Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 020/Kosaku Sawada

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Kosaku Sawada
BornOctober 21, 1882
Osaka, Japan
DiedApril 15, 1968
Mobile, Alabama, United States
OccupationNursery owner
Known forWork with planting camellias

Overview[edit | edit source]

Kosaku Sawada (Oct. 21, 1882 - Apr. 15, 1968) was a Japanese-American nurseryman who spent most of his life in Mobile, Alabama. There, he owned and operated Overlook Nursery. The “Garden of Excellence” in Mobile Botanical Gardens is dedicated to the memory of Sawada due to his development of “Sawada’s Dream,” a variety of camellia (c. japonica). [1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life and Immigration To America[edit | edit source]

Kosaku Sawada was born in Osaka, central Japan Oct. 21, 1882. Raised in a family of six, he pursued an education at Osaka University, graduating with a degree in agriculture. In 1906, he immigrated to the United States.[2] The rest of his family never left Japan. Sawada had been recruited to work on a rice plantation in Alvin, Texas, but after the project’s manager died in a farming accident, the venture quickly failed. He kept working on the Alvin-Japanese Nursery for a time, but the work, oftentimes done without farm equipment, was grueling. In 1910, he moved to Grand Bay, Alabama, where he hoped to start a citrus business. Sawada purchased a 30 acre orchard and grew many orange and pecan trees. However, an especially frigid winter froze and killed many of his trees. After that, he moved his business near Mobile, Alabama to an 80-acre farm he named Overlook Nurseries.[3]

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

In 1916, Sawada briefly traveled to San Francisco to marry Nobu Yoshioka as part of an arranged marriage. She arrived to America with 500 Japanese camellia seeds as her dowry. Together, they had four children: Tom (1918 - 2004), George (d. 1998), Lurie (d. 2000), and Ben (b. 1930). Nobu died three weeks after Ben was born. Sawada never remarried, raising the four children on his own. Tom studied business at Spring Hill College and later served in the Army in World War II. George studied agriculture and horticulture at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He was exempt from service in in the Army due to his asthma, but was active in the Coast Guard. George later took over the operations of Overlook Nurseries. Ben went on to become a Methodist preacher.[4]

Overlook Nurseries[edit | edit source]

Kosaku Sawada’s main business was Overlook Nurseries, which he began with camellia seeds his wife brought over from Japan. Soon, he was well-known for his varieties of camellia. When the popularity of camellias boomed in the mid-1940’s, Overlook had over four hundred varieties of camellias advertised in its catalogue and nearly a thousand varieties in the nursery itself. Sawada developed numerous varieties of camellias including ‘Lurie’s Favorite’, ‘Queen Bessie’, ‘Mrs. K. Sawada’, ‘Imura’ and ‘K. Sawada.’ A variety known as ‘Sawada’s Dream’ secured his position as ‘Mr. Camellia’ in 1959.[5]

World War II[edit | edit source]

Because of the American conflict with the Japanese in World War II, systematic discrimination against Japanese-Americans became common. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated that all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast be deported into internment camps.[6] This order did not apply to the Southern states, so the Sawadas were not forced to relocate. However, the local government began to shut down Japanese-American business. In Mobile, there were two Japanese-American owned nurseries. One was Overlook, and the other was called Kiyano, owned by T. Kiyano. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kiyano was seized and sold, and Overlook was scheduled for seizure as well. However, the other nurserymen in the community passionately plead Sawada’s case to the authorities. After much debate, they agreed to let Sawada and his family keep Overlook Nurseries.[7]

Views on Immigration[edit | edit source]

Kosaku Sawada, though an immigrant from Japan, kept few to no elements of his culture. He intentionally did not live in San Francisco or another city with a large Asian population, and he did not even teach his children Japanese. When he returned to Japan to visit his family, he reported feeling alienated because of his changed appearance from working long hours in the sun. Many of his former countrymen mistook him for a Filipino. He no longer felt Japanese; he now identified himself as American due to his new religion and ideals. [8]

