On Nov. 24, 1923, a crowd of Japanese American farming families gathered on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California to celebrate the opening of a community hall intended for meetings, language classes, judo lessons and social events. To mark the occasion, they lined up for a group photograph in front of the new building — men in suits, women in hats, young children filling up the first two rows — 184 Nikkei in all, representing the driving force behind the peninsula’s prodigious agricultural output of barley, tomatoes and garbanzo beans.
An enormous panoramic print of that photograph hangs on a wall at the Peninsula Center Library where docent Richard Kawasaki has been researching the area’s farming history, his efforts guided by the faces of those Nikkei captured on film nearly a century ago.
“I retired in 2004 and I was looking for something to keep me busy and out of trouble,” he quipped, explaining how this led him to meet with a librarian about volunteer opportunities. “When I had come to visit her, the picture was up, and she says, ‘I would like to do a project on that picture, find out who those people are, what their stories are,’” Kawasaki recounted. Her idea came to life as the 40 Families Project — named after someone’s rough guess at the number of families represented in the photograph — and Kawasaki ended up serving as one of its primary coordinators.
“I was really interested in getting histories of these people,” he said, “because some of these people were familiar to me.”
Born in the War Relocation Authority prison camp at Topaz (Central Utah), Kawasaki was raised in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but his maternal grandfather once operated a tomato farm on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “My family would come here to have annual barbecues on the beach,” he said, adding that the vicinity made for prime seaweed collecting: “We would pick that off the rocks — my mom knew how to process it, so we would make nori for eating with our meals.”
As a youth, Kawasaki’s connection to the area brought him in contact with the Ishibashis, the area’s most well-known Japanese American farming family, and one of only a handful to return to the peninsula after the war. “My mom made me drive from LA down here to go visit their vegetable stand,” he said. “We would bring See’s candy or manju from LA and hand it off to the obasan down here, and she would load us up with fresh beets and other produce and some flowers. I remember those days really fondly.”
Through the 40 Families Project, Kawasaki learned a lot more about the Ishibashis and other Japanese Americans who farmed on the peninsula. Their descendants visited the library to scan old family photos and talk with the project team, who were in the process of consulting census records, online immigration databases and files from the National Archives. Eventually, the project managed to identify 117 of the Nikkei in the 1923 photograph while generating biographical sketches for about 20 of the families.
Most of the heavy lifting on the 40 Families Project happened a decade ago, and the librarian overseeing it has since retired, but Kawasaki has steadily carried on with more research. Librarian Monique Sugimoto has stepped in to support him as he works on expanding the existing biographical sketches and writing new ones. Kawasaki’s not limiting his investigation to just the Nikkei in the 1923 photograph, either; he hopes to capture as many stories from that era as possible, drawing attention to a Japanese American farming community that almost completely disappeared from the peninsula after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I’m guessing we’ll probably wind up with about 120 different families that were here at sometime from 1910 to the war,” he said regarding the prospect of digging up more information. Regardless of the number, though, Kawasaki feels excited about pursuing more discoveries.
“It’s really interesting work,” he said of his exploration into the past. “There’s some really fantastic stories in there.”
Do you have an ancestral connection to the pre-war farming era on the Palos Verdes Peninsula? Contact the Palos Verdes Library District’s Monique Sugimoto at email@example.com or (310) 377-9584 (extension 213) to share your family’s story. To learn more about the 40 Families Project, visit https://pvld.org/40families.
Rancho Palos Verdes to pursue historical designation for Hatano Farm
On April 19, Rancho Palos Verdes city council members directed their staff to continue pursuing historical designation for Hatano Farm.
Started in the 1950s by Nisei James Hatano, the flower and cactus farm is scheduled to close later this year, as reported in the March 17, 2022 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly. Prior to his death in 2015, Hatano passed control of the farm to his foreman, Martin Martinez. The farm operates on city land, and the council recently voted to terminate Martinez’s lease in order to comply with a decades-old mandate requiring that the property be used to support parks and recreation, not private commercial interests such as agriculture.
As part of the process of transitioning the property into legal compliance, as well as in response to strong public pressure, the city council has sought to officially recognize the significance of both Hatano’s agricultural contributions and those of other Nikkei who had farmed in the area before him.
At the April 19 meeting, Deputy City Manager Karina Bañales presented various options for such recognition, and was directed by the council to pursue potential nomination of the property for three historical designations: on the National Register of Historic Places, on the California Register of Historical Resources and as a California Point of Historical Interest.
In pursuit of the state designations, Bañales reported that, “We are working with a historian at the state level who is very intrigued with the farm” and mentioned “staff also connected with Monique (Sugimoto) over at the Palos Verdes Library District” to “assist us in gathering the information.”
Working on the federal level, Bañales said that staff was scheduled to meet with the office of Rep. Ted Lieu, whose 33rd Congressional District covers the city and much of western L.A. County. Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor David Bradley chimed in that, in previous conversation about Hatano Farm, Lieu “was very interested in helping us.”
While exploring the possibilities for official recognition of Hatano Farm’s legacy, staff will also investigate how to manage the property itself. Several bureaucratic challenges stand in the way, but the city is considering a range of non-commercial uses that offer environmental and educational benefits for the community. A plant and seed nursery, for example, could provide material for municipal revegetation projects or restoring nearby habitats. In navigating management issues, the city will receive guidance from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, and may seek a professional consulting arrangement with Martinez, whose lease expires on Aug. 16.
— Alec Yoshio MacDonald/Nichi Bei Weekly