COLUMN ONE : A Paradise Lost, Never Forgotten : For decades, Terminal Island was home to a close-knit community of Japanese Americans. Then came WWII. Today, former residents keep the bittersweet legacy of their village alive.
Yukio Tatsumi wanders down Tuna Street, a deserted lane that dead-ends at a moldering harbor. “This used to be the Takeuchi Pool Hall,” he says. “This was the Mio Restaurant.”
He points to an expanse of asphalt piled with steel cargo containers. “That was our school. This was the Shinto shrine. And this,” he says, staring at a yard of high-voltage lines, “was my house.”
To most people, Terminal Island means a slab of landfill in Los Angeles Harbor stinking of fish and diesel oil, a forbidding landscape of towering cranes, warships, canneries and a federal penitentiary--the last place anyone would want to call home.
But to a group of Angelenos in their 60s to 80s, it’s a paradise lost, the location of a vanished Japanese American fishing village with a bustling main street and rows of tiny bungalows decorated with bonsai trees--the air filled with the shouts of children running barefoot through sandy alleyways.
Here, for 3 1/2 decades starting in 1906, a village of about 2,500 people flourished and then disappeared, as ephemeral as the shifting sandbars of the bay.
It was destroyed in just 48 hours in 1942.
On Feb. 25 of that year, all people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, were evicted from the island at gunpoint. Japan and the United States were at war, and the village known as Fish Harbor was rumored to be a spy colony.
While the residents were imprisoned in internment camps for the next four years, their homes were picked clean, then bulldozed. Their fishing boats were repossessed or stolen. The nets rotted. The village was never rebuilt.
Fish Harbor is not the only Los Angeles enclave of its day that has disappeared. If the Japanese immigrants had Terminal Island in the 1920s, Iowans had Long Beach. European expatriates were creating a world of their own in a rural outpost called Hollywood. Black Los Angeles blossomed on Central Avenue.
But those communities have faded away, absorbed and largely forgotten by the sprawl. In recent years the Iowans, who once drew tens of thousands to their reunions, have barely been able to attract a handful of people.
Not so the Terminal Islanders. Half a century after their village disappeared, there are still 778 paying members of the Terminal Islanders Club.
This week, they are preparing for their annual New Year’s party, scheduled for Sunday, when several hundred people are expected to gather in Lakewood. Then there are the golf and fishing tournaments, the trips to Las Vegas and the tours of Japan. There’s even a championship basketball team made up of third-generation island descendants. Although they were born long after their parents’ community was destroyed, they call their team the Terminal Islanders.
Many older Fish Harbor natives still live in a village of sorts. They remain best friends with the people they played with in kindergarten and they live around the corner from each other--not on the island, itself, but in a neighborhood of Long Beach marked by the neat bonsai bushes in their front yards.
And they still go back to visit the island. “Every now and then I go over just to smell that smell,” says Oihe Charlie Hamasaki, a retired auto mechanic and fisherman.
“I call Terminal Island my enchanted island.”
It started out as a sand spit in San Pedro Bay called Rattlesnake Island. After the construction of a bridge and a rail line, it was re-christened Terminal Island and a fashionable resort named Brighton Beach flourished there in the 1890s.
By the 1910s, dredging and landfill projects ruined the beaches and scared off the tourists. They were replaced by immigrants who became pioneers of America’s new tuna-canning industry. Some, from Yugoslavia and Italy, settled in San Pedro. The Japanese gathered on Terminal Island.
Tsui Murakami arrived in 1918, when she was 10. “I thought, this is America?” she recalls of her first glimpse of her new country: primitive shacks on a sandy coast.
By the 1930s, the sand spit was a busy industrial zone that included at least eight canneries, commercial and naval shipyards, oil tanks, steamship berths and a tile-roofed rail station. There was regular ferry service to San Pedro.
Many of the newcomers came from Wakayama prefecture, a poor, remote coastal region in western Japan. As relatives followed, Fish Harbor came to resemble a Wakayama village transplanted to the California coast.
Some of the fishermen summoned “picture brides” from Japan. The women, arriving to marry husbands they’d never met, often found that the men didn’t live up to the photos they had exchanged. “They were old, and not so handsome,” says Murakami. “Some women ran away to Los Angeles.”
The ones who stayed had to do without their men for weeks at a time as the fishing boats followed the tuna from Puget Sound to Peru. They’d chum the water until the sea boiled with fish, then heave 300-pound tuna onto the decks with bamboo poles, three men and three poles to one fish.
When the boats came in, the women rushed to work in the canneries, welcoming the fish home before their husbands.
