By Ken Mochizuki
“My grandfather was a 4’11” dynamo! He was a strong-willed visionary with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and to Spirit.”—Linda Kubota Byrd, daughter of Tom Kubota
“Grandpa was a very dramatic man and had a powerful personality. Even though I didn’t speak Japanese, I could tell by the way he would tell stories and act them out. He was also joyful but, at the same time, the family knew him to be very stubborn and obstinate. I wish I had understood Japanese so that I could have found out more about him firsthand as opposed to what I mostly observed.”—Susan Yano Mise, daughter of May Kubota Yano
“He had an overall vision that evolved as the project went on. That’s a good part of why he didn’t put anything on paper and wasn’t tied to strict guidelines.”—Allan Kubota, son of Tom Kubota
There is a memorial stone in the town of Kochi on Shikoku Island in Japan commemorating Fujitarō Kubota (1879-1973).
“We don’t know what it is for exactly,” Linda said, but her father Tom (1917-2004) speculated that, in the rice-farming village his father hailed from, Fujitarō had a siren installed to signal workers in the rice fields as to their lunchtime and quitting time. It was repurposed as an air-raid siren during World War II.
Fujitarō held a strong allegiance to his village and had a road built to make lives easier, said Linda. He also provided financial support when times got hard. He married there in 1900 and he and his wife Kumae had daughter Tsuyomi (born in 1902; year of death unknown). However, even though he was the eldest son in his family who would inherit the family rice farm, Fujitarō didn’t stay put.
“As to why Grandpa left Japan, I was told that he was the village elder and he didn’t want to have to play that role,” Linda recalled.
At age 28, Fujitarō Kubota immigrated to Hawaii in 1907, San Francisco that same year, and arrived in Seattle in 1910. He labored on the railroad and then at a sawmill in the logging town of Selleck, WA (now Black Diamond). With daughter Tsuyomi remaining in Japan, Fujitarō saved enough money to bring his wife to Selleck and she gave birth to son Takeshi “Tak” (1912-1996). By 1917, he went on to manage hotels and apartment buildings in what is now Seattle’s Chinatown/International District. Son Tom was born that year and then daughter May (1919-2002 ).
During 1923, Fujitarō founded Kubota Gardening Company and started out doing routine garden maintenance, mowing lawns, pruning and used a modified Model T to transport the crew’s tools. One of their job sites included the posh, downtown Seattle Rainier Club. By 1927, as the grandchildren recounted, Fujitarō approached a well-heeled woman in Seattle to “rearrange her lawn.” Thus began the conversion of the gardeners into landscapers.
“That put them on the map,” Linda said. “More wealthy people started to hire them.”
And Fujitarō was also in search of his own garden.
“He and my dad would get in their Model T and drive all over looking for a place to build a garden to display their work,” Linda said. “When they came to the current site, it was mostly swamp land and a long way out of the city. But, Dad said, when Grandpa heard the sound of running water, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, ‘This is it!’”
However, during that time, those of Asian descent were prohibited by law from buying land. With the help of a “friend”—the identity of whom none of the grandchildren could ascertain—Fujitarō was able to able to purchase the five acres. So excited was he about his new property on 55th Avenue South within Seattle’s Rainier Beach area that he hired a professional photographer to take a photo. Fujitarō, along with young son Tom and all dressed in their Sunday best, posed before what became Kubota Garden.
“Who would do that, hire a professional to come and take a photo in front of the raw land?” Linda asked. “In his mind, he saw the Garden as it is today.
“He was a visionary—he could imagine things in the future. He knew how plants look in different seasons, so it’ll be interesting all year. He would always have a focal tree, and all the rest are filler. He used to say it’s like a beauty pageant—if there’s one really pretty girl and the rest are kind of plain, then she’s going to really stand out.”
During the 1930s, Fujitarō Kubota made three trips back to Japan to hone his essentially self-taught landscaping skills. However, the master gardeners wouldn’t divulge their techniques. He did manage to “smuggle in seeds” of pine trees from Japan, his grandchildren said.
The only actual training Fujitarō did receive was from Ryotaro Nishikawa, a gardener in the South Park area of Seattle. Fujitarō said in Kazuo Ito’s 1973 tome, Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America, that Nishikawa was “particularly good at cultivating pine trees” and was “my only gardening teacher, and no one else.” When Fujitarō became “stuck and was in trouble,” he said he “went to the woods and prayed to the gods for help.”
Those gods or god were found in being a lifelong devotee of Konkokyō, a sect of the Shinto religion which adheres to spiritual connectedness and inspiration via an awareness of and sensitivity for nature.
“The 2017 Konkokyō conference title, ‘Smile from Within: Through Heart, Mind and Body’ encapsulates my grandfather’s countenance and outlook on life,” Linda said. “He used to call family meetings and announce that they needed to make a big purchase. And, when my dad asked how they would pay for it, his standard reply was ‘Kami/God will take care of it.’”
Fujitarō delivered that same reply when his family asked how they would pay to acquire neighboring parcels of land. The Kubota Garden Company flourished and the Garden eventually expanded to 20 acres. With that land, Kubota grew trees to maturity and transplanted those trees at the job site, giving the landscape an already-grown, finished look.
“Landscapers at the time were limited to smaller stuff,” Allan said. “That was the advantage of having the nursery.”
During the 30s was when Fujitarō Kubota developed his landscaping aesthetic of designing Japanese-influenced gardens, but not duplicating gardens found in Japan.
