Behind the Strawberry Festival

Japanese-American Farmers and the Rise of the Eastside


  
Images Courtesy Eastside Heritage Center
The famous Strawberry Festival's Strawberry Queens, celebrating the bountiful harvest of the regionally prized berry. 

These 1930’s photographs depict Bellevue’s annual Strawberry Festival honoring the city’s most bountiful crop. To Bellevue residents, the summer festival celebrated the success of the Eastside’s flourishing farming industry. Missing from these images however, are the farmers to whom Bellevue truly owed its agricultural success. Bellevue’s success as a farming industry was the direct result of Japanese-American labor, which provided Bellevue its famed strawberries. This would certainly change, however, as the Japanese population disappeared from Bellevue during WWII internment. Consequently, the Strawberry Festival was cancelled, citing problems with wartime rationing while revealing Bellevue’s reluctance to reveal its dependence on Japanese immigrants for its source of local pride. Unfortunately, the story of the Japanese-Americans who had such a vital importance to the development of Bellevue still remains relatively unknown.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Bellevue’s landscape of dense old-growth forests was transformed by the now dwindling logging industry into vast swaths of land covered in stumps. These stumps, with thick roots that bore deep into the soil, rendered the land practically unusable. The laborious and intensive task of clearing the land was largely undesirable work for most of the Eastside’s white residents[1]. Japanese immigrants (Nekkei), however, saw opportunity in this challenge. Without money or rights to buy land (the Alien Land Law of 1889 forbade non-citizens from purchasing land[2]), Japanese immigrants struck deals with local landowners, agreeing to clear the land in exchange for cultivation rights for a short-term period.

This land clearing had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Bellevue. The once densely forested lands transformed to empty and unusable tracts, were once again transformed into arable and prosperous farming lands. As a result, Japanese immigrant workers were given an entryway into the farming industry. By the 1920’s, Bellevue became the largest concentration of Japanese immigrant farmers, who found work in the booming industry in the Eastside. In particular, the Nekkei families found a niche in berry farming. Growing strawberries required little initial capital investment, and thus was an ideal entry crop for new immigrants. While many families added other crops to their farms as they acquired more capital, the strawberry became the center of pride for the Bellevue farming community.

In 1925, Bellevue held its first Strawberry Festival. Supposedly, the wife of prominent Bellevue resident, Charles Bovee, sought to hold a festival that would bring recognition to her hometown.[3] The Strawberry festival attracted thousands of visitors to Bellevue and became a prominent source of cultural pride for the city. Following the festival, the Lake Washington Reflector spoke of Bellevue as “a beautiful town and a fruitful district settled by a courteous, hospitable people.”[4] This comment reflects how outsiders saw Bellevue, and is also reflective of way residents sought to portray themselves. This discourse however, was in direct conflict with the immigrant Japanese community who were portrayed as “soulless” and “mercenaries”, working the land in hopes of gaining fortune and returning to their home country.[5] More about how these two cultures contested over defining Bellevue appears in the next section: The Edge City.

While Japanese immigrant farmers no doubt benefited from the recognition and reverence of the strawberry, the remained behind the scenes. Archived photographs of the festival reflect smiling faces of white festival attendees and Bellevue residents.[6] Photographs of Bellevue’s annual “Strawberry Queen” reveal that the honor was always given to white women. While the strawberries produced by Japanese immigrants provided Bellevue with a particular regional identity, a quaint and prosperous farming community, the historically reproduced image of Bellevue is particularly of a white space. While the Nekkei families created the success of the strawberry industry, the white population controlled and consequently sold the image of the strawberry as a way of creating a cultural identity for their community. In this cultural image, the Japanese community was written out.

By 1942, when the Japanese were forcibly expelled from the Eastside during WWII, the Strawberry Festival abruptly ended. However, intensified wartime racism and panic caused the expulsion of Eastside's Japanese to go largely uncontested. In fact, many residents campaigned for harsh measures against the Nekkei community. The dominant views of the white population are reflected in the newspapers, which wrote about the end of the strawberry festival.


