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COLUMN ONE : A Paradise Lost, Never Forgotten : For decades, Terminal Island was home to a close-knit community of Japanese Americans. Then came WWII. Today, former residents keep the bittersweet legacy of their village alive.

January 05, 1994|SUSAN MOFFAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yukio Tatsumi wanders down Tuna Street, a deserted lane that dead-ends at a moldering harbor. "This used to be the Takeuchi Pool Hall," he says. "This was the Mio Restaurant."

He points to an expanse of asphalt piled with steel cargo containers. "That was our school. This was the Shinto shrine. And this," he says, staring at a yard of high-voltage lines, "was my house."

To most people, Terminal Island means a slab of landfill in Los Angeles Harbor stinking of fish and diesel oil, a forbidding landscape of towering cranes, warships, canneries and a federal penitentiary--the last place anyone would want to call home.

But to a group of Angelenos in their 60s to 80s, it's a paradise lost, the location of a vanished Japanese American fishing village with a bustling main street and rows of tiny bungalows decorated with bonsai trees--the air filled with the shouts of children running barefoot through sandy alleyways.

Here, for 3 1/2 decades starting in 1906, a village of about 2,500 people flourished and then disappeared, as ephemeral as the shifting sandbars of the bay.

It was destroyed in just 48 hours in 1942.

On Feb. 25 of that year, all people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, were evicted from the island at gunpoint. Japan and the United States were at war, and the village known as Fish Harbor was rumored to be a spy colony.

While the residents were imprisoned in internment camps for the next four years, their homes were picked clean, then bulldozed. Their fishing boats were repossessed or stolen. The nets rotted. The village was never rebuilt.

Fish Harbor is not the only Los Angeles enclave of its day that has disappeared. If the Japanese immigrants had Terminal Island in the 1920s, Iowans had Long Beach. European expatriates were creating a world of their own in a rural outpost called Hollywood. Black Los Angeles blossomed on Central Avenue.

But those communities have faded away, absorbed and largely forgotten by the sprawl. In recent years the Iowans, who once drew tens of thousands to their reunions, have barely been able to attract a handful of people.

Not so the Terminal Islanders. Half a century after their village disappeared, there are still 778 paying members of the Terminal Islanders Club.

This week, they are preparing for their annual New Year's party, scheduled for Sunday, when several hundred people are expected to gather in Lakewood. Then there are the golf and fishing tournaments, the trips to Las Vegas and the tours of Japan. There's even a championship basketball team made up of third-generation island descendants. Although they were born long after their parents' community was destroyed, they call their team the Terminal Islanders.

Many older Fish Harbor natives still live in a village of sorts. They remain best friends with the people they played with in kindergarten and they live around the corner from each other--not on the island, itself, but in a neighborhood of Long Beach marked by the neat bonsai bushes in their front yards.

And they still go back to visit the island. "Every now and then I go over just to smell that smell," says Oihe Charlie Hamasaki, a retired auto mechanic and fisherman.

"I call Terminal Island my enchanted island."

It started out as a sand spit in San Pedro Bay called Rattlesnake Island. After the construction of a bridge and a rail line, it was re-christened Terminal Island and a fashionable resort named Brighton Beach flourished there in the 1890s.

By the 1910s, dredging and landfill projects ruined the beaches and scared off the tourists. They were replaced by immigrants who became pioneers of America's new tuna-canning industry. Some, from Yugoslavia and Italy, settled in San Pedro. The Japanese gathered on Terminal Island.

Tsui Murakami arrived in 1918, when she was 10. "I thought, this is America?" she recalls of her first glimpse of her new country: primitive shacks on a sandy coast.

By the 1930s, the sand spit was a busy industrial zone that included at least eight canneries, commercial and naval shipyards, oil tanks, steamship berths and a tile-roofed rail station. There was regular ferry service to San Pedro.

Many of the newcomers came from Wakayama prefecture, a poor, remote coastal region in western Japan. As relatives followed, Fish Harbor came to resemble a Wakayama village transplanted to the California coast.

Some of the fishermen summoned "picture brides" from Japan. The women, arriving to marry husbands they'd never met, often found that the men didn't live up to the photos they had exchanged. "They were old, and not so handsome," says Murakami. "Some women ran away to Los Angeles."

The ones who stayed had to do without their men for weeks at a time as the fishing boats followed the tuna from Puget Sound to Peru. They'd chum the water until the sea boiled with fish, then heave 300-pound tuna onto the decks with bamboo poles, three men and three poles to one fish.

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