A deep dive into history restores credit where it’s due for Nisei diver

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NISEI DIVER ­— Roy Hattori in 1938 did a photo shoot for Life Magazine. He was the only Nisei abalone diver in California. photo courtesy of Tim Thomas

NISEI DIVER ­— Roy Hattori in 1938 did a photo shoot for Life Magazine. He was the only Nisei abalone diver in California. photo courtesy of Tim Thomas

MONTEREY, Calif. — It’s not uncommon for someone to have a “big fish” story, but the Hattoris had a “big mollusk” story. Roy Hattori, a Nisei commercial abalone diver based out of Monterey, claimed he had discovered a new species of abalone off the coast of Santa Barbara, and it turned out to be a true story.

“His story about the white abalone has been something that’s been part of, kind of, our family lore and family legend,” Tommy Roy Hattori, the late-elder Hattori’s grandson, told a packed room July 1 at the JACL Hall in Monterey, Calif. “Ever since I was a small child, I remember my grandfather talking about it.”

The Monterey chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League hosted Tommy Hattori and historian Tim Thomas for a lecture entitled “Diving for History: Roy Hattori and the Monterey Abalone Fishery.”

Tommy Hattori said his grandfather occasionally talked about discovering the white abalone, a new species of abalone that differed from the red abalone commercial divers were collecting off the coast of California from the turn of the century to the 1940s.

But Hattori told the Nichi Bei News his grandfather did not really talk about his discovery unless people asked him about it. More often, when he did talks about the experience of being an abalone diver, most people were curious about the sharks, the bends and other dangers of diving deep into the water. One of the most memorable stories was about how he used an abalone to cover a crack in his helmet’s glass as an emergency sealant.

“I interviewed him a number of times about abalone diving and he did a number of talks around town around abalone diving, and it was actually pretty rare for him to talk about his involvement in white abalone,” Hattori said. “You kind of had to know a little bit about it and prompt him to talk about it, and then he was happy to talk about it, but it wasn’t something that he talked about very readily.”

Roy Hattori, who passed away in 2011, at 92, met and worked with Thomas, who was the curator and historian at the Monterey Maritime Museum some 20 years ago. Thomas, who has spent the last two decades focusing on the Japanese American fisheries of Monterey, had a special interest in the abalone industry, calling it the “most important fishery in California.”

According to Thomas, Native Americans had harvested Monterey’s abalone prior to white settlers. Having traded their shells with other tribes, they were found as far away as Minnesota, but their tough meat and the availability of other food resources meant most people did not bother diving for them. At the turn of the century, however, Thomas said Gennosuke Kodani, an Issei, found the abalone and sent for divers from his hometown, Shirahama, Japan, which was known for abalone diving.

From the early 20th century to the start of World War II, Thomas said Japanese divers, under contract, would come to Monterey to harvest red abalone. Japanese American canneries would then process them in town to dry and export them to Japan or Europe. Unlike many other Japanese laborers, most abalone divers did not settle in Monterey and returned to Japan after they finished their contracts.

Roy Hattori, however, was different. Thomas said he was the only Nisei in California to learn the trade when he started diving as a teenager in the 1930s.

“It was during the depression and his father had a lot of debts to pay. He thought this might be a great way to make some money,” Thomas said. “Roy’s older brother was working on an abalone dive boat, but they didn’t have a lot of experience. But they borrowed some equipment, took Roy in the boat (to) the middle of the harbor, and then dressed him up … and they just tossed him off the side of the boat. That’s how he learned how to be a diver.”

Thomas added the Nisei diver then learned how to survive as a diver from the other Issei divers.

Hattori’s career as a diver was relatively short, however. His grandson explained his family was incarcerated at Stockton’s assembly center during World War II. Reportedly, they had relocated there so Roy Hattori could be with his girlfriend. The family was then incarcerated in Rohwer, Ark. Most of Monterey’s Japanese American community was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz.

After the war, with no boats and the abalone population mostly depleted, Roy Hattori did not go back to diving. The Hattori family has since pursued landlocked careers. Tommy Hattori said his father became an optometrist, since retired, and he became a biology teacher at a private high school in Los Angeles County, though he said he has started to teach more marine biology spurred by his connection to his grandfather.

The story of the white abalone, however, remained as a family legend.

“One of the things Roy always told me, the first time I ever interviewed him, he talked about the white abalone,” Thomas said. “He recognized it was something different.”

Thomas said Hattori took a strange abalone he found in 1939 to Andrew Sorensen, a local marine shell expert, and the Hopkins Marine Station just north of Monterey. Sorensen and the scientists at Hopkins could not identify the abalone and sent the sample to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. After some deliberation, the Smithsonian declared the white abalone was a new species distinct from the red abalone and gave it the scientific name of “Haliotis sorenseni,” after Sorensen.

“Only time he got mad was when he talked about the white abalone or World War II,” Thomas said.

In 2021, Tommy Hattori stumbled upon Oriana Poindexter, a scientist and artist who was interested in white abalone. Poindexter, on her Website, named Roy Hattori as the original discoverer and she pointed the younger Hattori to a book, “The California Abalone Industry: A Pictorial History” by A.L. “Scrap” Lundy, which had a section on Roy Hattori.

“Scrap knew my grandfather pretty well, and there was a large section of the book that talked about my grandfather,” Hattori said. “And in it, he also identified my grandfather as the discoverer of the white abalone. And so she said that, in her research, she had found this book, and had seen that he was the one who should be given credit for the white abalone, and she wanted to correct that.”

Since then, Tommy Hattori learned why the scientific community was so interested in the white abalone. As the last species of abalone to be discovered and it being relatively rare already due to its slow propagation rate and need for colder waters in a world where climate change is warming oceans up, the species also has the dubious honor of being the first marine invertebrate to be listed on the Endangered Species Act in 2001.

As Hattori learned about the larger community’s interest in breeding and saving the white abalone, he met other members of the scientific community who wanted to give Roy Hattori credit for the species’ discovery, but all primary sources led back to Roy Hattori himself and correspondence and notes by Sorensen only, at best, mentioned an unnamed commercial abalone diver. He and Thomas, however, finally found the last piece of the puzzle: a copy of Sorensen’s original correspondence with Smithsonian curator Paul Bartsch. In it, Sorensen named Roy Hattori as the original discoverer of the white abalone.

“It was unbelievable. Because I had to keep pushing, I had to go through various different curators. They sent me all over the country to different curators who worked for them. And one guy worked at Washington, finally, actually received it, he sent to me an e-mail on Memorial Day at eight o’clock at night. I was so amazed,” Thomas told the Nichi Bei News. “I had a hunch it would be there, but I didn’t think it would be that black and white. It was just wow. It completed this journey.”

Tommy Hattori said Sorensen’s letter identifying his grandfather is a “seminal moment” for his family’s history. He hoped that, together with the scientific community, they can get the white abalone officially renamed after his grandfather, although he acknowledged that it will be difficult.

“They’ve said that even if the name does get changed, it’s unlikely to be changed in all the documentation that’s out there. And so what we’re hoping for is just some more recognition for my grandfather,” Tommy Hattori said. “I haven’t actually had an opportunity to share this with the scientists in the white abalone project. I think they’re gonna be really excited to be able to see this hard evidence that points to my grandfather being part of it.”

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