In 2000, the Bay Area’s famed Kitazawa Seed Company was struggling.
The family-owned business had been founded in San Jose by Japanese immigrant Gijiu Kitazawa in 1917. Packaging and selling seeds of Asian vegetables — not part of the normal grocery store repertoire in those days — Kitazawa Seed Company allowed Japanese Americans to grow their own vegetables for cooking traditional Japanese dishes.
The business was thriving when Kitazawa and his family were forcibly placed in an internment camp during World War II, but he was miraculously able to restart the business in 1945 and expanded to ship seeds across the country.
By the end of the 20th century, the business was a long-established important resource for Asian American families and farmers in the U.S. Then San Francisco resident Maya Shiroyama and her parents were avid gardeners — Shiroyama remembers planting Kitazawa seeds with her grandparents, who were originally born in Hiroshima, Japan— with a standing order at the seed company.
But in 2000, her father’s seeds didn’t arrive. He asked her to drive over to San Jose to pick them up. Shiroyama called the company instead, and four months later, the business, complete with its important cultural legacy, was hers.
“The Kitazawa family had had a sudden death of a family member [Sky Komatsu, husband of Helen, one of Kitazawa’s daughters] who was running the company and they weren’t sure how they’d continue running it because the family members left didn’t have their heart and soul in it,” said Shiroyama.
She recalled telling the family, “You can’t close your doors because Kitazawa Seed Company has such a history, especially Japanese American history. Without Kitazawa seeds, Japanese Americans wouldn’t have been able to prepare their traditional foods. Back then, there was no Whole Foods, no CSAs. Those of Japanese American or Chinese American ancestry had to grow their own vegetables because you couldn’t find them in the stores.”
So Shiroyama, then a housing industry marketing analyst, offered to buy the business. A few months later, on Mother’s Day, as she and her husband, Jim Ryugo, were serving brunch to their mothers, she got a phone call. All the Kitazawa family members had signed off; she was going to own a seed company.
Shiroyama had grown up in the Central California town of Hanover. “I always wanted to do something in agriculture, but in an urban area,” she said. “When the opportunity struck, and the company became available, it was a challenge I wanted to do and it was just perfect timing.”
Since then, Shiroyama has learned the ins and outs of the seed business and moved the company from San Jose to the Jack London Square area of Oakland in 2000, where she and her husband employ nine people. But the seed packages have retained the historic Kitazawa look: manila printed with green ink line drawings of the enclosed vegetable variety.
“We bought the business at a time where there was no Internet in the common home,” Shiroyama remembered. “So the first three years, I basically spent six hours of an eight hour day writing letters to food editors, garden editors, garden magazines and chefs all over the United States to put our name and what we offered in front of them.” An article in Home and Garden magazine put the company on the map and when the Internet became commonplace, Kitazawa launched a website for customers to place electronic orders.
“Probably 60-70% of our seeds go to commercial growers; the balance goes to home gardeners,” she said. “Our seeds come from the U.S., Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the UK,” she said. “We sell species that are common to cuisines like Thai, Indian, Chinese and Korean.”
Right now, Shiroyama says the most popular seed varieties for home gardeners to plant for a summer harvest are Japanese cucumbers, perilla (good for salads, rice, or pickling) and Japanese white turnip.
At her current home in Oakland, Shiroyama is getting her own garden ready for summer. “That’s what I’ve been doing on the weekends,” she said. “Everything right now is stripped out and we’re planting for our summer garden, so we do kabocha, tomatoes, cucumber. The only thing we have growing right now are fava beans.”
Request a catalog and purchase Kitazawa Seed Co. seeds online.