Skip to main content

A Village Disappeared

June 2024
12min read

On the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the granddaughter of a Japanese detainee recalls the community he lost and the fight he waged in the Supreme Court to win back the right to earn a living

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.

“Nighttime I was lonely and scared,” remembers one-time resident Charlie Hamasaki, “because my father was out fishing, and my mother was working at the cannery. I used to go to the cannery where my mother was working and sleep in the big empty boxes the tin cans came in until my mother finished.”

The canneries were more than employers. My grandfather began his career as a boat skipper in the early 1920s, first with Coast Fishing Company and later with the industry leader, Van Camp Seafood Company. Although he was considered the “fish boss,” the cannery employer actually assumed the majority portion—51 percent—of the financing for his boats, while my grandfather owned the remaining share. The arrangement was customary for every boat skipper who was issei—first-generation Japanese aliens. The canneries also provided rental housing for their fishermen and families. My grandfather and his family of seven lived in one of many identical ramshackle bungalows crowded row upon row into a two-block area.


California’s modern fishing industry started in the nineteenth century from a patchwork of immigrant fishers catching salmon, shrimp, abalone, whales, and myriad other sea creatures. The richness of the Pacific coast seemed boundless then, and people from many different seafaring nations transplanted their native customs to California. The Chinese fished shrimp from their junks. The Italians used Mediterranean lampara nets to haul in squid and sardines. When the Japanese fishermen arrived from prefectures like Wakayama and Shizuoka, regions known for their fishing tradition, they also brought their own techniques. One of the most successful was a method for catching tuna.

Schooling fish like tuna are commonly caught today by purse seines, colossal nets that catch more than the target fish. But around 1908, a fisheries scientist from Japan introduced a far more selective technique to Californians: pole, line, and live bait. My grandfather fished this way, as did most tuna fishers, Japanese and otherwise.

His fishing expeditions invariably began with the pursuit of bait. My grandfather and his crew of 12 would sail the Marico , his 105-foot tuna boat, in search of anchovies or sardines somewhere offshore. The fishermen caught the bait fish with nets and scooped them up carefully—they had to remain alive—into bedroom-sized seawater tanks fitted into the stern. From there, the Marico left for the high seas, where, as skipper, it was my grandfather’s job to find the tuna. Sometimes, captains who knew each other exchanged information on the latest sighting, but more often than not experience and sharp instinct were the only guides to the fishing grounds.

Once a school was spotted, six or seven men equipped with resilient bamboo poles took their places on steel walkways attached to the hull near the water line. The chummer ladled live bait into the sea to attract the tuna and drive them into a feeding frenzy. The fishermen had only to dip their lines momentarily before fish would snap at them. Landing the catch required both subtlety and strength—a terrific but perfectly calculated tug on their poles so each fish would be lifted into holds behind. The barbless hooks easily jerked clear, so that in an instant the hook and line were ready for the next catch. An hour of this kind of fishing could bring in as much as 2.0 tons.

All through the 1920s, fish were so abundant and so close to California shores that loading a boat like the Marico to its 140-ton capacity might take no more than a few days. But the Pacific’s resources were not limitless. By the late 19305, my grandfather’s expeditions took him farther away from home—thousands of miles away.

On December 7, 1941, my grandfather was on his way home from the waters off the Galapagos Islands with a boat-load of tuna. He’d been gone for months on this trip and was keenly looking forward to Christmas and New Year’s with his family. On December 13, the Marico was chugging into San Diego Harbor when the U.S. Coast Guard stopped and boarded her. Every crew member with a Japanese face was arrested on the spot and put into the city jail. The nisei, being nativeborn American citizens, were released the next day, but my grandfather and other issei crew remained in custody. In fact, within 48 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,291 isseis were taken into custody. They were community leaders—ministers, teachers, businessmen—and licensed commercial fishermen.


My father was attending a local community college at the time. The day after the bombing—a Monday—he remembers the intense discomfort he experienced as he and fellow nisei students walked into the college stadium to hear President Roosevelt’s official declaration of war against Japan. “I felt so small. It seemed like everyone was staring at us,” he says.

