Times Past

Recalling a post-World War II floral industry pioneer

Grace and Shimi Shibata’s wedding photo from 1947.
Grace and Shimi Shibata’s wedding photo from 1947.

“One night, I was kidnapped. I was taken to the far end of the camp, where there was an empty barracks and was put in a chair right in the middle of the room. There were about 15 guys sitting around the room who accused me of being a traitor. They said that I was only looking after the interests of the pro-American internees instead of the pro-Japanese.”

The education of Yoshimi (Shimi) Shibata, who would later marry Grace Eto of a Los Osos farming family, included learning experiences outside his classes at the University of California and Ohio State University.

In late 1942, Shibata was appointed as secretary to the city council at the War Relocation Authorities’ Tule Lake camp, where Shibata’s family had been interned following the hysteria generated by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Tule Lake was used by the WRA to house “troublemakers” from other internment camps, such as Manzanar and Poston.

Shibata’s family grew roses in greenhouses located in Newark, near what were the salt flats at the eastern approach to the Dumbarton Bridge.

Zenjuro, his father, wanted Shimi to learn how to grow roses “scientifically,” so he sent him to Berkeley and Ohio State. But at Tule Lake, Shibata found himself with nothing to do. Teachers were paid $16 a month, so he signed on to teach agriculture.

He entered the classroom and confronted a group of practiced vegetable growers. His experience was entirely in the greenhouse. The only vegetable growing that he had done was in a few classes at Hayward High School.

“My students would say, ‘Hey teach, you don’t do it that way, you do it this way.”

“ ‘OK, tell me,’ I’d say.”

After being confronted with not knowing the difference between diesel- and gas-driven tractors, carburetors and land levers, Shibata finally said, “OK … you guys take over the class.” He later noted, “So we went out there and ran the farm like a big corporation.”

It was Shibata’s business acumen that led to the 26-year-old’s appointment as secretary at the fractious camp. He had to meet the needs of 15,000 internees who didn’t want to be in the camp in the first place.

His position was further complicated by the WRA’s decision that no Issei (Japanese-born Japanese-Americans) could serve on the council. This rule left most of the older camp residents feeling disenfranchised.

Shibata tried many innovations. But his best efforts couldn’t please a majority of truly unhappy campers.

Time after time, Shibata told the WRA that he wanted to quit the job, but they replied, “No, we need you because you have business experience.” When Shibata finally quit, his successor was murdered.

Shibata had to talk his way out of the circle of violent accusers before he turned in his resignation.

They were aware that Shibata had a brother fighting for the United States as part of the Military Intelligence Service in the South Pacific. (Eventually all the Shibata brothers would be in uniform).

The agitators were shouting, “‘Why are you in this camp now? Because you are Japanese! America doesn’t trust us. Why should you be pro-American when America doesn’t trust you? Guys like you should be murdered!”

Shibata said, “You guys can do whatever you like to me … but … if there’s a murder here, the authorities will … turn (this place) into a prison.”

There was a pause, and Shibata walked away.

Last Saturday, Liz and I attended Shimi’s memorial service. Giants of the floral industry came to praise him as the pioneer of a new floral industry in postwar America.

Shibata’s experience at Tule Lake formed lessons that led to the formation of what Jack Van Namen, a student and later a floral industry competitor, called “the University of Shimi.”

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.