An immigrant history of Pike Place Market

In the face of relentless adversity, Seattle’s Japanese farmers planted today’s culture at the Pike Place Market.

Story by Angela Sanders

If you lived in Seattle in the mid-1920s, odds were that the milk and raspberries you stirred into your oatmeal, as you listened to Calvin Coolidge on the radio, were planted, nurtured, and harvested by Japanese immigrants. At that time, Japanese farms produced three-quarters of King County’s produce and half of its milk. They accomplished this in the face of racism, which closed markets to them and limited their advantages.

As early as the 1890s, Japanese truck farmers cultivated the soil in the White River and Puyallup valleys, farming Bellevue and Green Lake, and tilling plots on Vashon and Bainbridge islands. According to author and historian David Takami, more than 1,000 Japanese farmers cultivated 25,000 acres in Washington by 1930. 

Japanese farmers began selling produce at the Pike Place Market in 1912, five years after the market opened. These farmers might have opened stalls sooner, but the Seattle City Council introduced a resolution in 1910 forbidding non-citizen farmers at the market. Opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and a threatened legal challenge from the Japanese consulate prevented its passage. By 1914, Japanese farmers occupied 70 percent of the stalls. 

But Japanese farmers encountered more barriers. In 1921, Washington State passed the Alien Land Law. The new law banned “aliens ineligible in citizenship” — Asians, in other words, because other nationalities were legally eligible to become naturalized citizens — from renting land. Japanese were forced to rent land from white farmers. Japanese were allowed to buy land in their U.S.-born children’s names, but even that right was taken away by an amendment to the law in 1923.

Other, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to shift the advantage to white farmers included a proposed ban on greenhouse-grown produce — a method popular with the Japanese and less so among white farmers —and a movement to open a whites-only farmers market in Westlake.

At Pike Place Market, yet another attempt arose to hamper Japanese farmers. Stall spaces were assigned by lottery. The first market master, John Winship, insisted that Japanese farmers choose lottery tickets from one roll, while white farmers chose from another. Because of the large number of Japanese farmers, they were consequently less likely to end up with stalls in desirable locations. 

The Japanese farmers complained in a 1925 letter to the Seattle City Council: “The system is decidedly unfair for it gives the so called Whites, a great advantage, and does away with all honest competition.” 

To its credit, the market quickly halted the rigged lottery. 

Despite these barriers, Japanese farmers continued to make up the market’s heart. That is, until the 1941 attack by Japanese fighter pilots on American naval ships in Pearl Harbor. Following the bombing, almost 7,000 people of Japanese ancestry were deported from the Seattle area and ultimately sent to relocation camps in Idaho and California. Many of these families lost their homes and businesses, as predatory buyers snapped up farms at prices as low as five cents on the dollar. 

At the Pike Place Market, the number of farmer licenses plummeted from 515 in 1939 to fewer than 200 in 1943. When Japanese families were finally released from the camps, more than a third opted not to return to Seattle. Among those who did, many weren’t able to return to farming. The composition of the market’s farmers had changed permanently. 

For the past two decades, visitors to Pike Place Market honor the contribution of Japanese farmers, through “Song of the Earth,” a series of five large porcelain enamel panels by artist Aki Sogabe. The mural, prominently displayed at the market’s main entrance, depicts the history of local Japanese farming, from digging out stumps to harvesting vegetables to selling at the market to bidding goodbye, during World War II, to the home and land they’d worked so hard to cultivate.

Through their hard work and determination in the face of prejudice, Seattle’s Japanese farmers accomplished more than the mural shows. Today, a glance at the Pike Place Market’s roster shows Hmong, Chinese, and Vietnamese farmers, among other ethnic groups. Perhaps this is their most enduring legacy.

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