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Fishermen mending nets on Terminal Island sometime around 1938.
Photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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Off the coast of San Pedro, a Japanese community erased

Isolated from the mainland of Los Angeles, Fish Harbor was a “dreamland” until 1942

With the Ratovich Company-led redevelopment of Ports O’Call in San Pedro in the Los Angeles Harbor, a new push to make the Port of Los Angeles a livable, viable community has begun.

What many don’t know, is that just across the waterway, there was once a livable, viable community on Terminal Island, known as Fish Harbor. It was destroyed in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Like much of the Los Angeles Harbor region, Fish Harbor was an entirely man-made affair. Construction, according to Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz, authors of Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor, began in 1915. Based on plans drawn by engineer E.P. Goodrich, Fish Harbor was built to help separate the shipping and fishing industries in the fast-expanding Los Angeles Harbor.

Terminal Island native Kanshi Stanley Yamashita says in the book that a .5-mile square harbor was built along the ocean on Terminal Island. Breakwaters were constructed to protect against strong waves. On the northern side of a large wharf there were canneries, eight in all, each of which had its own pier.

By 1918, most of the canneries, including Van Camp Seafood (now Chicken of the Sea, whose cannery in San Pedro closed in 2001) and the American Tuna Company, were fully operational. They abutted the rectangular harbor, which was soon filled with all types of fishing vessels.

A row of fishing boats, possibly tuna boats, docked in front of a packinghouse in Fish Harbor, circa 1938.

“Here the fishing boats are lined up in rows, close together, in front of the long wharf,” a reporter for the Los Angeles Times observed. “Of all sizes and shapes they are. Sailboats, with their dirty canvases rolled down, float side by side with gasoline launches. Small ships, their decks crowded with gear, rub their sides against larger vessels next to them.”

The vessels unloaded their catches of sardines and tuna directly into the canneries’ long chutes, which LA Times columnist Ed Ainsworth described in poetic detail:

Against each big chute-something like a grain elevator-leading into the dark and cavernous recesses of the canneries that line the land side of the wharf over here on Terminal Island, the crews are busy ladling out scoopfuls of sardines. The glinting silver fish come up in the meshes on the end of a long handle, shine momentarily in the sunlight and then disappear into the elevator and are carried up, sideways into the cannery… to the guillotine.

The crews of fishermen were primarily Japanese born (Issei) or American citizens whose parents were Japanese nationals (Nisei). Beginning in the early 1900s, Japanese fishermen were actively recruited by big canneries on the West Coast because of their skill at catching sardines and the increasingly popular albacore tuna. According to Hirahara and Knatz:

The Japanese… practiced an intricate fishing technique using a stout bamboo pole, strong line, and barbless hook. In a process called “chumming,” live bait was dumped into the water, luring schools of tuna to the boat. During this eating frenzy, the Japanese fishermen used the barbless hooks on the short bamboo poles to catch the tuna. After snagging a bit, the men quickly snapped their wrists back, and soon there was a pile of fish in back of them on the deck.

It is thought that there were some Japanese fishermen in the Los Angeles Harbor by the start of the 20th century. There was definitely a Japanese encampment at Timm’s Point in San Pedro by 1912. With the creation of Fish Harbor, canneries, particularly Van Camp, recruited and hired hundreds of Japanese workers, many of whom hailed from the seaside state of Wakayama in Japan.

The canneries soon built more than 300 houses for workers and their families behind the harbor. A thriving community of around 2,000 to 3,000, souls was born.

The homes at Fish Harbor, called Furusato by the Japanese, were small, simple and utilitarian; one visitor referred to them as “barracks.” A writer for the LA Times reported:

These people live in the most ugly type of American houses. Long rows of frame cottages with each house but a few feet from its neighbor and with rows very close together comprise the residence section of the village. Each cottage is exactly the same size, shape and color as all of the other—the kind of homes which large corporations provide for their employees in wholesale lots.

This close proximity to neighbors, who often shared a large bath, in the Japanese style, meant that the community was intimately involved in their neighbors’ everyday lives.

“In fact, lots of times, we knew what our neighbors were having for dinner,” resident Mas Tanibata remembered. “That’s how close we were. Whenever they had a family feud, we’d hear the worst of it. We didn’t want to be caught dating a girl… because it would be the talk of the town.”