"With the rationing of gasoline, all agree that the Festival would have to be abandoned this year. Other reasons given were: the shortage of sugar, conservation of tires, avoidance of large crowds and the war effort that is keeping so many busy"
"No Strawberry Festival This Year", in Bellevue America, May 21, 1942

"No Strawberry Festival This Year", in Bellevue America, May 21, 1942 
  
   This newspaper quote is a testament to the power dominant groups have to re-write history. In reality, Japanese Americans farmed ninety percent of strawberries, and their removal from the Eastside collapsed the once prosperous industry. Unfortunately, the Nekkei community did not receive the credit they deserved for bringing Bellevue its culturally symbolic crop. The cultural hegemony of the wealthy white class in Bellevue, allowed them to dominate how their community was portrayed, and how the history of their space was written.

Image Courtesy Densho Digital Archive, 2008


    The history of Japanese farming in the region had tremendous affects on the future of the Eastside. Even beyond the  Strawberry Festival, the white community in Bellevue benefited from Japanese prosperity. For more on the contribution of the Japanese American residents, and how their history of discrimination during WWII forever affected the evolution of the Eastside, see the following section: The Edge City.

Notes

[1] David Neiwert writes extensively about the experiences of Japanese Farmers in early Bellevue, including the arduous process of clearing land. See Neiwert, D. A. (2005). In Strawberry days: How internment destroyed a Japanese American community. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] For more on the history Washington State Alien Land Laws, visit http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/alien_land_laws.htm, Alien Land Law entry in the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project

[3] The Strawberry Festival website, maintained by the Eastside Heritage Center, provides a short description of the history of the festival at http://www.bellevuestrawberryfestival.org/Content.asp?ID=362.

[4] Archived copies of the Lake Washington Reflector, as well as other historical documents and objects, can be accessed at the Eastside Heritage center in Bellevue, WA. For more about accessing the collections, visit http://www.eastsideheritagecenter.org/archives.html.

[5] Neiwert, 2005.

[6] Images of the Strawberry festival can be accessed at the Eastside Heritage Center. Photos presented here are courtesy of the Eastside Heritage Center and University of Washington Digital Collections. 


Eastside Japanese-American Web Resources

Densho Digital Archive  A fascinating collection of video interviews as well as photos, documents and more, which chronicle the struggles of Japanese-Americans before, during and after internment. Many of these interviews are with former and current Bellevue residents. Note: Guest account can be used to access all materials (Press ‘Click to Use Guest Account’ on upper left of login screen). Below is a collection of interviews, which connect specifically to Eastside history:

·      Sumi Seuguro Akizuki describes the racial discrimination the Japanese-Americans faced in Bellevue before and after the war. http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-asumie-01-0003

·      Sumi Suguro Akizuki discusses life on her family’s strawberry farm in Bellevue before internment. Highlights the difficulty of farming life for Japanese-Americans. http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-asumie-01-0002

·      Describing the post-war anti-Japanese campaign, Sumi Suguro Akizuku discusses the role of Miller Friedman in pushing Japanese-Americans out of Bellevue. Criticizes a current book published by Friedman’s grandson, “Bellevue Days”describing a positive relationship with Japanese-Americans.http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-asumie-01-0015

·      See the rest of Sumi Seguro Akizuki’s interview at http://archive.densho.org/Core/SegmentsByInterview.aspx?id=407. An incredibly enlightening interview describing the typical discrimination Japanese-Americans faced in Bellevue. 

·      Interview with three Japanese-Americans from Bellevue, describing the vital contributions of the Japanese community made to Bellevue’s development, such as land-clearing, which paved the way for commercial and residential development. http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-htokio_g-01-0017

History Link Washington State online encyclopedia of history.

·      This article describes Washington State’s Alien Land Law of 1921 which further restricted property rights for non-citizens to forbid leasing and owning property. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=2124

·      History Link essay on Japanese farming in Washington. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=298

·      An essay written in 1934 by a young white woman about the significance of the Strawberry Festival to her communityUnsurprisingly there is no mention of the Japanese-American farmers. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=4152   

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