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George Yamasaki, 105, left his mark on the landscape of Auburn, Placer County

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Looking over a lifetime that spanned 105 years, George Yamasaki’s last days were spent at his hillside Auburn home overlooking the Sacramento Valley surrounded by loving family and taking in his final sunsets through his front window. Yamasaki was the patriarch of a family that includes sons Don and Ray Yamasaki, well-known Auburn landscape and horticulture experts. It also includes daughters Jean Kaneko, Tomiko Yabumoto, Evelyn Umeda, Betty Nishikawa, and Edith Yamasaki, 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. But his legacy runs deeper into the warp and weft of the fabric of the Auburn area and surrounding countryside. His family’s Yamasaki Nursery provided many of the fruit trees and ornamental shrubs that make up the landscape of the foothills. The rock walls and pathways he built have stood the test of time and bring out the beauty of the stone Yamasaki loved to work with. And his designs and labors are seen in public and private Japanese gardens, including the Placer Buddhist Church in Penryn, the Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Colony Memorial at El Dorado County’s Gold Hill, and the San Francisco Japanese Community Center Garden. Born July 13, 1904, in Osaka, Yamasaki’s life would span more than a century. He would call Auburn and Placer County home for 92 years. Yamasaki would join his father in Auburn at age 13 and marry Shigeyo Fujitani in 1926. They would celebrate 81 years of marriage before her death in 2007. “Hard working” was the way both Don and Ray Yamasaki, as well as daughters Betty and Edith described their father Thursday. But that industriousness was underpinned by qualities such as honesty, integrity and patience, they said. “He taught it mainly through his actions,” Don said. “I really admired him for it.” In the 1920s, Yamasaki expanded a nursery business based on fruit trees that was founded by his father in 1907. The new products included ornamental plants, landscape construction, rock walls and bonsai – mainstays for the nursery until the business’s land was sold in the late 1980s for development of the Auburn Village Shopping Center at Atwood Road and Highway 49. Yamasaki had to work within the confines of the times – which could be hard on Japanese-Americans. In the 1920s, exclusionary laws prevented Japanese immigrants from owning land so the Yamasaki property was deeded in the name of his wife, Shigeyo, who was born in Los Angeles. During World War II, the family was interned at Tulelake in Northern California. A sympathetic drugstore owner in Colfax kept the Yamasaki ranch going and property taxes paid during the their three-year, enforced absence. But their house was burned down and the nursery was trashed. After the war, the druggist bought lumber and supplies for the Yamasakis when the store owner refused to sell to Japanese-Americans. In 1953, Yamasaki Nursery was moved from Bean and Kemper roads to the Highway 49-New Airport Road location and Ray and Don joined their parents in the family business. Into his 80s, daughter Betty recalled, Yamasaki was still leading others much younger on treks to find rocks and precious mountain bonsai specimens. Yamasaki mastered the patient, intuitive art of bonsai and his home became a Mecca for instructors and students wanting to learn through example. He was a founding member of both the Sacramento and Sierra bonsai clubs. One of his most prized living works of art was a native Sierra juniper shaped over the years that was displayed at the state Capitol for Queen Elizabeth II’s 1983 visit to California. He told his son, Don, that bonsai makes you live longer because you have to anticipate what the small tree will do in the coming year and next as you decide where to make your cuts. In the last month of his life and before he died peacefully in his sleep, Yamasaki was surrounded with family. That was something he really loved, said daughter Edith, and something he looked forward to. “He’d tell his sister when she came up alone – where are the kids?” she said. “Family was so important to him.” A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Placer Buddhist Church, followed by a private burial at Auburn Cemetery.