A Village Disappeared

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Fishing as an occupation was also out of the question. My grandfather and the other returning issei fishermen found they could no longer obtain commercial fishing licenses. Before the war, the California Fish and Game Commission had issued these annually for a $10 fee, but now the law had been changed.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, exclusionists tried again and again to prohibit newly arrived Asian immigrants from pursuing legitimate occupations. In the commercial fishing industry, these attempts were initially aimed at the Chinese, who so successfully ran their abalone and shrimp fishing businesses. But as arrivals from Japan grew, the newcomers became the prime targets of such legislation. Between 1919 and 1945, California lawmakers introduced no fewer than 26 bills intended to prevent Japanese alien fishermen from practicing their trade. Most did not get beyond the legislative chambers, but two amendments that did directly affected my grandfather.

MY GRANDFATHER, WHO KNEW NO OTHER LIVELIHOOD, DECIDED TO LEGALLY CHALLENGE THE RULING THAT FORBADE HIM TO FISH.
 

In 1943 the California legislature passed an amendment to a 1933 statute of Section 990 of the California Fish and Game Code: “A commercial fishing license may be issued to any person other than an alien Japanese.” In 1945, fearful that the statute’s very specific wording could leave it vulnerable to repeal on constitutional grounds, the legislature amended it again, replacing the words “alien Japanese” with “a person ineligible for citizenship.” This seemingly broader category included just three groups—Japanese, Hindus, and Malaysians—of which the Japanese alone had any role in the commercial fishing industry.

My grandfather, who had no other occupational recourse, decided to challenge the statute legally. With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), his case progressed via appeals, from the Los Angeles Superior Court ( Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission , 1945) to the California Supreme Court ( Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission , 1947) and finally, in 1948, to the U.S. Supreme Court ( Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission ).

At question was whether the state of California had the legislative authority to bar alien residents of specific ethnic groups from pursuing a legitimate occupation.

My grandfather was fortunate indeed in his legal team. In California it included A. L. Wirin, representing the ACLU and considered by many to be our nation’s first civil rights lawyer, and John Maeno and Saburo Kido, two influential and pioneering leaders of the JACL. For arguments before the Supreme Court, the team added Dean Acheson.

Acheson, then between appointments as Undersecretary and Secretary of State, was suffering what he described as a “withdrawal” from “the habit-forming drug of public life.” During this momentary return to private law practice, he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of my grandfather, as he had a few months earlier on behalf of another Japanese family—the Oyamas—in a case involving the Alien Land Law of California. In his memoir Present at the Creation , he wrote: “Two professional matters chiefly occupied these brief months: one the argument in the Supreme Court of the United States of two cases for impecunious farmers and fishermen of Japanese descent, prosecuted under California statutes attempting to exclude them from their means of livelihood; the other the defense of one of the industrial giants of our time against an attempt by the federal government to terminate its relations with another giant. Each of these tasks called out the best my colleagues and I had to give. Despite this, it may not altogether surprise all of my readers to learn that our poor clients triumphed and our rich client met defeat.”

In a 7 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of my grandfather, forcing the California Fish and Game Commission to issue him a commercial fishing license. Justice Frank Murphy stated bluntly, “Legislation of that type is not entitled to wear the cloak of constitutionality.”

Mike Masaoka, the Japanese American Citizens League lobbyist who arranged for Acheson’s participation in both the Oyama case and my grandfather’s, recalled that when he told Acheson that the most these clients could afford for his services was $500, Acheson smiled. That “wouldn’t even begin to pay the printing bill,” he said, and took the cases free of charge. Recently, I asked his son David what Acheson thought about these cases. He replied, “My father felt strongly that the California laws were unfair and unconstitutional. He was opposed to the evacuations and always had a strong instinct to support ‘the little guy.’”

My grandfather returned to tuna fishing for a few years before his death in 1953. His island today is largely occupied by the shipping industry, and there are few remnants of the old neighborhood. But my father and his former neighbors gather regularly, and, through their memories, Terminal Island lives on.