The talk continued downtown on bustling Tuna Street and the blocks surrounding it. At Hama Company and Hashimoto Hardware, fishermen bought supplies and drank homemade sake, before going over to the local pool hall. Women got their hair done at the beauty parlor, children visited the local ice cream parlor, and families dined at Mio’s Café.

The large Fisherman’s Hall was the center of many political and social activities, the community often gathered there to watch the latest samurai film from Japan. Children attended elementary school at the local public school and attended Japanese school at the Baptist Church. Older children took the ferry over to the high school in San Pedro.

For much of its existence only one rough road and the ferry connected Terminal Island to the mainland. Due to its isolation and exotic location, Fish Harbor developed into a unique, otherworldly community.

“To me, Terminal Island was a fascinating, fantastic dreamland. I call it ‘Enchanted Island,’” native Charlie Hamasaki remembered.

Since everything was so close, cars were unnecessary. Sand was everywhere, even in the houses, so shoes were often optional. “There were cement roads on Terminal Way and Cannery,” Minoru “Min” Tonai recalled. But “I used to walk in that sand all the time.”

Fish Harbor children often frolicked on nearby Brighton Beach among the hulking old mansions left behind from Terminal Island’s Victorian heyday as a resort, or on the storied Deadman’s Island. Boys played baseball, football, and kendo (the martial art of fencing), and the whole community celebrated the New Year and other holidays like Girl’s Day, when the local children wore traditional kimonos and displayed intricately dressed dolls.

California Fish Co., “packers of sardines,” on Terminal Island in 1926.
Fish pennants fly from a flag pole on Terminal Island, 1925.

Though Japanese-Americans faced increasing discrimination in the outside world, the all-white teachers at the public elementary school celebrated both Japanese and American cultures. One native remembered the Japanese mothers dressing the daughters of the lone Russian family in the community in kimonos for a celebration at the school.

The residents even had their own sort of dialect, a mixture of Japanese and English known as “Terminal Island lingo.” A direct and often rough way of speaking, it arose from the need to get things done quickly while fishing.

And then there was Fish Harbor’s unique smell. Although Goodrich had designed the harbor in a way he hoped would take the smell of the canneries to the sea, residents and visitors agreed, Fish Harbor stunk. “As the sun rises higher and higher,” the columnist Ainsworth wrote of one visit, “the smell of fish becomes almost a tangible cloud.”

Fish Harbor was a company town, and everyone’s boss was the sea. Residents lived and died by the tide. Fishermen were even paid once monthly from “dark moon” to “dark moon.”

Men, aided by their children, could often be found spreading their intricate fishing nets on the paved main thoroughfare of Terminal Way to dry. Women made extra money drying salted fish on wire racks strung between poles on the roofs of their homes.

Many of the men were gone fishing for weeks or months at a time, and many of the women worked punishing hours cleaning their catches in the canneries. Cannery workers were called to work whenever a ship came in, and the cannery whistle often blew late in the night. Children were occasionally left to fend for themselves.

“I couldn’t go home to sleep after seeing especially a scary movie,” Charlie Hamaski recalled. “I used to go to the cannery where my mother was working and sleep in the big boxes which the tin cans used to come in.”

But as Hirahara and Knatz explain, more often than not, elderly women and young women pitched in to look after the children whose parents were at work.

“Terminal Island was like one large, friendly family,” according to Fumi Marumoto. “The giving and receiving was not on the basis of ‘you gave me something, I’ve got to return a like item.’ When we got vegetables from farmer friends, it was distributed to all our neighbors. And likewise, if a neighbor came into some goodies, this was also shared by all.”

Anglo visitors were befuddled and intrigued by Fish Harbor and its strong Japanese traditions. “An oriental fishing village it seems,” one journalist wrote, “picked up in the Land of the Rising Sun and set down just a little apart from the busy wharves of Los Angeles Harbor.”

Terminal Island shops and cafes owned by Japanese residents were closed by the military on December 8, 1941.

Another writer was surprised that at the local elementary school, there was not only an American flag flying on the flagpole, but also a traditional cloth carp wind ornament, made to celebrate the Japanese holiday of Boy’s Day.

As American tensions rose with Japan during the ramp-up to Pearl Harbor, Fish Harbor came under the scrutiny of the American government. Not only was it made up mainly of those of Japanese heritage, it was also strategically placed on the West Coast’s most important harbor.

