HomeJapanese AmericanLost KinjoHow the Japanese on Terminal Island near LA created community

How the Japanese on Terminal Island near LA created community

By Avi Gokool

(This is part of our ongoing series, Lost Kinjo- a look at the more than 40 Japanese communities that disappeared after World War II. It is supported by funding from the California Public Library Civil Liberties Project and the Takahashi Family Foundation.)         

An air whistle bellows through the air. The aroma of raw, fresh fish mingle with the salty sea breeze. It signals the return of the fishing boat that just departed a few nights ago. Japanese fishermen speak in a special dialect — Taminaru-ben — signaling where to place their catch so the women on the island can begin unknotting the fish nets and canning the fish. Upon releasing the school of fish on the docks, the plattering of the live fish blends with the sandy barefoot stomps of children rushing to greet their fathers after a tenuous and long journey at sea. The sight of every fisherman returning safely accentuated the clear sunny day.  

Exhausted from the expedition, the group of fishermen seek the rows of local businesses like pubs, cafes, poolhouses, and bathhouses. Strolling through the bulldust road, Tuna Street, they are greeted by various shop owners who offer them small treats like candies, bread, or samples of cooked fish for their work and patronage. They run into neighbors and people they’ve gone drinking with at bars, being updated with local gossip. Before entering the building, they empty their sand filled shoes on the road and spend the night mingling, drinking, and eating until the moon and flashlights illuminate the roads. 

After a long day, the fishermen part ways and return to their families where their kids, wives, and a warm bath await them. A peaceful, calm, and community based lifestyle that’s very prominent across Japan is reflected and perfectly emulated on this small, homogenous island. People could hardly recognize this is an American city, let alone a neighborhood right next to Long Beach and some minutes away from Little Tokyo. Nowadays, not many people even realize that Terminal Island harbored a tightly knit Japanese community. 

To most Los Angeles city dwellers, this sandy island was nothing more than a ghetto where poor immigrant workers lived, but to its residents, the scenery and sweet potency of sardines, tuna, and albacore sparked one word for Terminal Islanders: home.

However, Executive Order 9066 permanently changed the island. With Terminal Island being the first district to undergo this order, island dwellers were torn apart the day of enactment. Homes were raided, shops destroyed, and personal possessions stolen. Business owners were forced to sell their property for cut rates while families had to abandon their possessions, taking only the clothes they wore and whatever could fit in a suitcase. The once peaceful village-like island became grounds for ransacking. 
What mostly remains of this former community-based island are the memoirs, photographs, and oral histories from former residents. However, in Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz’s new book, Terminal Island Lost Communities on America’s Edge, the two authors explore and preserve the once harmonious life on Terminal Island. Released on March 18, Hirahara and Knatz dive into the island’s rich history as they detail the stories of individual families, fishermen, store fronts, and tuna canners.

Hailing from Wakyama prefecture, there were only a few dozen Japanese inhabiting the island at the turn of the 20th century. The land was barren, undeveloped, and only a couple hundred houses were established. However, once the California Fish Co. — Terminal Island’s first cannery — was established in 1903, Japanese fishers immediately showcased their skills and efficacy for catching massive schools of tuna in a short amount of time. 

According to Knatz and Hirahara, the Japanese used a special technique utilizing 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… Soon the Japanese fishermen were dominating albacore fishing.”

Demand for Japanese fishermen quickly escalated. By word of mouth from already established Terminal Islanders, Japanese settlers from Wakayama and its neighboring prefecture, Shizuoka, flocked to the island. By 1907, there were an estimated 600 Japanese fishermen and peaked at 3,000 Japanese islanders in the 1930s with around 65%-69% originating from Wakyama. 

Terminal Island fishing village
Japanese American fisherman on Terminal Island. Photo from Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

“The fact that so many of the Fish Harbor residents had ties to the same prefecture and, in some cases, even the same village, confirms the power of transnational networking as well as the attraction of a shared fishing tradition,” writes Hirahara and Knatz.

Being an island city, residents adopted a special lingo which blends Japanese and English called Taminaru-ben (Terminal Island dialect). As a result, Terminal Island Nisei (second generation American-born Japanese), spoke more Japanese than Nisei from other SoCal cities. Among creating a new dialect, Terminal Islanders also preserved their Japanese heritage by eating Japanese foods, brewing homemade sake, and celebrating traditional holidays. 