“He just didn’t want to take a picture and try to redraw the same picture,” Allan said. “My grandfather and my dad—the big deal was borrowed scenery. If you have good background, you can utilize it. Trees, green space—make it part of the yard you’re doing.”
However, his landscaping business didn’t consume all of Fujitarō’s time and passion. His flair for the dramatic perhaps derived from his time as an amateur Kabuki actor, performing in productions staged within Seattle’s prewar Nihonmachi, or “Japantown.” His fellow actors were also local Issei businessmen.
“He often played the female role,” Linda said. “Dad said he was quite an accomplished actor.”
By 1940, Fujitarō Kubota moved his wife and three children from a multifamily residential building on Alder Street located in central Seattle to a sizable, multi-bedroom house he had built on the Garden property. In 1942, the Kubota family was forcibly removed and eventually incarcerated at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in southern Idaho. During the war, Tak served as a Japanese-language instructor for the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) based at Fort Snelling, MN. Tom became a MIS interpreter, serving with the Army in the Philippines.
Details on who looked after the Kubota Garden while the family was away remained uncertain. Renters occupied the house, and Linda heard that “a banker may have paid money out his pocket so they wouldn’t lose the Garden at one point.”
When the Kubota family returned in 1945, “the garden was so overgrown that they had to use a scythe to cut the lawn—it was waist high,” Linda recounted. “My dad said that Grandpa had tears in his eyes, but they persevered. The garden never got back to the way it was before the war, but they never gave up.”
The gardening and landscape business eventually got back on its feet, despite owing back taxes and assessments that had accumulated while the family was incarcerated. His grandfather, Allan said, “made all family members come back after the war. We all lived near each other.”
Within Fujitarō Kubota’s home was a Konkokyō altar, with enough seating space for the extended family to witness Konkokyō services. Thanksgiving was an annual event to gather the families of three of Fujitarō’s children.
“Whether we wanted to, or not, it was a tradition we had to keep,” Allan said.
And, it was during visits to what the grandchildren dubbed as the “white house” was when they encountered their grandfather’s unique brand of humor.
“Something all of us grandchildren remember is he would put his false teeth part way out of his mouth and he would walk like he was drunk to greet us,” Linda said. “We would always giggle and run away and he would get a big grin on his face. Dad said people thought he drank a lot. But, the fact is, he rarely drank alcohol.
“When a customer would ask him the name of a certain plant, he would say ‘shiranai‘ and laugh in his mischievous way when he heard them tell their friends that the plant’s name was shiranai—which in English means ‘I don’t know.’”
Susan spent part of her early years living in another house on the Garden property, next to the Kubota Garden Heart Bridge:
“It was fantastic. It was the days before Netflix and video games; you went outside and played. We went to the carp pond and fed the carp, rolled down the hill, caught pollywogs and there were snakes. It was just limitless where you could run and all the things you could do in the Garden. Grandpa was usually somewhere on his canvas stool if he wasn’t out on a job. Again, when he spotted you, he liked to push his false teeth forward and chase you, making you run with much laughter.”
Fujitarō , with his ever-present canvas folding stool, sat at the job sites directing his crew with Tak or Tom interpreting their father’s instructions, said Allan, who went along with them on Saturdays starting from when he was 5 years old.
“I heard that if the seats were full on the bus,” Linda recalled, “Grandpa would open his campstool and sit in the middle of the aisle until the driver would have to stop the bus and ask him to stand up instead.”
In 1955, Fujitarō Kubota became a naturalized American citizen at age 75.
His children, and then grandchildren, drove Fujitarō to the Konkokyō church in central Seattle every Sunday. Two to three times a week at night, after a long day of work, they drove him to the old Nihonmachi area for his lessons in Gidayu, a formalized type of Japanese singing. After the passing of wife Kumae in 1949, he married his Gidayu teacher, Ko Komata in 1955. She accompanied him on the shamisen and sang along with him.
An incident occurring in the 60s particularly stood out for Linda:
“I remember taking a drive up to Deception Falls on Stevens Pass. As soon as we stopped the car, Grandpa was making his way up to the top of the Falls. He was like a little mountain goat, climbing up the hill without effort. Dad was trying his best to keep up with him, and when my sister and I got to where they’d stopped, Grandpa was leaning way out over the rushing water, trying to see around the bend, and Dad was holding onto him with his hand tucked into the waist of his pants!”
In 1973, the same year of Fujitarō Kubota’s passing, he was awarded from the Emperor of Japan the Order of the Sacred Treasure Fifth Class for his work in building a bridge between the Japanese and American cultures.
Linda remembered, “He always dressed well, stood very upright and carried himself with confidence. He was a man who knew who he was. I never saw him slow down.
“He was a man on a mission who walked fast, like he had someplace to go.”
Allan Kubota and Susan Yano Mise. Interview by author. Seattle, Washington, October 18, 2018.
History.Link.org, “Kubota Garden (Seattle).” http://www.historylink.org/File/3077 (accessed September 20, 2018).
Kazuo Ito, Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America (Seattle: Executive Committee for Publication of Issei, 1973), 817, 860.
Linda Kubota Byrd. Interview by author. Issaquah, Washington, September 21, 2018.
PCAD, “Fujitaro Kubota (Landscape Designer).” http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/person/5033/ (accessed September 20, 2018).