While Fish Harbor’s young men were being drafted by the U.S. Army, the House of Un-American Activities sent two investigators to spy on the community. In May of 1941, they issued a report maintaining “that the Japanese-owned fishing boats-of which they reported there to be 250 in Los Angeles Harbor-could be converted to ‘naval craft’ and become a security menace. The investigators also claimed that ‘one thousand Japanese are trained pilots and familiar with harbor and coastline.’”

But it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that would signal the beginning of the end for Fish Harbor. “Immediately after that infamous day, Terminal Island became literally an enemy territory,” Sadaichi Asai remembered.

The raids began immediately. The first people to be rounded up were prominent Japanese-born men who were involved in “Japanese” activities like martial arts. Toshiro Izumi recalled coming home from a football game in Hollywood to see his father being taken away. “I think this is going to be a long war, so take care and keep healthy,” he told Izumi.

Japanese residents are forced from their homes during a massive round-up on February 2, 1942.

The next two months were ones of terror and strife in Fish Harbor. Some canneries fired their Japanese employees, while fights between Filipino and Japanese workers increased (Japan had invaded the Philippines).

The poles for the nets women used for drying salted fish were suspected of being antennas used to communicate with the motherland. Residents’ money was frozen in the local banks. Raids were frequent, and sheriff’s deputies often left the houses and businesses they searched in shambles. “Some of them broke Christmas ornaments on the trees,” Kuniko Okumura remembered. “Their excuse being-there might be explosives in them. Of course, there weren’t any.”

On February 2nd, more raids occurred; all Japanese men with commercial fishing lines were questioned and detained. On the 19th, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the removal of all Japanese-Americans from the West Coast through the creation of military zones. On the 25th, armed soldiers informed all residents of Terminal Island (both Japanese and non-Japanese), that they had 48 hours to leave. They had no suggestions as to where the refugees should go.

When the clock struck midnight on February 27, 1942, hundreds of families in the fishing village would have to leave their homes and businesses forever.

As armed soldiers stood guard, and reporters swarmed, families frantically packed up decades of memories, some selling their hard-earned possessions, others destroying them as a matter of principle. One man remembered his mother, “tears streaming down her face,” as she burned articles he had made in his woodshop.

The chaos of those 48 hours would be forever remembered by those who survived it. “It was the most stressful, traumatic period of my whole life,” restaurant owner Orie Mio recalled, “being left with four children and no husband to help disburse restaurant supplies within that ridiculous timeframe. Businessmen from all over came swarming around like vultures to take advantage of the dirt-cheap goods we were forced to sell.”

Residents, broken and despondent, were helped by their friends, who packed for them as they sobbed. After two frantic days, residents drove off the island, towards an uncertain, terrifying future.

“This was our last ride on the beloved soil… once a hustling, bustling harbor; now a ghost town. The only souls around were the soldiers and prowlers who were going through the empty homes. Downhearted, we crossed the bridge just in the nick of time, at twelve o’clock midnight,” Fish Harbor resident Fusaye Mio recalled.

On March 1, the LA Times reported: “As far as the Navy is concerned, Terminal Island is ‘cleaned’ of the alien menace.” A reporter described the desolate scene:

Hungry, sniffing dogs and scampering cats prowled the districts evacuated…armed sentries patrolled the borders of the area…and an occasional armored car rumbled along the streets. A few Nipponese were permitted to re-enter the district to complete the removal of their belongings.

The residents of Fish Harbor dispersed, finding shelter on the mainland with fellow Japanese and charitable organizations. They would eventually disperse to new communities, with some ending up in interment camps for the duration of the war. The canneries continued their work, hiring new employees to replace their displaced workforce. The homes at Fish Harbor (and on most of Terminal Island) were eventually torn down by the Navy. Charlie Hamasaki’s “fantastic dreamland” was no more.

Today, there is barely a trace of the Japanese settlement that once thrived at Fish Harbor. A memorial, dedicated by Fish Harbor’s surviving residents in 2002, and two desolate commercial buildings on Tuna Street are all that remain.

Faded Japanese characters can be seen on one broken sign. In one of the buildings, there is a weathered restaurant. On a recent visit it was empty, save a lone person watching Donald Trump on Fox News. In a concrete yard next door, fishermen were rolling up a huge, tangled net. Tide goes in, tide goes out.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the executive order issued by President Roosevelt to forcibly remove Japanese residents from their homes. It was Order 9066, not Order 9006.

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