Terminal Island residents were provided company housing as the men worked at sea, sometimes not returning for weeks, while the women worked at canneries. According to Hirahara and Knatz, the island had a little over 300 identical houses and rent was cheap at $6 per month coming with a porch, a small fenced-in yard, and two bedrooms. Houses were usually left unlocked and bathrooms were shared between neighbors with tubs big enough to hold three people. Even in bathing, residents maintained the Japanese bathing culture by washing themselves outside the tub, rinsing off, then soaking in the tub. They would leave the hot water for the next person so as to not waste it. Houses were also situated closely to each other.

Former resident of Terminal Island, Mas Tanibata, described the housing in an oral interview saying, “lots of times, we knew what our neighbors were having for dinner, 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 or something like that because it would be the talk of the town.” 

Being in such a small proximity with each other, the island quickly developed into a big family. Neighbors and older Nisei women helped babysit and take care of children whose parents were working. Local businesses never competed with each other, rather, they connected doorways and shared spaces. If one business didn’t sell an item, surely the next door shop would. During inadequate fishing seasons, grocers dispensed credit to families. 

In an oral interview with the LA Japanese American National Museum, Fumi Marumoto stated, “Terminal Island was like one large friendly family. The giving and receiving of any items was not on the basis of: since you gave me something, I’ve got to return a likable 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. It’s a feeling that is very hard to describe.”

Knatz and Hirahara explain even further how neighbors and families on the island helped, connected, and looked out for each other. Fathers collecting aid money after news of their friend suffering from a stroke, sick mothers getting help with house and childcare duties from other wives and women. Boys having small rivalries in baseball and football as they held mini-Olympic games every so often.

“Perhaps it was this sense of community, rather than the physical environs, that brought a ‘sweetness’ of home to its residents,” wrote Knatz and Hirahara.

Packed with a pool hall, several Buddhist temples, a judo hall, Fishermen Hall, a Baptist church, a bank, and a Shinto shrine, Tuna Street became Terminal Island’s main social hub. There were also lines of restaurants and cafes like Butterfly Cafe, Mio Cafe, two chop suey houses, and more. Even without a police station, the island remained peaceful and safe as residents wholeheartedly respected each other. 

Terminal Island in the 1940's
Terminal Island in the 1940’s. From National Archives

Ironically, Terminal Islanders weren’t very popular amongst other Japanese American communities in the area. Speaking in their dialect and performing rambunctious celebrations in Little Tokyo, they had a poor reputation amongst the neighboring communities. Parents were disappointed hearing their children dating someone from Terminal Island. They were discriminated against from pursuing career paths other than fishing. With upward mobility Nisei were seemingly bound to the island, but it wasn’t such a bad thing considering the inaka-like (countryside) lifestyle that Terminal Island developed. But in the eyes of the American government, having such strong bonds proved to be suspicious. The FBI struck on Dec. 7, 1941.

It was a clear, sunny day like any other regular day on the island. Yet, boats rushed back to the harbor just before noon, in larger numbers than usual. It was announced that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and is at war with the US. Immediately, Japanese islanders received dirty looks from the non-Japanese residents on Terminal Island. “You goddamned Jap,” a passerby cursed. Canneries denied fish from Japanese fishermen. 

Without being able to see their families, Issei (first generation Japanese) were interrogated, detained, and taken to prisons by federal agents. Issei fishermen were suspected of having more sympathy for Japan and had the potential of contacting Japanese authorities since they had long-distance sea-faring boats and shortwave radios. 

News of these acts of discrimination quickly spread amongst the island. Neighbors warned each other to throw out and hide anything that seemed suspicious. Families dug holes and buried items like toy rifles, naval magazines, and pictures of warships.

At nightfall, FBI agents ransacked homes, looking for contraband items like radios, cameras, pictures of Japan, and kitchen knives. Raids took place across the Imperial Valley, Orange and LA county. A curfew was imposed. Eventually, money was frozen in Japanese banks and  fights broke up among Filipino and Japanese laborers. Racism amongst coworkers became apparent. Poles used for drying salted fish were confiscated in suspicion of being antennas used for communicating with Japan. 

