In dirt and toil, a tribute to a life

Times Staff Writer

It is a path as old as California itself. A fresh wave of immigrants comes to work the land, pick the fruit, till the fields, tend the gardens. The dirt beneath their fingernails, the lives of low pay and aching backs; these they accept as a down payment on the future of their children and their children’s children.

Their common prayer is that through this hard work they might gain a foothold, allowing their offspring to vault into the higher, softer corners of the California economy. Glenn Ota’s father took this path, prayed this prayer.

Jack Ota was still working close to the land when he died two years ago at the age of 85 -- one of the last of a generation of Japanese American gardeners who once were a fixture of the California suburbs, as ubiquitous as shake roofs.


Since Jack Ota’s death, his 50-year-old son, who works in the produce department of a grocery store, has been coming every Monday and Friday morning to a house in suburban Fresno where, working alongside his 82-year-old mother, he meticulously grooms the grounds of his father’s last client.

“I do it to honor him,” Ota said, “and to honor the way he does things, his perfection, to keep up his work.

“Here,” he said, digging a toe into the soft dirt of a flower bed. “This is a sign of my dad right here.”

The soil had been raked, turned, manicured and picked clean of every twig, cutting and pebble.

“Dad always told me, ‘Whatever kind of job you do, make sure it’s clean.’ He was very well-known for that. The yards he did, they always came out clean.”

Ota and his mother arrived early in an old black Mitsubishi pickup truck, pulling into the driveway of a gracious brick home set on a corner in a north Fresno neighborhood of broad streets and mature trees, on what was once a fig orchard. In the furnace that is summertime Fresno, it’s always best to start outdoor work before the sun gets too high.

Ota, a stocky man with a goatee, smoked one last Marlboro Light, turned his baseball cap backward and reached into the truck bed for tools.

His mother, Jane, a dainty woman dressed in a plaid shirt, canvas pants and running shoes, wrapped a protective scarf around her head -- the sun would be high before they finished -- and pulled on plastic gloves.

Then they went to work.

For the next four hours, mother and son moved seamlessly through their tasks, turning soil in the beds of Japanese pines and miniature maples and azaleas, plucking petals off of faded roses, picking weeds, edging the grass by hand.

It was slow, quiet work -- nothing like the noisy blow-and-go jobs so common to the trade today -- and normally they would have done it in silence. On this day, however, they stopped from time to time and answered questions about the man who had brought them to this place.

Jack Noboru Ota was what the Japanese call a kibei-nisei -- born to immigrants in Sanger, Calif., but raised in Japan. He was only 2 when his family returned to Hiroshima. Fourteen years later, he came back to California alone.

He was working as a grape picker in the San Joaquin Valley when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and spent the next five years on the wrong side of barbed-wire fences in a succession of internment camps. After the war, like so many of his Japanese American contemporaries, he surveyed his options and settled on what’s called maintenance gardening.

Japanese American gardening “was primarily a Pacific Coast phenomenon,” said Naomi Hirahara, a Pasadena writer who edited “Greenmakers,” a history of Japanese American gardeners compiled by the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation.

Hirahara says many forces converged to draw the Japanese into gardening: Few other jobs were available to them; the postwar suburban boom was churning out a wealth of prospective clients; and the look of California’s ranch houses seemed more compatible with Japanese-style landscaping than that of, say, an English country manor.

“Plus,” said Hirahara, herself a gardener’s daughter, “most of the Japanese immigrants had some agricultural background. . . . And there was a stereotype that the Japanese could grow things better than anybody else.”

In his father’s case, Glenn Ota said, the stereotype happened to fit: “My dad could make even a dead plant grow.” He also knew how to prune and shape trees in the bonsai style, and how to lay out gardens.

After the war, Jack Ota met and married Jane Matsubara. Initially, he could not afford a pickup and would pedal from job to job on a bicycle. In time he saved enough to build his own house and enter the nursery business with his brothers-in-law. Still, he kept gardening on the side.

“He had a hard life,” Jane Ota said. “He went through a lot. He worked hard. He was always working, working, working.”

They raised a family, three sons and a daughter. Jack Ota would take the children with him on his gardening rounds and send them to work in packinghouses and vineyards.

“We wanted them to see how hard the work was,” their mother recalled. “We thought if they saw that, maybe they would go to school and get a better job.”

In her view, it worked. Two of her children took up careers in public school administration. The third is a probation officer. Glenn Ota studied to be an X-ray technician in college before going to work as a grocer.

In this, the Ota children followed a pattern.

Their generation of Japanese Americans, the sansei, by and large steered clear of gardening, moving into more lucrative fields. Other newcomers now do this work, and in a generation or two, their children no doubt will have stories to tell about hardworking immigrant ancestors.

Jack Ota retired from the nursery when he was 70, but for his last 15 years kept a few gardening clients. In the end, he was down to one. His wife had worked beside him the day before he died.

“I’m glad we got everything done,” he told her as they loaded their tools. “It looks nice, clean.”

The next day, not feeling well, he settled down on his son’s bed for a nap and never woke up.

In the final years, Glenn Ota had been helping his father with the gardening job whenever he could. After his father’s death, he arranged to take off Mondays and Fridays so he could carry on the work.

“I’ll do everything I can that my dad did,” he assured the last client, a widow, now infirm, whom he rarely sees anymore.

He had picked up much from his father, mainly through osmosis, but not everything: “I just observed a lot when I was raking and stuff. But there are some things that I never learned and never asked him to teach me. I just never thought he was going to die.”

Ota said he still can see his father, shaping the trees with his shears, flipping back the lip of a flower bed with a rake -- the subtle grace notes of a well-kept garden.

“When I’m not sure how to do something,” he said, leaning for a moment on his rake, “I stand back and look at it. That’s when I see my dad and remember, and so in that way he tells me what to do.

“I miss my dad,” he went on. “It’s been a long time, two years, but he will always be with me here” -- Ota tapped his stout chest with a fist, blinking back emotions -- “no matter what I do.”

Then the son returned to work, teasing the dirt with the tines of his rake, making it all come out clean. That was last Monday.

Today, Labor Day or no Labor Day, he will be back at it, building for his father a monument, shaped by rakes and pruning shears, sanctified in sweat.