Bainbridge 'treasure' Junkoh Harui’s legacy will live on

Junkoh Harui - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Junkoh Harui
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Shaken by years of Parkinson’s disease, weakened, then besieged by cancer, Junkoh Harui seemed to defy death this year by venturing daily, or whenever physically possible, to his beloved Bainbridge Gardens.

Why come to work when you don’t have to?

“They’ll have to kick the old man out,” he answered.

Junkoh, referred to by many as an island treasure, died Sunday at 2 p.m. at his home in Winslow. He died peacefully, said his daughter, Donna, surrounded by his wife, Chris, and the family he cherished. He was 75.

“Oh, we are going to miss him,” said Kay Nakao, who had worked with him some 65 years ago at John Nakata’s Eagle Harbor Market – he as a bag boy, she as a checker. “Such a heartbreaker. I can’t believe he’s gone. He had so much character. As a boy, he was so happy, jovial, easy to be with. And his personality never really changed. He had so much to offer. Bless his heart.”

His legacy, his friend Frank Kitamoto said Monday morning, will be his devotion to family and the island on which he lived all but a few years of his life.

“He was our treasure,” said Kitamoto, eight years younger than Junkoh. “He dedicated his life to thinking about other people. He and Don Nakata were very special because they realized the importance of giving back to the community. Their influence was felt most by the Japanese American community because they were such gifted people at a time when that was very important for us. He shaped the direction we went when we were lost.”

The two men, in their 50s during the 1980s, were instrumental in getting islanders who were victims of Executive Order 9066 to participate in oral history programs after resisting such openness for decades because of “the bad memories of that event and not wanting to stir the pot again,” Kitamoto said. But Junkoh and Nakata revived the history project by convincing their fellow Nisei of the importance of sharing their experiences with others, actions that eventually led to the establishment of the Japanese-American internment memorial at Pritchard Park.

“Junkoh was one of the most dominant people in our community by then and he was very eloquent,” Kitamoto said. “He showed us the way and made it easier for the rest of us. He had that soft manner, but he was a deep thinker. And a very good person.”

Junkoh was the fourth of five children born (in 1933) to Zenhichi and Shiki Harui. His father joined his brother just after the turn of the 20th century on Bainbridge Island with the dream of getting rich in America and then returning to their homeland. They quickly became disenchanted with the Port Blakely Lumber Mill’s working conditions and wages, and began nurturing a small farm on New Brooklyn Road. At first, they sold their fruit and vegetables at Pike Place Market, but their hard work led to a country grocery store, and a greenhouse and nursery operation. The brothers worked hard for many years and eventually Bainbridge Gardens straddled both sides of Miller Road, and had become a “show place” by the time Junkoh’s parents married in the mid-1920s.

Junkoh’s life before the Japanese Americans were forced off the Island in March 1942 was a sheltered one, evolving around his protective family, school and toiling in his father’s fields. But their lives changed dramatically when three Harui families and three others (not related) left the island for Moses Lake two days before the U.S. military closed that escape route. The rest of the islanders with Japanese blood – along with hundreds of thousands more living on the West Coast – were sent to high desert camps surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed soldiers for the duration of World War II.

The Haruis quickly adjusted to their agricultural surroundings in Central Washington, which early on included racial discrimination until the natives realized their new farm laborers – in potato and onion fields – were good, respectable people who worked hard and kept to themselves. Junkoh liked to tell the story about the older boy “who beat the hell out of me” until the school principal came down on the bully. Still, though they still couldn’t come and go as they pleased, it was better than living as prisoners.

The Haruis faced poverty when they returned to the island in 1946, though they still owned the land because the property taxes had been paid by the person leasing the store. But the lush Bainbridge Gardens had been devastated by marauders and neglect, never to return to its previous glory. His parents rebuilt some of the greenhouses and garden, but they were getting old and were undercapitalized. “They just couldn’t do it... rebuild it,” Junkoh said this summer. “It was a tough life for us then.”

It was a difficult period for Junkoh, who excelled in school but was beginning to lose respect for his parents and their way of life as he grew toward adulthood. He was tired of agricultural work by the time he graduated from high school in 1951, and four years later he graduated with honors from the University of Washington with a degree in business administration. He was drafted by the U.S. Army before he could take the bank job he had been offered and, after spending two years in France, came home ready to go to work.

When it was suggested that Winslow could use a florist, he borrowed $5,000 and started a flower shop. “As a kid, I grew to hate the gardens and the work,” Junkoh said. “You worked hard and never got paid... it was sort of a thankless job. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But when I came home (from the Army), I was kind of impulsive in that if someone suggested something I’d jump at it. Fortunately, I jumped the right direction. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Junkoh discovered that, like his father, he enjoyed arranging flowers and designing landscapes. “It brought out the artistry in me and I learned to love it,” he said while walking through the towering Japanese red pines his father had planted nearly 90 years ago. “It’s very stimulating work. It’s challenging physically and mentally. It’s why I enjoy coming to work every day. It’s never dull.”

After spending more than 30 years at two different locations in Winslow, he and Chris, whom he described “as a pillar of strength and my No. 1 second guesser,” decided in the late 1980s to rebuild and restore Bainbridge Gardens. It took three years to turn the overgrown land into what it is today, but it was his way of going home. “We moved here to honor my parents,” he said. “But it also was an opportunity to build a business from the bottom up. It was something we had to do.”

The result has been the creation of one of the most unique independent nurseries in the Northwest. It’s a destination organic nursery that features all of the basic plants but also offers one-of-a-kind plants from all over the world. It’s also a learning center, where classes and seminars have been offered for years. And the devoted staff, many of whom are experts in some aspect of gardening, have continued the emphasis on knowledge that has become a Harui trademark.

What the community will miss the most in a world without Junkoh, Kitamoto said, is his wisdom and perspective on life.

Years ago when he was being interviewed by an oral historian, Junkoh was asked if there was a message he had for future generations about what he has learned from his life. He said, in part:

“When I’ve talked to kids’ groups sometimes I’ve told them that when I was a kid, I used to be ashamed of what I was, and strangely enough, basically because we wanted to be as white as we could be. We lived in a white culture and everybody said, ‘Well, gee, that guy’s really different ‘cause his eyes slant,’ you know, that type of thing. ...Well, I feel that if you’re a good citizen, and you are helpful to the community, then you should be damn proud of what you are. Whoever you are. And I think one of the things we do is try to teach people our culture and it enriches them and it enriches us. I think those two points are very adamant in my mind as to what we should do to help our community. ...I think that should be our primary goal, to teach and respect other cultures.”

The Harui family said details on a memorial service are still pending.

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