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Monday, November 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Masahiro Mukai, Farming Pioneer

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

Masahiro Mukai's friends remember a shrewd and confident businessman who hopped about the state in his own plane or drove the back roads of Vashon Island sitting tall behind the wheel of a sleek car.

Except for the small plane, it is a description that also would have fit Mr. Mukai's father, Denichiro. Together the Mukais, father and son, were pioneers in a strawberry farm that became one of the region's most lucrative and innovative.

The younger Mr. Mukai, called Masa by those who knew him, died Tuesday at his home in West Seattle after a stroke and heart attack. He was 88.

"He was a man in the old sense of the word," said Mary Matthews, director of a committee that has been working to restore and preserve the Mukai property as a historic site. "He was confident - some would say arrogant. He always seemed taller than he was."

Mr. Mukai was born on Vashon in 1911. His father had immigrated to the United States around 1885, and, after brief stays in San Francisco and Seattle, settled on rental plots on Vashon, where he grew strawberries.

In 1926, when Mr. Mukai was 15, his father bought 40 acres in his son's name. Japanese citizens couldn't own property, but Mr. Mukai, born in America, could. The Mukai farm became one of the first in the nation to experiment with freezing berries so they could be sold in other parts of the country and Europe.

Mr. Mukai was groomed from childhood to follow in his father's footsteps. He was not sent to Japanese schools, as most of the children of Japanese immigrants were. Mr. Mukai once told a newspaper reporter it was because his father believed, ". . . a boy born in America should be an American."

"They both had this feeling there wasn't anything they couldn't do," said Matthews. "They had a certain presence that nothing ever changed."

Mr. Mukai studied agricultural engineering at the University of Washington but quit. "He told me they couldn't teach him anything he didn't already know," Matthews said.

Mr. Mukai and his family were among the few people of Japanese descent on the West Coast to avoid being sent to internment camps during World War II. His father was in Japan when the war broke out and was trapped there until the fighting was over.

Back home, Mr. Mukai was tipped off to the internment plan by a friend in the military. He left the Vashon berries in the hands of a trusted associate, and moved his family to Idaho. They settled in a community on the Snake River called Dead Ox Flats, and began trying to turn dry cattle country into farmland.

In an interview in The Seattle Times six years ago, Mr. Mukai told of the prejudice and mistrust he encountered in Idaho during the war. He had trouble buying gas and food. He countered with a public-relations campaign, speaking at community gatherings "so they'd know we weren't hostile people, (that) we were Americans like them."

In a series of recently taped interviews with Matthews and other volunteers from the preservation committee, Mr. Mukai told how his father didn't have papers to return to the United States after the war. Mr. Mukai met him in Mexico and smuggled him across the border.

Mr. Mukai "had this Japanese concept of filial piety that's really a deep respect and duty to family," Matthews said.

The elder Mukai eventually moved back to Japan and died there in 1973.

After the war, the family returned to Vashon, but strawberries weren't the lucrative crop they had once been. Prices were low and workers were leaving farms for the industries that sprang up after the war. But the Mukais built a packing plant in Lynden and leased one in Oregon. During harvest season, Mr. Mukai commuted between them in his plane.

The Vashon farm was designated a King County landmark in 1993 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The preservation committee is raising money to purchase and restore the house and a traditional garden planted years ago by Mr. Mukai's stepmother. This year, the Legislature set aside $150,000 for the project.

Mr. Mukai was an astute businessman, but he was also a kind one, said Ken DeFrang, who bought part of the Mukai property in 1984.

A few years ago, DeFrang, a Boeing worker, was out of work for a while during a strike. He'd seen it coming, he said, and had saved money to make his house payments to Mr. Mukai.

"He mailed the payment back to me, saying we didn't know how long the strike was going to last and I might need that money," DeFrang said. "He said I could pay him when it was all over."

When DeFrang went back to work, he sent the back payments to Mr. Mukai, along with $200 interest. Mr. Mukai took the payments, but sent the $200 back.

Mr. Mukai is survived by his third wife, June; his son and daughter-in-law, Milton and Clara Mukai; and a grandson, Ted, all of Seattle.

A memorial service was Saturday. Remembrances may be made to the Mukai Farm and Garden, P.O. Box 13135, Burton, WA, 98013, or a charity of choice.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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