ISLANDERS IN EXILE: The history of Bainbridge, Terminal Island Nikkei

Off the Pacific Coast, the historic Japanese villages of Terminal Island in Southern California’s San Pedro Bay and Bainbridge Island in the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound share attributes as close-knit, cohesive, and self-contained communities with abrupt converging histories. From the early 1900s, while the Issei worked hard in fishing and canneries at Fish Harbor, and logging at the Port Blakely Mill, the isolated settings required a reliance on each other and the idyllic landscape offered resources and open space for the children.

“Everyone had to find their own food more or less and grow their own food, and hunt. Our uncles would go hunting for pheasant and deer and quail. My father … would go fishing and clamming and getting octopus and seaweed and gathering things from the sea as well as going into the woods to get mushrooms and ferns,” recounts Bainbridge Islander Hisa Hayashida Matsudaira in an oral history by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. “Everyone kind of just got along well, I think partly because of that. Because they knew that everyone else was working hard to make a go of it.”

Living on Terminal Island among seven siblings, Mas Shono marvels at their inventiveness and their quest to find “anything to do that was free,” in an interview in the California State University, Long Beach Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive. Influenced by Japanese movies that were screened at Fishermen’s Hall, he recalls, ”American kids played cops and robbers. We used to play “samurai.” We’d make swords out of a wooden stick … and carve our names.” During idle summer days at the beach, he continues, “we used to have our own cave or clubhouse. We’d dig our cave and cover it with tins and boards. We had our own rules and passwords.” Far removed from the urban life of Little Tokyo, the Islanders developed their own sense of identity and even their own colloquial language, a melding of Japanese, English, and the Wakayama dialect. Dave Nakagawa reflects, “Growing up was so pleasant — the harbor, places to go and play … Even though we are gone from the island, we had the happiest moments of our lives on that island.”

Determined to keep up with his brothers who were on bicycles, Junkoh Harui recalls running down to Fletcher Bay on Bainbridge Island. “It was a wonderful time for us young kids ‘cause we didn’t have the materialism that there is today,” Harui said in an oral history by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. We’d take what nature gave us and play with it and go fishing and clam digging and all those things. I thought it was a great life. We didn’t have any worries. The only worry we had was when to start dinner again.”

Fish Harbor
By 1907, the Japanese fishing village was established with its first houses built on pilings along the shore of the main channel in San Pedro. Within a few years, the Japanese population of Fish Harbor on Terminal Island had increased to 600.

While small motorboats expanded the distance traveled for their catch, Japanese immigrants devised an unprecedented fishing technique. They would send an advance boat to scout for schools of albacore tuna, and catch the anchovies and sardines the tuna followed for live bait. Then, a fishing vessel with a team of fishermen would release the bait and spear the tuna using short bamboo poles with hooks while standing on the steel walkways near the hulls and toss them on to the deck of the boat.

By the 1930s, most of the men were employed as fishermen with the women working in the canneries.

On Tuna Street, the main business center was established with markets, dry goods stores, barbershops, and pool halls, while the school, churches, and community activities were primarily located on Terminal Way. Fishermen Hall was built for community and cultural activities in 1916 and in the same year, a Baptist Mission was established on the eastern edge of the island.
At its height in 1942, the Nikkei population had grown to 3,000, just prior to its demise following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Yama Japantown
The first Japanese settlement on Bainbridge Island was known as “Yama,” nestled along the hillside above Port Blakely Harbor. While the Port Blakely Mill Co. hired immigrants from Austria, Finland, Hawai‘i, Italy, Japan, and other regions, they maintained segregated housing with a “Dogotown” or Hawaiian village, a Native American settlement and Yama. The Japantown included a hotel, two restaurants, a bakery, a general store, three bathhouses, two barber shops, a laundry, an ice cream parlor/dance hall and a tofu shop. With lumber donated from the mill, the Japanese built modest wooden housing on leased land for nearly 300 people.

Sam Nakao, the youngest of six, recalled, “We lived off the main street which was a plank road. The Takayoshi family made ice cream which all the children enjoyed. The Washington Hotel had a dining room downstairs where the Caucasian workers liked to come. The Shigemura girls would run home from school at noon to wait on tables, then run back to school once lunch hour was over.”