On Feb. 2, men with commercial fishing lines were questioned and detained. 

On Feb. 14, 95 Japanese American businesses and residences leasing on Terminal Island were given a month to evacuate their shops. 

Then on Feb. 19, President Roosevelt signed Order 9066 permitting the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. 

On Feb. 22, the navy filed legal proceedings to take over a 2 mile stretch of land in Terminal Island heavily occupied by Japanese. 

Finally, by the end of the month on Feb. 25, army men with bayonet rifles knocked on every door in Terminal Island. Residents had 48 hours to leave the island.

Japanese families were in a frenzy searching for temporary housing. Hotels and hostels were filled. Many had signs like “No room for Japs” or “Families with Children Not Allowed.” Fortunately, there were community members within the city, Japanese hostels, and churches that provided shelter.

Meanwhile, remaining families and shop owners on Terminal Island were rushing to figure out what to do with their property and furniture. Many were forced to sell their land for a cut rate or were even forced to give it away for free. Shops, renovations, and furniture that took years to acquire vanished before shop owners’ eyes. 

“It was the most stressful, traumatic period of my whole life, being left with four children and no husband to help disburse two restaurant supplies within that ridiculous time frame,” Orie Mio, a Terminal Island shop owner, stated. “Businessmen from all over came swarming around like vultures to take advantage of the dirt-cheap goods we were forced to sell.”

Others, who refused to sell their items for such low prices, decided to destroy their belongings and throw them into a bonfire. Children had to watch their mothers break down in tears as they threw away years of memories and hard work while fending off leeches and robbers trying to profit off of misfortune. This became one of the hardest days prior to the camps for Issei and Nisei.

With personal items now sold or destroyed, houses thoroughly emptied, and shops practically blundered, a majority of the Japanese Terminal Islanders were sent to Manzanar while some of the unfortunate males were taken away to Bismarck, North Dakota. 

With the forced removal of about 3,000 Japanese, the Navy demolished all of the residents’ homes and nearly all of the other structures, including the Shinto shrine. Filipinos and Hispanic laborers took their places. Long gone were the lively drinking nights, boisterous Japanese conversations, and joyful meetings. 

Families that returned after the camps saw a complete change in the city. Remnants of the usual cafes, shops, and local businesses disappeared. Locomotive bells and roaring of train tracks replaced the nostalgic cannery whistles. Boatyards and boat shops have occupied former stores. Buildings are unrecognizable but remain in the memories of former residents. 

Unable to live in their former neighborhood, Japanese American families settled in the neighboring city of Long Beach as it was most reminiscent of Terminal Island. Still, it didn’t have the same connection they felt in Terminal Island. It’s hard to replicate such a powerful bond amongst the people in other cities.

The FBI successfully thwarted a prosperous, energetic community, recolonizing the land into the industrial city it is today. It destroyed a city that could have potentially been a more influential neighborhood than Little Tokyo. But perhaps this was always the fate of this inaka as even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government had plans on rounding up Japanese citizens. A 1941 LA Times article reported that an official admitted, “Although we had our plans set, the Japanese attack caught us a little early.”

However, the FBI was unsuccessful in destroying the collective community that was built on this island. The countless memories, bonds, and deep love for the land and residents. With the Terminal Islander Club established in 1971, history and anecdotes from the island still live on.

The group gathers two times a year, recalling events, fun stories, and preserving the history of their experiences. The group also erected the Terminal Island Memorial Monument in 2002 depicting two bronze Issei fishermen at work with a grand backdrop of a replica of Terminal Island’s Daijin-Gu and calligraphy by former Terminal Islander Club President, Yukio Tatsumi.

Though Terminal Island’s former buildings are destroyed and erased, stories from this tight-knit community not only remain strong within the Terminal Islanders Club, but within the Asian-American community. Especially with journalists and writers like Hirahara and Knatz uncovering and detailing many of these experiences, the history and residents of Terminal Island will be immortalized as one of the strongest communities Los Angeles has ever had.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Worth the Time

Must Read

Regular Features


Discover more from AsAmNews

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading