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Recognizing Day of Remembrance and the legacy of Pike Place Market’s Japanese farmers

Posted February 19, 2024

Today marks 82 years since President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the racially–targeted order that led to the forced removal of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and unlawfully incarcerated them in prison camps across the West Coast. 

Farmers, merchants, and families who were part of the heart and soul of early Pike Place Market were unjustly forced to abandon their jobs, their homes, and their lives. Not a single Issei (“first generation”, emigrants from Japan) or Nisei (“second generation”, U.S. citizens) were ever charged or convicted of espionage, yet thousands of families suffered the cost of our country’s racial exclusion and paranoia.  

This order was the culmination of five decades of xenophobia experienced by the Nikkei (“of Japanese lineage”, people of the Japanese diaspora) as they sought to establish their livelihoods in Seattle and at the Market. Issei farmers were among the first to sell produce on Pike Place Market’s opening day in 1907, contributing to the district’s growth into a thriving destination. 

They experienced discriminatory practices in daily stall assignments, as stalls were designated by race and gave preferential spots to white farmers, even though farmers of Japanese ancestry outnumbered them two to one. The Japanese community petitioned Seattle City Council four different times in the 1910s to change these practices, and were ignored. Despite racist policies continuing into the 1920s and 1930s, these farmers were the driving success of Pike Place Market, producing 75% of the fruits and vegetables sold. 

Japanese Farmers’ protest of racist booth distribution methods, 1914.

In the spring of 1942 after the executive order dropped, Market families with Japanese ancestry were abruptly arrested, detained without explanation, and imprisoned until the end of the war. Farmers were forced to give up their land and livelihoods, they were expelled from the city, and never returned to sell at Pike Place. 

The Japanese community had played a vital role in promoting food access, childcare, and other elements of a healthy community model that the Market Foundation upholds today. Executive Order 9066 shattered this support system, leaving an irreplaceable gap in the Market. 

Issei (first generation) farmers at Pike Place Market. Their signs read “Will Help Needy Families”, and “These vegetables are given for FREE to the neighborhood from the Japanese farmers at Pike Place Market”. 

On this Day of Remembrance, the Market Foundation acknowledges the irreversible harm and generational impact that Japanese-American incarceration had on the Market community. The complicity in their removal from the Market contradicts the very principles of community that Nikkei farmers and merchants helped instill in our neighborhood. 

Today, the Market Foundation’s model for a healthy community strives to reduce barriers so that everyone in our neighborhood can live their best lives. In the spirit of the Japanese farmers who shared their produce, social service partners continue to ensure culturally appropriate food is accessible to all, regardless of income. The Foundation supports Market farmers facing systemic barriers through programs like the Seed and Bulb Program and the Bulk Buy Program. In 2019, we were honored with the Community Service Award from Seattle’s Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Learn more about the Market’s history of food access and the Foundation’s ongoing work on our website. 

We recognize that Pike Place Market’s 117-year history is built on the collective legacies of multiple generations of farmers, merchants, and families of diverse backgrounds, making this place “the soul of Seattle.” The Market Foundation is committed to sharing the stories of those who shaped this community and its rich traditions. Together with our partners, we work to preserve this heritage and build a more equitable future where every community member can live healthy, vibrant lives. 

In the spring of 2023, the City of Seattle’s plans to cut down 40-year-old cherry blossom trees at the Market’s entrance were momentarily paused after community protest. These trees were planted in the 1980’s as Pike Place Market was being revitalized after and decades of downturn after Nikkei farmers were forcibly removed from the Market.  

 Thanks to the activists, residents, and Market community members who made their voices heard, the City of Seattle changed course and replaced the original trees with eight new cherry blossom trees on Pike Street, between 1st and 2nd avenues. 

On December 6, 2023, the city dedicated the new trees and unveiled a commemorative plaque that highlights the historic meaning of the sakura in remembrance of the Japanese community’s contributions to Pike Place Market. 

 “The blossoming of cherry trees heralds the end of the cold and gloomy winter, ushering in the bright and uplifting spring,” said Seattle Consul General Makoto Iyori. “These newly planted Sakura trees will paint Seattle with pink and bring happiness to those who see them. As we take in this seasonal beauty, I hope it can remind us of the bonds of friendship and mutual understanding enjoyed today by the diverse communities of Seattle and between Japan and the United States.” 

Next time you visit the Market, make sure to visit the new cherry blossom trees and take a moment to honor the legacy of Japanese farmers and merchants in our historic district.

To learn more and take part in recognizing the Day of Remembrance:  

    Japanese Americans at the Market

     Photo credits:

    • Photo of two farmers behind their produce stall pre-WWII: courtesy of the Pike Place PDA
    • Photo of two women posing at their flower stall, 1939. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, Image 32317
    • Protest of Japanese Farmers vs. method of distributing booths, 1914. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, Comptroller File 58632 
    • Photo of farmers distributing free produce courtesy of the PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection (number 83.10.2125), Museum of History & Industry 
    • Photo with Japanese American farmers, 1936. Lights for G.G. stalls, item 90.2.1211, series 275, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, box 7, King County Archives, Seattle, WA.
    • Pike Place Market cherry blossom trees, courtesy of Pike Place Market PDA
    • Photo of two farmers smiling in front of Market stall courtesy of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. “Stall at the Public Market” (ddr-densho-34-123) Densho, Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community Collection.
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