A couple of months ago I lost a soul brother, and the landscape industry lost a dedicated friend and fellow contractor. He passed away quietly. I wanted to say something at the time, but I was at a loss for words. Can you imagine me, at the loss for words? Now that I have gathered my thoughts, I can recall many fond memories.
Haruo Yamashiro was the kind of person who almost made words unnecessary. Every time we met, we spoke, but we didn’t have to say much. There was a feeling between us that transcended words.
Haruo was born to teach. Some people are born to lead, others to follow, and still others are born to teach. Oh, he didn’t think of himself as a teacher and he didn’t teach in a formal classroom. He taught by example, by showing and explaining.
He was well known for his beautiful and inspired gardens . Sharon McGuire, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), said it best when she said, “His commitment to excellence is shown through his landscape projects, for wherever Yamashiro touched the earth, it became a more beautiful place.” He created an understated subtleness in the Japanese gardens he built. The feeling of peace and harmony he designed into every garden speaks volumes for the man. However, his artisan skills are only a part of Yamashiro’s life. A soft spoken man, Haruo was the quiet presence that set the example for all of us in how we deal with others.
Haruo’s father, Jack (Kan’ichi) was a Nisei (an American-born child of Japanese immigrants) born in Hawaii. As a child, Jack returned with his family to Okinawa. He grew up and married. Those were the depression years and before his son was born Jack immigrated back to the United States. He needed to earn some money, which he sent back to Okinawa. Haruo was born in 1931. When he was in second grade, his mother moved to Kyoto, Japan, to study to become a Buddhist priest.
With his father in the United States and his mother in Kyoto, Yamashiro was raised by his grandmother and great grandmother. His mother graduated in May 1941, and applied for a visa to the U.S. but it was denied. On December 7th, (December 8th in Okinawa) 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. Haruo was 13 years old when Okinawa was invaded.
During this time, he was very close to a cousin of his. Years later Yamashiro would recall, “We ate together, we lived together, we died together . . . each bomb, each machine gun fire we would hear, we would just wish it would go away . . . we saw so much death.”
After the war, Haruo’s uncle fought for his birthright, as the son of a Nisei (he was recognized as a Sansei) and Haruo was granted U.S. citizenship and a U.S. passport. In 1948, at the age of 16, he left Japan. In 1954, his mother was finally able to join her husband and her son in the United States. They were finally together as a family.
He proceeded to make a life in Los Angeles, where he continued his high school education, graduated and entered Los Angeles Community College. In 1951, Yamashiro married Takako Sugita. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, received military intelligence service training and served in Korea as an intelligence officer. He had seen war from both sides.
When his military service was completed, Yamashiro began looking for a way to support his growing family, which later grew to six children. His uncle encouraged him to become a landscape contractor. Landscaping was still relatively young and promising, and it gave Yamashiro an opportunity to create beauty.
He started to build his business as a gardener. During the next few years, Yamashiro studied and worked hard and finally became a licensed landscape contractor. He was so proud.
As his reputation grew and he gained status in his community, volunteering and giving back to that community became very important to him. He wanted to do what he could to help beautify it. More importantly, he felt it was his duty to take on the responsibility of re-landscaping and maintaining the church grounds. He taught his children well, for to this day, they still maintain the landscaping at the church.
Yamashiro shared his time and talents with his community and his fellow members of CLCA. “He gave with open hands and an open heart,” said McGuire. “He was beloved by his peers for his generous spirit, his many achievements and his unwavering dedication. He was proud to say he never missed a CLCA meeting or a chapter project.”
Yamashiro was instrumental in forming the Pacific Coast chapter, and served as president of the LA/San Gabriel chapter. He distinguished himself as a Life Member and a Sustaining Member of CLCA. He received top honors for the statewide CLCA Special Effects Award in 1972; he was recognized for his Japanese garden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts’ Shin’enkan Pavilion. During his illustrious career, he went on to win many awards for his gardens. Yamashiro received numerous humanitarian awards from CLCA. Some of these awards were for the garden at the Gardena Buddhist Church, and the friendship garden at California State University at Dominguez Hills.
He received the National Association of American Nurserymen’s Landscape Award, which was presented at the White House in 1980 in recognition of the James Irvine Garden at the Japanese American Cultural Community Center, Los Angeles.
One Humanitarian Award-winning project that was especially close to his heart was the Japanese Cultural Institute Patio Garden, which he dedicated to Japanese-American pioneers. For decades, Yamashiro created the celebrated gardens that served as the centerpiece of Japanese Culture Shows. He has been recognized by both the government of the United States and the government of Japan for his service in improving and understanding relationships among people in both countries.
He was not only a generous and loving husband and father, but also gave of himself as a tutor and a mentor to many. He taught us the art of relationships with each other. Because of having met Haruo Yamashiro, our lives are so much more enriched.
Haruo Yamashiro has left a legacy for the entire landscape industry to not only be proud of, but to follow. He set a high moral standard, a strong work ethic, a quiet presence and a commitment to excellence. Any industry would have been proud to have had a Haruo Yamashiro.