After the 1920s, when the mill closed, many of the Japanese families cleared land and started farming in various parts of the island. No longer segregated, they lived alongside Caucasians and other immigrant groups, yet retained a strong sense of the Japanese community. A few Japanese-operated businesses were established, such as nurseries, greenhouses, grocery, boarding houses and barbershops.

By 1941, Japanese farms comprised 80 percent of the island production, with strawberry farming the single largest commercial activity.

First to Forcibly Relocate
With the dramatic turn of events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the isolated towns became immediate targets and Terminal Island and Bainbridge Island were the first communities to be forcibly relocated. Terminal Islanders, under scrutiny because of their port location and rising racial hysteria, became suspect for owning boats and for short wave radios they used to communicate to the canneries. All Japanese owning commercial boats were immediately questioned and forbidden to leave the harbor.

Within 48 hours, 1,291 Issei had been arrested and detained. At first, the remaining residents were given a 30-day eviction notice, but 10 days later, a submarine scare led to their forced removal from the island with only a 48-hour notice. Most of the villagers were incarcerated at the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp for the duration of the war. The U.S. Navy occupied Terminal Island during the war; after which, the homes and village were razed, leaving no town to return to.

On Feb. 4, 1942, the FBI, along with Washington State troopers and county sheriff deputies, searched every home of the Issei living on Bainbridge Island. Contraband such as dynamite and rifles that were commonly found on the farm were confiscated. Thirty-four men and one woman were arrested and questioned. While some rejoined their families, 13 men were eventually incarcerated in Department of Justice camps. On March 24, 1942, the Civil Exclusion Order No. 1 was issued, designating Bainbridge Island as the first area from which American citizens and their alien parents would be forced to leave. The Islanders were allowed six days to prepare.

During the war, Walt and Milly Woodard operated the Bainbridge Review, recognized as one of the only newspapers to speak out against Executive Order 9066 nationally. They hired high school students from Manzanar and later, Minidoka, Idaho to write about their daily lives in exile. After the war, the Woodwards helped to welcome the nearly 50 percent returning Japanese Americans to the island.

The Memorial Sites
What remains to tell the story of these distinct Japanese villages? Through compelling memorial sites that were developed by the former Japanese American residents, the strong affinity of the pre-war island communities and its rich cultural history emerges.

Although not located at the historic site, the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial, dedicated in 2002, stands across the bay from the former Fish Harbor village and is adjacent to the Los Angeles Fire Station 40 boathouse. The steel tori gate that juts proudly against a clear blue sky provides a reminder of the former entrance to the Shinto shrine and an archway for the memorial. Reminiscent of the dedicated garden of the East San Pedro Elementary School designed by the Issei parents, the curved Japanese bridge melds into the ship deck for the larger than life bronze sculptures. The two fishermen, designed by Henry Alvarez, cast their nets and look through a transparent skyline of the former village toward the historic site. The exterior bridge wall provides a photo narrative of the Terminal Islander history and activities.

The Terminal Island Japanese Memorial is located at 1124 South Seaside Ave. San Pedro, Calif. More info: www.sanpedro.com/spcom/Terminal-Island-Japanese-Memorial.htm.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, dedicated in 2011, defines the historic walk the Japanese residents took when they were forced to depart the island at Eagledale Ferry Landing in 1942. The stone and timber curved wall that is 276 feet in length represents the 276 Japanese residents that were forcibly removed from the island. Marked in memory through chilling photos as the first Japanese American community to be exiled, the visceral experience of the long walk amidst the breathtaking landscape provides a jarring contrast to the stark incarceration sites in the desert where they were forced to spend the war years. The five terra cotta friezes designed by Steve Gardner offer a striking historic timeline of the Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island from early settlers to community life to the World War II incarceration and return. Terra cotta tiles, arranged by family with etched names of each individual, provide a place of honor to remember those whose lives were disrupted.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is located at Pritchard Park, 4192 Eagle Harbor Drive, Bainbridge Island, Wash. For more information, visit: www.bijac.org.

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