Terminal Island—East San Pedro—was singled out for particularly swift action. After all, its residents were more likely to own boats and shortwave radios than cars and telephones. And it was isolated, solidly Japanese, and close to the naval shipyard also on the island. Rumors abounded and fueled the paranoia: enemy ships near shore, air raids on San Francisco and Los Angeles, spies on fishing boats taking harbor soundings.

Sadaichi Asai, a former islander, remembers that “immediately after that infamous day, Terminal Island became literally an enemy territory.” U.S. Navy forces occupied and patrolled the island with fixed bayonets. The FBI initiated widespread arrest of issei leaders and fishermen and searched homes for contraband: radios, cameras, pictures of Japan, even kitchen knives. Some agents conducted their searches with calm professionalism, but others angrily ransacked the rooms while frightened mothers huddled with their young children.

By early February 1942., Terminal Island was a community of women and children, most with no income. Some families had nisei sons, young adults who had worked as fishermen, but their experience was too meager for them to take the boats out without the skilled guidance of the veteran “salts,” most of whom were behind bars. Rumor held that husbands, fathers, and brothers had been executed—or that all Japanese families were to be.

On February 19, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Mass relocations into camps began in late March and April, and Terminal Islanders were the first to be evicted. On February 2.5, Navy personnel started posting notices: All Japanese were to be off the island within 48 hours. “The notice never said anything about where to go, or how to go,” my father says. “It just said, ‘Forty-eight hours, get out.’”


Without my grandfather, it was up to my father to move his family’s entire household. Somehow, he managed to locate a house for his mother and siblings on mainland Los Angeles and to move most of their belongings there within the deadline. Other families, too, just managed: Mainland friends and relatives helped, and many non-Japanese church groups—especially the Baptists and Quakers—provided unstinting support.

There were also those who saw the plight of the residents as no more than an opportunity to obtain fishing equipment and furniture at throwaway prices. Many islanders have vivid memories of dealers making infuriatingly cheap offers for valuable possessions—offers that could not be refused, for the alternative was abandonment.

In just two days, Terminal Island became a ghost town. Its inhabitants, scattered throughout the metropolitan area, lived in limbo for several weeks. On April i, they were given the opportunity to move to Manzanar, the first internment camp prepared to take evacuees.

My grandfather was following the characteristic course endured by most issei men picked up in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. After his incarceration in San Diego, authorities moved him to a prison camp administered by the Department of Justice in Fort Missoula, Montana. It was one of several reserved for the “known dangerous,” which included all issei fishermen. He remained there until he was allowed to rejoin his family in Manzanar in 1943. But his family suffered yet another blow. During their temporary stay on the mainland, FBI agents took my grandmother into custody. My father remembers the moment: “There had been rumors that the Terminal Islanders would be evacuated again to someplace inland. To prepare for the move, I thought I’d better get the car in good shape; the trip might be a long one. So, with wrench in hand, I was about to remove the sparkplugs to clean, then someone tapped me on the back. I looked up and noticed a guy in trench coat and Homburg. An FBI man. He asked me where he could find Mrs. Natsu Takahashi. When I heard that, I got so furious I had tears in my eyes.”

Nobody said why she had been detained, and only speculation suggested that it was because of her role as an officer of the parent-teacher organization of the Terminal Island Japanese-language school. Fortunately, my father and his siblings were old enough to fend for themselves, and they traveled to Manzanar without their parents. In the meantime, my grandmother was transferred from the Los Angeles city jail to a religious convent before she was reunited with her family a year later.

The barbed-wire fences that confined the people to the internment camps were no barrier against the government’s efforts to recruit young men as soldiers. One of my uncles served on the highly decorated 442d Regimental Combat Team in Europe and returned with a Purple Heart. “First I volunteered for the Army Air Corps on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Mas Hirashima, “but they turned me down. Finally, I went to the Army, and they took me in early 1942.”

My father served in the Army’s Military Intelligence Service as a translator for the war-crimes trials in postwar Japan, where he met my mother, a Japanese citizen, and where I was born. He left 40 years later at retirement from his civilian job with the U.S. Army.


My grandfather and his family returned to Southern California in 1945, hoping to pick up their lives where they had left off. But much had changed. Shortly after the eviction, the Navy occupied East San Pedro, razing homes and shops and confiscating abandoned boats for military purposes. The residential neighborhoods were eliminated, leaving the island part military base, part industrial zone.

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.


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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.