A Village Disappeared

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To the casual visitor, terminal island in Los Angeles Harbor is no more than a complex of dull warehouses and empty lots. The waterfront may feature a lonely boat or two and the streets suffer the occasional rumbling tractor trailer, but few people come here, adding to the gloom of this industrial neighborhood.

I see a very different place. I imagine a bustling main street with lively shops. 1 see people hurrying to their jobs and children playing in the schoolyard. I hear the voices of my family as they discuss their daily activities. Seventy-years ago, Terminal Island was the site of a Japanese fishing village and the home of my grandfather. Then, almost overnight in 1942., it was abandoned.

Born in 1888 in a village north of Tokyo, my grandfather, Torao Takahashi, was the only child of a once-aristocratic samurai family. The Meiji Restoration of just two decades earlier had finished off the feudal organization and isolationism of the Tokugawa Era and had opened Japan’s doors to the West. Curious about life beyond the Land of the Rising Sun, students sought education abroad, and workers pursued prosperity in the fields of Hawaii and California.

My grandfather left his hometown in 1907. Arriving in Seattle but soon making his way down to Northern California, his first goal was to learn English. He enrolled in a public high school while working as a “schoolboy” for a white American family in San Jose. The job was thought a demeaning one for males, the equivalent of being a maid in Japan but the only work young Japanese men could get that allowed time for study.

For several years, he continued his education, managing to acquire considerable fluency in English. In 1914 my grandfather arrived in Wilmington, a community in Los Angeles, and not long afterward he crossed the channel to Terminal Island. During this same period, he briefly returned to Japan to claim his family-arranged bride, Natsu Arai, my grandmother. In six years—1918 to 1924—they had six children, including my father, Kenichi.

Terminal Island is not a natural landform; it’s a human invention that was created when the city of Los Angeles built its deep-water port around the turn of the century. Several small islands in San Pedro Bay formed its foundation.

Today, when people speak of the vanished community of Terminal Island—the place I envision when I go there—they are referring to the Japanese neighborhood of East San Pedro, on the island’s west end. Another community, simply called Terminal, grew up farther east, where an eclectic mixture of immigrants—Sicilians, Slovenians, Portuguese, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Japanese—lived side by side working the fishing, lumber, and shipping industries.

 
 

But East San Pedro, my grandfather’s home, was almost too percent Japanese and dependent exclusively on fishing. The first Japanese immigrants in the area were abalone divers operating off nearby White Point around 1900. This was lucrative work, but it proved short-lived as catches dwindled and the state of California discouraged further expansion of the industry. Before long, the abalone hunters turned to sardines, tuna, and other fish.

East San Pedro was a Japanese village on American soil. At its peak in the 19305, about 3,000 first- and second-generation Japanese lived there, outnumbering all the other immigrant groups on Terminal Island. Unlike other Japanese communities in the United States, the isolated residents here maintained their native identity with significant success. They ate Japanese foods and celebrated Japanese holidays. Children spoke English within the walls of their public-school classrooms but immediately slipped back into Japanese once outside. “We used to catch hell from the schoolteachers for speaking Japanese,” remembers my father. Baseball, zoot suits, and jitterbugging eventually found their place among the second generation, or nisei, but such influences from the larger non-Japanese society were limited compared with the impact they had on the mainland.

 
 
 

East San Pedro was a fishing village in every respect. Even the streets were named accordingly—Albacore, Bass, Barracuda, Tuna—and the main wharf lay adjacent to Fish Harbor. Some men fished alone, trolling rock cod, halibut, and other catches for the fresh seafood market, but most worked for the canneries.

Early in the last century, A. P. Halfhill discovered that steaming albacore tuna produced pale flesh similar to that of poultry, and he coined the phrase “chicken of the sea.” Halfhill, Frank Van Camp (who took up the Chicken of the Sea brand), and other pioneer fish packers set up canneries in cities all along the California coast to meet the increasing consumer demand for canned tuna and sardines. Most of Terminal Island’s canneries lined Fish Harbor, employing men as fishers and women as cannery workers. For both it was a 24-hour on-call operation: The fish dictated the fishers’ schedules, while the incoming boats determined the cannery workers’ shifts. Each cannery had a unique whistle call that blew the moment one of its boats pulled in. From decks often squirming with the catch, the crew immediately unloaded their tonnage for processing. Mothers regularly arose in the dead of night, leaving their sleeping children in bed and hustling to their jobs in the processing lines.