Talk Story With a 120-Year Old
Issei Grapefruit Tree
by Tony Osumi

The following interview was conducted with the wise 100+ year-old Grapefruit tree living in the JACCC plaza located on San Pedro Street, between Second and Third Street in Little Tokyo.

Tony Osumi: Grapefruit Tree, thank you for agreeing to share your stories with me today. It’s important for us younger folks to learn about our history.
Grapefruit Tree: That’s right. Like I always say--remember your roots.

Tony: I like that. May I ask when you were born?
GT: Back in the late 1800s. 1870 or so. My family, a whole citrus grove, grew up between 2nd and 3rd Streets near Central Ave.
Tony: Wow, so you’re over a hundred years old.
GT: Yep, 120 years old. Give or take a few rings. But feel this bark. Not bad for a centenarian, neh?

Tony: Hey, pretty firm. What was it like back then?
GT: Life was pretty good. Air was clean and we used to drink right from the L.A. River before they buried it with concrete. Was good fishing for Blue Gill too. That’s the problem with you humans, always want to cover things up with concrete and asphalt. Dame.

Tony: Were there a lot of Japanese here back then?
GT: Not too many, Japanese didn’t start settling in J-Town in big numbers until the early 1900’s.

Tony: So you’ve seen J-Town grow through the years?
GT: Oh yeah. In the 1920’s and 30’s it was gasa gasa. You know, busy, busy. Families living all the way from 1st to 10th Street with even more over the bridge in Boyle Heights. Everybody back then came to J-Town to eat, shop, see a movie or go to church. Even gamble, like at the Little Tokyo Club. The Depression was hard, though. I was picked bare many times.

Tony: How did you feel about that, having all your fruit picked?
GT: Good. I say serving the people makes for sweet fruit. Being greedy is unnatural. So, everyday, through my roots I give Mother Earth a big hug. And with my branches and leaves, I wave to Father Sun. Without them I would have never made it past being a baby seedling. But I also love those JA Gardeners. You know, I used to live over on 2nd Street and would have been cut down if it hadn’t been for the Gardeners Federation. They transplanted me safely here in JACCC Plaza in the early 1980s.

Tony: During W.W.II, when the Japanese were sent to Camp, I heard that African Americans moved into the area and it was known as Bronzeville.
GT: Yeah, many moved from the South and Midwest for jobs. In the shipyards and aircraft industry. But you know, hard for them to get housing in many parts of the city. Same for nihonjin too. They had restaurants and nightclubs. Late at night I could hear Count Basie playing at the Cobra Club on First Street. Sounded good.

Tony: How did it feel watching Japanese being sent to Camp?
GT: It made me sick. I lost all my leaves. One day, some government man comes around here posting that E.O. 9066 notice on all the telephones poles. You know the one, says "INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY..." Well he tried posting one on me. So I started sapping him and dropping rotten fruit on him. And then my Pigeon friend, Squab-san, he starts pecking at him. Chased him right out of J-Town, that baka.
Tony: Good for you.

GT: But you know what also made me really mad, is when they moved people out of Little Tokyo a second time.
Tony: A second time?
GT: During the 1970’s when Little Tokyo was being redeveloped. Problem was that they moved Little Tokyo people out and too many big businesses in. I had a lot of good Issei friends who lived in the Sun Hotel. Old-timers like myself. They all got evicted when Kajima built the New Otani Hotel. Some I never saw again because that was one of the few places they could afford to live in Little Tokyo. I really miss them.

Tony: I hear there’s a boycott going on at the New Otani/Kajima hotel now.
GT: And I support it. Those workers aren’t asking to be millionaires, just to make livable wages and have affordable healthcare so they can take care of their families.
Tony: I’m sure New Otani/Kajima has the money, because I heard rooms go for $200 to $1500 dollars a night.
GT: Oh sure, Kajima Co. is one of Japan’s largest construction companies. That’s a lot of Yen, baby.

Tony: What else have you heard?
GT: I have a Pine Tree friend, Bonsai-san, who lives over in the New Otani/Kajima garden. Bonsai-san says Kajima was convicted of bribing mayors and governors in Japan. Says it got so bad, the Japanese government had to ban Kajima from bidding on construction jobs several times.
Tony: I thought I read something like that in the newspaper.
GT: Sure. Did you also read in the L.A. Times about Kajima being sued by the U.S. Justice Department for bid-rigging against the U.S. Navy?

Tony: That’s really bad, what’s the matter with that company?
GT: Kajima, they’ve been in trouble for years. During W.W.II, they forced Chinese into slave labor camps, the Hanaoka Mines in Japan. Workers were dying daily from the grueling work and treatment. When they rebelled and tried to escape, they were hunted down and tortured. When Allied forces finally liberated the camp, only 500 of the original 900 were still alive.
Tony: That’s terrible.

GT: But you know what? Currently, eleven of the Chinese workers are suing Kajima in Japanese court for redress and reparations.

Tony: How do you know so much?
GT: Easy, you people watch too much TV. Us Trees, we have our ears to the ground, among the grassroots.

Tony: You’ve lived here for a long time. What would you like to see happen in Little Tokyo?
GT: I would love to see the community and the bachelor Nisei here in Little Tokyo work together to find them a recreation room. Those old-timers recently lost their rec. room over on First Street. Like the Issei, they’ve worked hard all their lives and should have a place to hang out, relax, play cards, and swap stories, you know.
Tony: That’s a good idea.
GT: Also, more people and families living in Little Tokyo would bring back a neighborhood feel. Plus, it would be good for the small businesses--more custormers. I‘ve been watching Little Tokyo Service Center build Casa Heiwa across the street and that will add 100 more units of affordable housing to the area, so that’s good. But we need more.

Tony: Looks like you have your own housing project going on.
GT: Oh, you mean Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow. They’ve had their nest in my tree for years. Not to mention Sister Lady Bug and Brother Spider. I say, if I can provide a little safe housing, some fruit for the hungry, and some shade for those who want to sit and take a breather, then all the better. Makes life worth living.
Tony: You sure have a strong sense of community.
GT: And why not. This is a great place. I wish more Nikkei would visit us in Little Tokyo. Come back to eat and shop year round. We shouldn’t take Little Tokyo for granted.

Tony: Yeah, I sure miss the Far East Cafe. Especially their Almond Duck.
GT: You should try it with a little squeezed grapefruit on top.
Tony: Oishi?
GT: The best. I tell you what. When Far East opens back up, you order some food to-go, a little hot ocha for me, and we’ll do lunch.

Tony: That would be great. Well, I know you must be busy and I don’t want to take any more of your time. Thank you so much for sharing with me today. I really learned a lot.
GT: No, no. My pleasure. But don’t forget stand tall and support the boycott against New Otani/Kajima.
Tony: Oh no, I won’t forget.
GT: Because remember what my Uncle Oak-san says--an Oak tree is only an acorn that held its ground

Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, April 16, 1996

Updated: 8/17/02

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