Kubota Garden (Seattle)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/08/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3077

Kubota Garden, located in southeast Seattle at 9817 55th Avenue S and operated by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, combines native Northwest plants with traditional Japanese garden designs that feature hills, valleys, streams, ponds, waterfalls, and rock outcroppings. It is open year-round and admission is free. The garden was the life work of Fujitaro Kubota (1879-1973), who immigrated to Washington from Japan.  Although not formally trained, Kubota became a professional gardener, founding the Kubota Gardening Company in 1923.  Four years later he bought five acres of logged-off swamp on Renton Avenue S near Rainier Beach (using a friend's name to get around laws that then precluded Japanese citizens from owning property in Washington), and began developing the garden.  Kubota moved his family to the property in 1940, and acquired more lots to increase its size to 20 acres. The family was confined at Minidoka, Idaho, in the Japanese internment during World War II, but returned in 1945 to restore and continue developing the garden.  In 1962 Kubota build the garden's 65-foot-high Mountainside, featuring ponds and waterfalls; he later added a moon viewing platform and moon bridge.  In 1981, eight years after Kubota's death, the garden was declared a city landmark.  In 1987 the City bought the property and Kubota Garden became a public park.

Fujitaro Kubota immigrated to the United States by way of Hawaii from the island of Shikoku in 1907. He landed in San Francisco just before President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting Japanese from coming to the mainland after landing in Hawaii. Kubota found work in a sawmill in Selleck, Washington. By that time, 3,000 Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) were employed in lumber mills in Washington.

Kubota earned enough money to bring his wife to the mainland from Hawaii. He moved to Seattle where he managed hotels and apartment buildings in the International District. He and his wife had a son and two daughters. In the recession following World War I, Kubota lost his buildings, except for the apartment building on Alder Street, where he lived.

Kubota went into gardening, the usual occupation of many Japanese immigrants. Kubota enjoyed the work and in 1923, he founded the Kubota Gardening Company. Feelings against the industrious people with different customs and a different language ran high. Laws prohibited non-citizens by law from owning or leasing property. Japanese were not permitted to become citizens. In 1919, some Seattle business people formed the Anti-Japanese League. In 1924, Congress prohibited all immigration from Asia. The children of immigrants born in the U.S. (called Nisei), were citizens however.

Kubota prospered in his new enterprise and he introduced Japanese gardening ideas to Seattle. In 1965, Kubota told an interviewer:

"I had not been trained as a gardener. After finishing grammar school, I went to the night class of a supplementary training school where I leaned only a little introductory botany. But American gardeners didn't even know about the three ingredients of fertilizers and about which plants grow in sun and which don't.

"I returned to Japan three times to study gardening which wasn't easy. In Kyoto, I visited professional gardeners and asked many questions, but they wouldn't give me the most important part of their know-how. It was like the art of the tea ceremony and traditional dance in Japan which are taught in the rigid old family system.

"I knew a man in South Park - Ryotaro Nishikawa from Okyama Prefecture. His father loved gardens and so he learned about trees and plants from his father. He was particularly good at cultivating pine trees and came to help me whenever he had time. I would say he was my only gardening teacher, and no one else. Dozens of times I got stuck and was in trouble. Then I went to the woods and prayed to the gods for help" (Parmeter).

Kubota used stone and carefully selected, mature plants so that new gardens appeared finished. Kubota's customers in Seattle's upscale neighborhoods appreciated his work and the business grew to seven crews. He quickly exceeded the capacity of the small lot on Alder Street.

In 1927, with the help of a realtor, Kubota found five acres of logged off swamp on Renton Avenue S near Rainier Beach. Despite the thick brush, Kubota was inspired by the changes of elevation, several springs, and a perennial creek. Kubota tapped all the family's resources, including his children's savings, to make a down payment. A sympathetic friend lent his name to the transaction to get around the discriminatory ownership laws.

Kubota moved a caretaker onto the property and they proceeded to drain the swamp. A rockery was placed along Renton Avenue. Kubota and his family cut trails and dug ponds. When the Great Depression hit Kubota in 1931, Kubota Gardening ceased to prosper. "We had time, but no money," Kubota's son Tom recalled later (Parmeter).

The family continued to build a Japanese garden, commuting to Rainier Beach from the International District. A horse-drawn Fresno Scraper moved soil from ponds to create a hill. Stone came from farmers' fields.

In 1936, business began to pick up again. In 1940, Kubota moved his family to the Renton Avenue property. Kubota managed to acquire lots adjoining the garden and to double its size. His goal was 20 acres. Tom Kubota (1917-2004) said that his father was someone who "just went out and did what he wanted to do, and ... then we all suffered" (Parmeter).

On March 21, 1942, following war with Japan, the U.S. government ordered all persons of Japanese ancestry to evacuate the West Coast. The Kubotas, along with their daughter and one son, were interned at Minidoka, Idaho (Tom was in the Army). Even behind barbed wire, Kubota managed to improve life by planting shade trees and gardens.

In the fall of 1945, the Kubotas were permitted to return to their homes. Kubota had been able to rent out his home during his internment, but the garden went untouched. The roads were overgrown with weeds and the ponds had silted up and collected debris. Tom, home from the Army, spent three weeks cutting back grass with a scythe. Kubota still owed back taxes and assessments on the property to the city and county.

Kubota shifted his business to garden design and construction and he used the property to grow plants for use on jobs. Stands of pine, arborvitae, yew, box, birch, cypress, spruce, and oak were started. Trained pines became the signature plant of the company. Old customers came back and business improved. One of the pre-war clients was Seattle University and Kubota continued to work on the campus into the 1960s. Kubota's skill at moving mature trees gave the institution an established and mature look. He also worked on the gardens at the Bloedel Reserve, created on Bainbridge Island in 1960.

The Rainier Beach garden evolved too. In 1962, during the Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle, Kubota build Mountainside, which rises 65 feet with ponds and waterfalls. Later a moon viewing platform and moon bridge were added. The garden was used for public events, especially by the Japanese American community.

In 1952, the laws changed and Fujitaro Kubota could become a U.S. Citizen. In 1966, Washington changed its laws and permitted Kubota to own his gardens.

In 1973, Japan awarded Kubota The Fifth Class Order of the Sacred Treasure for "achievement in his adopted country, for introducing and building respect for Japanese Gardening and culture here." Fujitaro Kubota died in 1973.

In 1981, 4.5 acres of the 20-acre garden were declared a city landmark, but developers had their eyes on the land. A 268-unit housing development for the site won approval. This spurred old clients, gardeners, designers, neighbors, artists, and the Japanese American community to press the city to acquire the gardens. City Council member Jeanette Williams sponsored the measure that acquired the 20 acres of Kubota Gardens for the people of Seattle in 1987. The city paid the Kubota family less than they could have made developing the property.

In 1989, the Kubota Garden Foundation was established to support the garden. In 1993, the city council adopted a long-term plan to extend the Japanese gardening style over less developed areas and to build a memorial to the Issei.


Mary Anne Parmeter, "A Brief History of the Kubota Garden," The Kubota Garden Foundation Newsletter, Winter 1996, pp. 6-9, Rainier Valley Historical Society; Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 221; "Kubota Garden," Seattle Parks and Recreation Department (http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/parks/parkspaces/Gardens.htm). See Also: John Iwasaki, "John Kubota, 1917-2004: He Created Kubota Gardens," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 17, 2004 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com).
Note: This essay was updated on August 26, 2004, and revised slightly on November 4, 2011.

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