Sawada wanted to raise his children as fully American. He even named his sons after America’s Founding Fathers (Tom for Thomas Jefferson, George for George Washington, and Ben for Benjamin Franklin). He emphasized the importance of hard work, success, and other American ideals to his children. He also sent them to Sunday school every week, despite not going to church himself.[9]

Legacy[edit | edit source]

Economic Success[edit | edit source]

The Sawada's weathered the trials of the Great Depression with relative ease. Perhaps the most notable sign of Sawada’s wealth was the fact that the census of 1940 recorded that Sawada employed a live-in, white female housekeeper named W.D. McLachlin. Both she and her daughter, eleven year-old Jeanne McLachlin, lived and worked in the Sawada household.[10]

Camellia Society[edit | edit source]

Kosaku Sawada was, by 1959, known as ‘Mr. Camellia’ due to his work in horticulture. His most notable work dealt with cross-polinating camellias and developing new hybrids. ‘Sawada’s Dream,’ which took ten years to develop, was his most notable creation.[11] Other camellia varieties he developed included ‘Cleopatra,’ ‘Brilliancy,’ ‘Imura Liberty Bell,’ ‘Lurie’s Favorite,’ and ‘Gulf Glory.’ [12] Due to his prominent position as a plantsman, Sawada was invited multiple times to speak at the American Camellia Society. He wrote many articles for their yearly publishing. Though not a trained artist, he painted many pictures of camellias that are still on display. Due to his impact in the field of camellia crossbreeding, the Mobile Botanical Garden displays some of his creations in the “Garden of Excellence,” planted in honor of Sawada’s legacy.[13]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Japanese-Americans in World War II[edit | edit source]

In 1940, the national census recorded 127,000 Japanese Americans lived in the U.S. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 created a xenophobic atmosphere towards Asians, especially those of Japanese heritage. In response to growing fears of Japanese mobilization, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066 which mandated all Japanese evacuate the West Coast. 120,000 Japanese were forced from their homes into internment camps. These internment camps (there were ten in all) were scattered throughout the American mid-west. Most Japanese put in internment camps were born in the U.S. and were American citizens. Though the forced relocation of over 100,000 people was a flagrant civil rights violation, the U.S Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of internment camps in Hirabayashi v.United States and Korematsu v. United States. The camps were finally closed in March of 1946, months after the end of World War II. In 1948, those who had been forced to give up their homes and possessions were given some reimbursement for their monetary losses, but it wasn’t until 1988 that Congress gave each surviving internment victim restitution payments for the violation of their civil rights.[14]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ray, Bill, “Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Southeastern Camellia News
  2. Ray, Bill, “Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Southeastern Camellia News
  3. Ray, Bill, “Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Southeastern Camellia News
  4. Ray, Bill, “Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Southeastern Camellia News
  5. Williams, Sandra, “Swada.”Gainsville Camellia Soceity–Florida
  6. History.com Staff, 2009 “Japanese-American Relocation” History.com
  7. Ray, Bill, “Petals Along the Trail: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Southeastern Camellia News
  8. Sawada, Kosaku, “Federal Writers’ Project Papers 1936-1940,” Folder 66, Collection Number: 03709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 24 Sep. 2015.
  9. Sawada, Kosaku, “Federal Writers’ Project Papers 1936-1940,” Folder 66, Collection Number: 03709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 24 Sep. 2015.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau. “1940 United States Federal Census.” Department of Commerce–Bureau of the Census, Table Rows 12-18
  11. April 30, 2015 “MBG History: Kosaku Sawada, American.” Mobile Botanical Gardens
  12. Williams, Sandra, “Swada.”Gainsville Camellia Soceity–Florida
  13. “K. Sawada Winter Gardens” International Camellia Society
  14. History.com Staff, 2009 “Japanese-American Relocation” History.com