more political active, whether it be in donating to campaigns or doing local outreach.
  • Clean the house. I’m not a Marie Kondo advocate, but I’ve needed to make things more orderly for years.
  • Keep cooking. I’ve really embraced the joy of cooking these past few years. And with the weight loss program, it’s been nice to keep the frig stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Integrate prayer and meditation in my morning routine. I always feel more centered when I do that.
  • And while I see the dangers and downsides of social media, keep looking for ways to connect with people through the Internet and digital newsletters.

This year is going to be a roller-coaster ride, no doubt about that. When I concentrate on what I can do rather than what is happening to us, I can have more agency. We certainly cannot control much in the world but we have a responsibility to ourselves and people around us to do as much as we can. I do have to do a shoutout to my old friend, Carolyn Iga, and her faith-based organization, Assignment International, which has been working in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first originated. Godspeed.