“The whistle would blow at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Murakami says. “Each cannery had a different number of whistles, so you’d lie in bed listening for your own. We’d take a bucket, a knife, apron and gloves, and go.”
When the fishermen came home, they’d drink and gamble.
When they didn’t come home, the wives held a funeral with a photo in place of a body.
With the fathers at sea and the mothers at work, the children practically raised themselves. For them, the island was a small haven where nobody locked their doors, every adult was an “auntie” or “uncle” and every child a co-conspirator in adventure among the sand dunes and boatyards. They’d swim across the channel to San Pedro. They’d swipe wood crates from the canneries and attach them to roller skates to make primitive skateboards.
The Baptist church sponsored kiddie sumo tournaments. The Buddhist temple sponsored the Boy Scouts. They’d play cowboys and Indians--and samurai warriors, using sticks for swords to imitate the silent Japanese movies shown in the fishermen’s hall with live narration.
The children went to public school during the day and Japanese school afterward. The parents built a Japanese garden for the public school, and so revered its first principal, Mildred O. Walizer, that they raised money to send her on a trip to Japan and asked that the school be named after her.
Only at New Year’s did the island routines come to a halt. Nobody worked for three days, everyone feasted, and the children received toshidama-- New Year’s money--and went to the Long Beach Pike amusement park. The fishing crews would visits their captains’ houses for toasts with sake. “You’d walk down the street,” Murakami recalls, “and hear their songs coming from the houses.”
So it was, in late 1941, that the village was preparing for the New Year, stocking up on rice to pound into mochi cakes and starting the ritual year-end housecleaning. But there would be no celebration.
On Dec. 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
The islanders heard it on the radio. “Was it around noontime?” Murakami muses. “They said it was war.”
“We were playing poker,” says Tatsumi. “We all said, ‘Pearl Harbor? Where’s Pearl Harbor?’ ”
For months, rumors had been circulating on the mainland that the Japanese village on Terminal Island was a spy colony. The cottages, the reports said, had tall antennas to send information to Japan. The fishermen had detailed maps of the coast. Their muscular physiques showed they were being trained by the Japanese military. The boats had torpedoes. They were planning to sabotage the naval shipyard.
In reality, the antennas were poles for drying fish. The maps were navigational charts they had bought in marine supply stores. There were, it turned out, no torpedoes. After the war, the U.S. government said no cases of sabotage or spying by the fishermen had ever been discovered.
But by then the village was gone.
From the afternoon of Dec. 7 to the early hours of Feb. 8, the community’s leaders were spirited from their homes by FBI agents. On Feb. 9, they took away every Japanese native with a fishing license. The village became a huddle of frightened women and children surrounded by soldiers with bayonets. Many believed their men had been executed.
Families burned or tried to hide everything they thought might cause suspicion or be misinterpreted. Kanshi Stanley Yamashita set a match to his precious boyhood collection of magazines on Japanese and American warships. Under the asphalt of today’s cargo container yards an archeologist might find pictures of Emperor Hirohito, guns, kimonos, photos, record albums, tea sets, dolls and the other artifacts of Japanese life that the village literally buried.
On Feb. 25, the remaining population was given 48 hours to evacuate. Profiteers descended to buy stoves and radios for next to nothing. The islanders stored or sold what goods they could, but much of the village--boats, nets, furniture, china--was deserted where it was, as if the people might return in time for dinner.
Within months, much of the village re-established itself behind barbed wire in its own corner of the internment camp at Manzanar, in the windy desert of Northern California. Most families were fatherless--the older men were detained in separate camps. For many Terminal Islanders, it was their first chance to spend much time around more assimilated Japanese Americans from all over California.
Those others made fun of the islanders for their rough ways and peculiar language--a crude and colorful mix of English, backcountry Japanese and fishermen’s slang. Older brothers told their sisters to stay away from those Terminal Islanders.
“They called us yogores, “ says Tatsumi--roughnecks, dirt bags, bums. The Terminal Islanders fought back. They formed one of the toughest baseball teams in the camp, wearing uniforms emblazoned, YOGORES .
After the war, some Terminal Islanders scattered to places like Chicago and New Jersey to find jobs. But most eventually came back to Los Angeles.
When they stepped from the ferry onto Terminal Island, they saw their cannery-owned homes had been razed. The Murakami grocery store had been demolished. The few shops left on Tuna Street had been taken over by outsiders.
Terminal Island had been transformed into a massive military base and a much-expanded industrial zone. It had been a force in America’s victory over Japan and was now an engine of Los Angeles’ burgeoning commercial power. The village was no more.
