Mira Costa Unveils Plaque Honoring Uyematsu FamilyOct 31, 2021 10:42AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
Mira Costa High School on Saturday unveiled a plaque honoring Francis M. Uyematsu and the Uyematsu family, the former owners of the property on which Mira Costa now sits.
Uyematsu was a successful Japanese businessman and nursery owner who grew prized camellias and cherry trees on a 120-acre property in Manhattan Beach. During World War II, the Uyematsu family was forced to relocate to the Manzanar detention center, and Uyematsu had to sell off most of his land to sustain his business. After the war, with his business far below pre-war levels, Uyematsu sold the last 40 acres of his Manhattan Beach property to the Redondo Union High School District (which at the time also included Manhattan Beach) for what became Mira Costa High School.
As a Japanese immigrant arriving in the U.S. in the early 1900s, "Uyematsu literally succeeded against all odds," said Chuck Currier, a former Mira Costa history teacher and the leader of the Mira Costa History Project.
Currier extensively researched the Uyematsu family and in doing so, brought the history project to life. Currier and former Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale led the effort to highlight the history and install the plaque.
Representing the family at the dedication was Mary Uyematsu Kao, a granddaughter of Francis Uyematsu and a longtime activist for Asian American studies.
"This is a monument not only to teach the history of the Uyematsu family...this is a monument to the power of education to change lives," said Uyematsu Kao.
California State Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, himself the grandson of Japanese immigrants, attended the dedication as well. He said that he benefited from the sacrifices of the generations before him, and was proud to see this chapter of history earn recognition. "This is going to be part of the living history of the community - Every day students are going to be walking by and will be reminded of the history."
The plaque stands between two concrete benches on the 40's wing walkway at Mira Costa. It is surrounded by camellia plants of Uyematsu's own breed.
Uyematsu History in Manhattan Beach
Uyematsu, a Japanese immigrant, forged success in the early 1900s importing and breeding Japanese camellias and cherry trees. He pioneered temperature-controlled greenhouses and earned the nickname "Camellia King."
At one point, Currier noted, Uyematsu was making $100 a day selling camellias, at a time when the average worker made $100 per month.
Over four decades, despite anti-Asian sentiment and racist restrictions on land ownership and citizenship, he was able to acquire farm land and eventually expanded his Star Nurseries to three locations, including 120 acres in Manhattan Beach bounded by Peck and Sepulveda to the east and west, and 2nd Street and Artesia to the north and south.
(To give a sense of how large 120 acres is, Currier said, "We're not talking about 'somebody owns a large lot in the Hill Section;' we're talking about 'somebody *owns* the Hill Section.'")
Amid the hysteria that followed the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Uyematsu family was forced to relocate to the Manzanar detention center. Uyematsu, under duress, sold 300,000 of his prized camellias.
At Manzanar, Uyematsu donated 1,000 cherry trees to the camp to establish a park, which he cultivated during his time there. However, in Manzanar, the Uyematsus (labeled "Family 22772") and other families were essentially prisoners. Six of them lived in a 20-foot by 24-foot room.
Their indefinite detention necessitated the parcel by parcel sale of most of the Manhattan Beach nursery - 40 acres of which were ultimately sold to the Redondo Union High School District for $60,000 (far less than Uyematsu had expected) and developed into Mira Costa High School.
The staggering loss of the business continued to be a painful memory for the Uyematsu family. Mary Uyematsu Kao said that when she was a child, "Every time we drove by Manhattan Beach, my mother would say 'I think I'm going to be sick.'" Uyematsu Kao herself had never even come to Manhattan Beach until recently.
Earlier this year, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District approved a plaque and pedestal at Mira Costa High School that would honor Uyematsu and his innovative business.
Mira Costa History Museum?
Dale said that it had been a longtime dream of his to create a Mira Costa History museum on campus in one section of classrooms that are not currently in use.
Dale called upon the community for someone to spearhead the effort. If it came together, Currier would agree to serve as curator, he said.
"If someone will start that, I'll be the first to donate," added Dale. "Let's get that done."
Several residents have also begun a campaign to make the camellia the official city flower of Manhattan Beach (which it had been until 2011, when it became the beach primrose). The topic is expected to come up during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
For more information on the Uyematsu family history, a talk that Currier gave to the Manhattan Beach Historical Society in June can be seen here. A video made by Manhattan Beach resident Lindsey Fox can be seen here.
The full text of the Mira Costa plaque reads as follows:
Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu
Mira Costa sits on land previously owned by the Uyematsu family, whose patriarch arrived in California in 1904. Despite fierce anti-Asian sentiment and racist restrictions on land ownership and citizenship, 22-year-old F.M. Uyematsu successfully imported and bred Japanese camellias and cherry trees. Over forty years, he expanded Star Nurseries to three locations, including 120 acres in Manhattan Beach, pioneered temperature-controlled greenhouses, and earned the nickname "Camellia King."
After Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. government prepared to forcibly remove and incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans, Uyematsu, with few available options, sold 300,000 of his prized camellias under duress. Interned at Manzanar, the family donated 1,000 cherry trees for a park there, which Uyematsu cultivated throughout his years in camp. During detention, Uyematsu had to sell most of his Manhattan Beach land to sustain his business. In 1947, two years after the camps closed, and with his business still below pre-war levels, Uyematsu sold this last forty acres of his Manhattan Beach land to the Redondo Union High School District for $40,000.
March 31, 2021