Japanese-American History at Terminal Island

In the early 1940s, Terminal Island housed a vibrant community of nearly 3,000 Japanese and Japanese-American residents. It had grown out of a small Japanese fishing village whose settlers helped launch a booming industry for canned tuna.

The island later starred in one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history, when its residents became the first Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed from their homes and detained at internment camps during World War II.

Helping to Build a New Industry

When a dozen Japanese fishermen settled on Terminal Island at the turn of the twentieth century, it was still a rural stretch of land, with around 200 homes. Originally known as Rattlesnake Island due to the snakes that would gather after torrential storms, it had recently been renamed after its new owner, the Los Angeles Terminal Railway.

Home to a fashionable resort area called Brighton Beach and a bucolic haven for writers and artists, it was the perfect place for the fishermen to relocate after their abalone camp in nearby White Point was disbanded. Although quite successful, they had been forced to move operations due to local anti-Japanese sentiment and a 1905 state law that prohibited Japanese from fishing for abalone.

In 1903, Terminal Island’s first and only cannery at the time, California Fish Co., perfected a method for canning tuna in order to market it as an affordable substitute to chicken. With expertise from their home region of Wakayama, Japan, the new Japanese settlers soon proved to be master commercial tuna fishermen. Along with immigrants from Italy, Yugoslavia and Croatia, they proved indispensable to the canneries as demand for the fish grew.

Word spread quickly back to Japan of the success to be had at Terminal Island, and by 1907 an estimated 600 Japanese fishermen operated out of the area. This wave of immigrants came mainly from the Wakayama and Shizuoka areas, via San Francisco and Seattle.

Creating a Distinctive, Vibrant Community

Most fishermen working with the canneries had contracts, and their wives often worked there as well. Living on the island enabled the cannery workers to hear the whistles (different ones for each company) signaling the arrival of the day’s catch.

A 1917 article in Pacific Fisherman stated, “the Japanese taught the Americans and all the others how to catch tuna in commercial quantities and they are the best fishermen in the game. As a result, the packers vie with each other in providing them with attractive quarters close to their respective plants.”

Terminal Island essentially became a company town, with nearly 3,000 Japanese residents and a rich culture. Tuna Street was the center of commerce, with dozens of Japanese-owned stores and restaurants.

The tiny neighborhood also boasted a pool hall, several Buddhist temples, a judo hall, Fishermen Hall, a Baptist church, a bank, and a Shinto shrine, enabling residents to practice the official religion of Japan. In 1924, the East San Pedro School was built to accommodate hundreds of children, the vast majority of which were Japanese-American, or Nisei.

By all accounts, life on the island was peaceful. So safe that no one locked their doors or ever worried about theft, the village was characterized by a spirit of reciprocity and community. Former resident John Muramoto recalls, “The families lived as one close, tightly knit family bound together by a common bond. Having the fathers go out to sea for long periods of time was a way of life…”

The immigrants kept the traditions of their homeland alive with New Year’s Day mochi-making, judo and kendo schools, sake making, and Japanese social clubs. Annual Fish Flag and Doll festivals were popular occasions for Angelinos to see and learn about Japanese culture.

Separated from increasingly urban Los Angeles, Terminal Islanders created a hybrid culture of their homeland and new home. The culture was so unique that former residents recall feeling distinct from the nearby Japanese community in Little Tokyo.

East San Pedro School teacher Mildred O’Barr Walizer was so beloved and appreciated by local parents that they gave her a trip to Japan in gratitude and renamed the school after her when she passed away. Meanwhile, the new generation discovered American culture, only a quick ferry ride away, and brought baseball fever to the island.

Living in Infamy

December 7, 1941 changed Terminal Island forever. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI took all the non-native Japanese fishermen and community leaders into custody immediately, and all traffic to and from the island was suspended. Only some of the men were released; the others reunited with their families only later, at detention centers. The women and children were left to fend for themselves financially, leaving many families in dire straits for months.

On a national level, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under the leadership of Martin Dies had been stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment for several years. They accused the Terminal Island fishermen of being spies, citing as evidence the use of depth meters and other fishing equipment.

As the post-Pearl Harbor hysteria rose, Dies and the American Legion fueled public and media outcry for the removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans who lived near locations strategic to the war effort. Located next to a U.S. Navy facility, the fishing village was the first to experience the effects of this campaign.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ultimately sending 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. Within two days, Terminal Island residents were told they had 48 hours to prepare for relocation. Former Terminal Islanders recall with great sadness giving up almost everything they owned, including businesses their families had built up for generations.

There was no government infrastructure to assist with relocation and evacuation, and very few families even owned motor vehicles. Baptist missionary Victoria Swanson, along with others, helped organize the exodus. She remembers, “the women stayed up all night and packed and the next morning when the trucks came, of course, some families weren’t ready. In some cases we had to pull them from the house crying…”

Tuna industry pioneer Wilbur Wood tried to help the fishermen by finding storage for their equipment, though few of the Japanese fishermen returned after the war. After the evacuation, the Navy demolished all of the residents’ homes and nearly all of the other structures, including the Shinto shrine.

By April 5, the last of the Japanese on the West Coast had boarded trains for internment camps, where they would spend the next two years. Most Terminal Island residents were incarcerated at Manzanar detention center in the Owens Valley for the duration of the war.

In total, about 3,000 residents were forcibly removed from Terminal Island. While many Japanese and Japanese-Americans across the West Coast lost their homes and property during this period, Terminal Island was the only community whose built environment vanished almost entirely.

In 1971, the Terminal Islanders Club was formed as a way for Japanese and Japanese-Americans who had lived on the island to preserve the essence of their community. They still meet for regular gatherings such as an annual picnic and New Year’s parties.

In 2002, the club dedicated the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial at Fish Harbor. The memorial serves as a reminder of the Japanese-American community, its forced evacuation in 1942, and the once-thriving fishing village at Terminal Island.

To learn more about Terminal Island and other pre-World War II Japantowns, visit Preserving California's Japantowns, the first statewide project to document historic resources from the numerous pre-World War II Japantowns.