Few of the islanders took up fishing again. No one had the money to buy a boat.
Yamashita’s father, the once-proud captain and owner of a 125-foot tuna clipper with a crew of 14, became the live-in houseman for a wealthy Bel-Air family. His mother worked as their cook.
Yamashita had volunteered in 1944 to serve in the Philippines, once the Army began accepting Japanese Americans again. Later, he was struck by the irony of his military career when he returned in uniform to see his parents during the Korean War--and was forced to use the servants’ door.
Finding that few landlords would rent to Japanese Americans, many Terminal Islanders gravitated to a trailer park in Long Beach that had been built for black defense workers. One of the few lines of work available to people of Japanese descent was gardening, and the seafaring men of Terminal Island became famous for their skills with pruning shears.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the Terminal Islanders helped each other find jobs and looked after one another. The Baptist church group met in Murakami’s living room in Long Beach.
And the islanders would return time and again to the bulldozed spot where their homes once were. They often dragged along their new spouses and children.
“He wanted me to see where the canneries are,” recalls one woman, a non-islander whose husband took her on a pilgrimage after they were married in the 1950s. “To me, it was a bunch of broken down, fishy-smelling buildings. But you’d think he was going home to his Georgia plantation.”
Over the years, the islanders began to notice that Issei--the original immigrants--were dying off. The Nisei, the second generation, began worrying that the memories would disappear when they did.
In 1970, Tatsumi and others formed the Terminal Islanders Club. They were shocked at the response. When the group scheduled a picnic, more than 1,000 people showed up.
So they made it an annual event. Twenty years later, it still draws hundreds, bringing the village back to life for a day.
Throngs of toddlers and great-grandmothers roll over the island’s bridges onto its sole patch of green, a park owned by the same Navy that once helped evict them. Koi fish banners fly over children’s footraces. Old-fashioned Japanese ballads drift over the breakwater and taiko drumming pounds through the air. The smell of grilled mackerel competes with the truck exhaust, and leather-skinned grandfathers swap tales in the pungent argot of their childhoods.
Before they go, the people form a circle, stamping out the bon odori, the lighthearted Dance of the Dead in honor of their ancestors.
The islanders know there’s a chance the dance may die with them. So they are determined to pass on to their descendants something more concrete.
Last month, the Terminal Islanders Club put out a call for artifacts--old fishing equipment, photos, a kindergarten handbell--and began raising money for an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum.
Of course, a Downtown museum can’t store the evocative stench of fish that the islanders drink in deeply whenever they wander back to Fish Harbor--and its remaining tuna cannery.
Recently, Tatsumi and some friends--all in their 70s--retraced their boyhood steps, tooling around the island in a minivan, popping out to sniff the air and conjure up their old haunts. Their reminiscences were happy ones, as if the terrible end of the village had been forgotten, leaving only the good old days.
“This is where we’d dig holes in the sand dunes,” says Masaharu Tanibata at a huge pile of chrome scrap, suddenly remembering one rascally old buddy. “Remember ‘Soup’ used to charge us a nickel to go in his cave?
“We’d steal bananas from open freight cars,” says Tanibata, a retired Hughes Aircraft engineer. “We were bad!”
The men stand at the edge of Fish Harbor, where the remnants of Los Angeles’ once-great fishing fleet now share the water with sunken, rotting boats. “This is where I learned to swim,” Tatsumi says, “with fishing corks tied around me.”
Outside a warehouse, they line up for tacos at a catering van surrounded by truck drivers oblivious to the history of this dusty spot. The old Japanese Americans pull aside the young Latinos, eager to pass on their tales. “We were born here. This used to be our home!” they say. The young men smile briefly at the old men, then push forward to grab their meals.
The ghosts of Terminal Island may be forgotten under the feet of the thousands who work there today. But they are still visible to those who entered the world on its sandy shores.
Yamashita, the son of the tuna clipper captain, found himself somehow drawn back to the island. For decades, an army career took him from Europe to Asia. But when it came time to retire, he got an apartment on the bluffs of San Pedro.
Yamashita keeps a telescope set up in his living room. It’s trained on Terminal Island.
After his retirement, he earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation titled: “Terminal Island: Ethnography of an Ethnic Community: Its Dissolution and Reorganization to a Non-Spatial Community.”
In other words, Yamashita says: “We all still stick together.”
From 1906 to February, 1942, a Japanese American fishing village flourished at Fish Harbor on Terminal Island. The villagers were incarcerated and their houses razed during World War II. But the old residents and their families gather on the island each year for a picnic.
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