Planting a Legacy: Kitazawa Seed Company

In March I attended a wonderful talk from Jim Ryugo sharing the story of the Kitazawa Seed Company. I was reminded to jot down my notes after watching the following video from AJ+, highlighting the legacy of Japanese-American famers in California and beyond:

Background 

Kitazawa Seed Company was started in 1917 by  Gijiu Kitazawa and his brother, who had learned their seed skills in Japan. When they split, Gijiu took the seed company and opened a storefront in downtown San Jose, while his brother took the nursery. Gijiu was moved to the Heart Mountain concentration camp when WWII broke out, and forced to abandon the business.

As mentioned in the video above, Japanese workers continued to farm even after they were incarcerated, growing food and keeping the camps running.  In the first year of the war, Heart Mountain produced about 1,000 tons of produce. In 1944, they produced over 2500 tons of food.

After the war, many Japanese-American farmers were displaced from their former farmland and equipment. Gijiu was able to restart the seed business and continued to make the catalog. His daughter, Mai – who had just started at San Jose State when WWII broke out – then attended Oberlin to complete a degree in botany, then pursued a graduate degree in horticulture at Cornell, and then completed a masters in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley (her Wiki bio has more on her many accolades, among those being “the only woman around as a graduate student in Horticulture from 1947-49.)

Through the years, the Kitazawa Seed Catalog remained a key resource for rural customers who didn’t have readily available access to Asian vegetable seeds. The company changed hands twice, and moved headquarters to Oakland – currently Kitazawa Seed is now in under the operation of Jim Ryugo and his wife (I unfortunately did not catch her name).

In 2004,the Ryugo’s decided to supplement their traditional mail order catalog with a website of seed offerings, which has completely changed the game. They now receive inquiries from all over the world.

 

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[Image description: Kitazawa seed packet containing Shiso seeds and illustration of shiso plant]

Seed Story Time

Jim regaled us with some fascinating history behind the company’s best seller, the shishito pepper, in addition to other veggies commonly used in Japanese cooking. The shishito is native to Peru, and has been used for 5 -6,000 years, reflecting the history of man and evolution. Capsaicin – the chemical compound found in the placenta of pepper seeds – evolved its ‘heat’ over time to protect plants from predation and nibbles from pesky rodents. Overtime, the shishito migrated through South America to Central America and the Caribbean, and gradually made it’s way to Japan.

Given the isolated nature of the island nation, most other veggies made their way from other parts of the world, and there are few native types of vegetables, including mitsuba. Additionally, a history of feudal land ownership, with limited trading between provinces, led to each province growing produce tailored to each region and its palate.

Shingiku – edible chrysanthemum, bunching onions; also known as Tong Ho for Chinese speakers. Delicious in hot pot.

Perilla – found across the world, called Shiso in Japan.

Red shiso – important food colorant, often used for umeboshi

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[Image description: Jim holding a large mustard leaf and dropping knowledge!]

I feel lucky that San Jose is home to a part of the Kitazawa Seed story, much appreciation to the organizers who put together this event to celebrate the resilience and legacy of  Japanese-American farmers.