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The Mukai House and Garden

a Very Vashon Story

There is a property just outside downtown Vashon that tells a unique and important story. It is the universal story of those who come to America to build a future for themselves and their family, yet it also tells how one of those immigrants expressed the deep cultural roots of her homeland. Recognized as a local, regional and national treasure, the Mukai House and Garden combines a typical American suburban home of the late 1920s designed and built by Japanese immigrant B.D. Mukai, and a traditional Japanese hill garden designed by his wife, Kuni Mukai.

Denichiro Mukai, born in 1870 on a small family farm in Osaka, Japan, immigrated to the U.S. in 1885 at age 15. He was determined to make America his home from the start, and quickly changed his name to Ben, then to B.D. He learned English working as a domestic in San Francisco, and after the 1906 earthquake he moved to Seattle to run a restaurant. From there he worked for a commission house buying and selling fruits and vegetables, where he developed his awareness of the potential for farming. In 1910 he married Sato who emigrated to the U.S. as a picture bride from Yokohama.

Because of Sato’s poor health, They moved to Vashon Island to grow strawberries and give Sato a healthier environment. Their son Masa was born in 1911. B.D. was not active in the Japanese community, nor did he allow Masa to attend Japanese schools because he believed "a boy born in America should be educated in American schools." After Sato’s death in 1915, B.D. married Kuni, Sato’s sister. She had traveled with Sato to Seattle where she worked as a domestic until she married B.D. and moved to Vashon to become a full-time wife and mother.

After his success as a strawberry farmer, B.D. used his commission house experience to begin a barreling business in 1924 to process strawberries through a process of "freezing" by packing them in sugar. This allowed B.D. to avoid the commission houses and was the beginning of the Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant. At its height the business employed 400-500 seasonal workers, packing 200 tons of strawberries per season.

In 1926 B.D. and Kuni began construction of a house and garden on land purchased in the name of their 15 year-old son Masa, since neither of them could own land because they were Japanese and could not become American citizens. Masa, who was born here, was an American citizen and could legally own property. The house and garden represented two adjacent cultures, Japanese and American, existing together. Kuni designed the garden and B.D. designed the house and front lawn. What resulted was a traditional "Japanese hill garden" and a "typical ‘American’ suburban home." B.D. considered himself "American," but Kuni "sought to express her Japanese heritage in her garden." Her motivation for creating the garden was for "aesthetic and social pleasure." The garden is a significant achievement by a Japanese-American woman.

The garden and home became the first Japanese American site to qualify as an Historic Landmark.

The story of the Mukai family offers an interesting and instructive description of two cultures, of ingenuity, and of "fitting in." They represent the two stages of Japanese immigration into the United States. The first stage, from 1870-1907, often termed the Pioneer Stage, consisted of immigrants, who were primarily male. B.D represents this stage. The second stage, from 1908-1924, often termed the Settlement Stage, was characterized by the arrival of women and families. Sato and Kuni represent the second phase. It narrates the ingenuity of Japanese Americans in adapting to a new culture. The Japanese were drawn to strawberries and other forms of garden farming because it was labor intensive, required less capital investment to begin production, which suited cash tight Japanese immigrants. In addition, the high yield for small parcels of land was attractive since Japanese could not own land and were forced to sublease it, or put their farms in the names of their American born children. Because their situation was tentative, Japanese farmers chose crops that matured and produced more quickly. The Mukais not only became successful farmers, but their success was also due to their ingenuity in diversifying into the frozen fruit packing business. Finally, the Mukais fit in. They were able to balance their Japanese heritage and their newly adopted American home. They became successful and well accepted members of the Vashon-Maury island community.

In 1993 the Mukai House and Garden along with the neighboring Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant was designated a King County Landmark as the Mukai Agricultural Complex. The next year the House and Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, the House and Garden was purchased by Island Landmarks,

a non-profit organization dedicated to "preserve significant architecture and historic landscape" on Vashon-Maury Island. An impressive fund raising effort resulted in over $469,200 to purchase the house and garden for $327,806. Funds for the purchase came from the National Park Service, the Washington State Legislature, the Casteel Family Foundation, the King County Office of Historic Preservation, the King County Office of Cultural Resources, and individual gifts and loans. The provisions attached to these funds included restoring the garden, developing interpretive public exhibits, pro-actively implementing facilities maintenance, providing programs and educational opportunities, free or reduced costs of admissions, and an annual review with funding agencies. Unfortunately, none of these provisions were fully implemented by Island Landmarks.

As a result of lack of due diligence by the former board of Island Landmarks, a membership drive was held and a special meeting was called for by the members on June 4, 2012 to remove the former board and elect a new board to fulfill the original promise of restoring and opening the Mukai House and Garden to the residents of Vashon-Maury Island and to other interested visitors. Vashon residents were invited by the new board to view the garden and house on June 18th to assess what needs to be done, but the Mukai Open House was locked out by a deer fence installed that afternoon by former board members, invoking for the 100 persons present the internment of theJapanese presence of Vashon-Maury for the second time, a replay of 1942 in 2012, 70 years later.

Meanwhile the new board has filed a law suit in superior court against the former board, is taking memberships and donations, and has submitted a funding proposal to 4-Culture to replace the roof on the house. To date, 120 members are supporting the organizational effort to revitalize, repair and restore the Mukai property to its former glory and its intended use. The Board will have a booth at the Strawberry Festival to share Mukai house and Garden plans, take memberships and donations, and sell "Free Mukai" bumper stickers.

For more information and future updates about Island Landmarks and Mukai House and Garden, check out the website at