Hidden Histories: Remembering historical mistreatment of Japanese can illuminate current injustice

(Jessica Lam/Daily Bruin)

We rightfully want to learn from history’s mistakes, but navigating the uglier results of history can often be both difficult and muddled. However, interaction with history doesn’t have to be stagnant: in Hidden Histories, Daily Bruin staffer Alexandra Ferguson will reflect on various aspects of Los Angeles’ history.

More than 2,500 Japanese and Japanese-Americans lived on an island in the Los Angeles Harbor until the US government forcibly evacuated them with only 48 hours notice in 1942.

Just 30 miles away from UCLA’s campus lived the first group of Japanese people interned in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor. Terminal Island, 1 mile off the Port of Los Angeles, was populated as early as 1907 by a group of Japanese railroad laborers plying their skills as fishermen and abalone divers.

Between the early days of the village and 1942, more Japanese immigrated from the Kii Province in Wakayama, Japan, creating a blended dialect of English and regional Japanese. The villagers called their home “Furusato,” or “hometown,” and worked mainly as fishermen or in canneries on the island.

More than just “hometown” in name, the island became a thriving community: a Fisherman’s Hall, a Shinto shrine, medical offices and candy shops all run by the islanders thrived too. However, by 1918 a California fishing bill passed, prohibiting Japanese people from owning their own fishing boats and forcing Terminal Islanders to work only on the canneries’ boats instead. Unable to own the boats that brought them their livelihoods, Japanese fishermen became, in the eyes of their employers, more like the tools of the trade than the skilled workers they were.

Once the bill passed, Terminal Islanders had to live in housing owned by the companies for which they fished. If islanders fished for French Sardine Company, they lived in French Sardine-owned barracks, but if their boats were switched to Van Camp Seafood Company, they would move to Van Camp barracks. This bill, aided by company policies, bound islanders’ labor to their living situations – going home after work meant remaining on company land.

The Terminal Islanders were not the only Japanese community in California facing exclusion. California as a whole was teeming with anti-Japanese sentiment. Asian immigration in the mid-19th century was met with resentment from whites who viewed immigrants as economic competition and a threat to racial “purity.”

The Naturalization Act of 1870 did not designate Asian immigrants as eligible for citizenship, effectively prohibiting Asians from voting or serving on juries, rendering them powerless to participate in governmental systems that held sway over all aspects of Japanese living and working lives.

Particularly important to the story of the Terminal Islanders is their spatial position in Los Angeles. Though the Island was located off the rapidly expanding Port of Los Angeles, the city’s international stature did not spare the islanders from scrutiny or unjust laws.

In fact, the island’s relative isolation and industrial purpose largely contributed to its swift downfall.

Angelenos often did not know about the existence of the island, let alone its people, many of whom were first- and second-generation Americans. And citizenship didn’t shelter Terminal Islanders from being seen as permanent outsiders. While teenagers from Terminal Island attended San Pedro High School on the mainland, at the end of the day they would return to the island that their city, state and country saw as an economic asset at best, and an enemy territory at worst.

Terminal Islanders existed under both invisibility to the nearby white majority, and hyper-visibility as a completely Japanese neighborhood located near a Naval shipyard. Instead of being seen as residents or Americans, pre-World War II Japanese were subjected to intense scrutiny stemming from their hyper-visibility.

Central to their dangerous hyper-visibility were the very tools of their fishing trade. Citing the fishermen’s use of depth meters, radios and personal pictures of Japan as evidence of Japanese treachery and disloyalty, the House Un-American Activities Committee, formed in 1938 to investigate supposed subversive activity, began to spy on Japanese communities on the West Coast in the summer of 1941, sending the first investigative commission to Terminal Island.

It was falsely reported to the committee that Japanese fishing boats could be converted to Naval vessels and Terminal Islanders were collaborating with Japanese Naval personnel.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, rendered Terminal Island enemy territory in the eyes of many Americans. Raids and arrests on the island became commonplace: Prominent Japanese-born men were arrested without reason, canneries randomly fired many Japanese employees, banks froze residents’ money, and homes and businesses were looted and destroyed.

Not only were Japanese communities like Furusato immediately seen as subversive by many Americans after Pearl Harbor, Japanese students at UCLA were also met with undue suspicion: Japanese-American students released a statement saying that they were loyal to no other country than America, and that they were ready to act in whatever way the US government asked them to.

Soon after, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that called for the forced removal of around 120,000 Japanese from their homes and into concentration camps. On Feb. 25, Terminal Islanders, the first group targeted, were given 48 hours to leave the island. Since most male islanders had already been detained, mainly women and children, under supervision of armed soldiers, packed their belongings and vacated the island. In two days, the island was reported as “cleaned” of the enemy.

Almost immediately after the eviction, the Navy moved in. They razed everything – all signs of the formerly vibrant Furusato was gone. Their home destroyed, the islanders moved toward a terrifying and uncertain future.

The story of the Terminal Islanders and Japanese in America is not merely a story about an unjust “mistake” in American and Los Angeles history. Everything that happened to the Terminal Islanders was calculated and executed carefully and purposefully, with governmental reasoning justifying injustice.

The invention of this “enemy” in America essentially triggered a quiet civil war waged on Japanese and Japanese-Americans. War evicts, fractures and demolishes the worlds it invades, making what happened on Furusato more than mere collateral damage.

While the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii flags the Japanese attack, the equally devastating American response echoes among the faded Japanese characters on remaining Terminal Island buildings.

Among the vilified were 175 UCLA students who were forced to leave school for internment in 1942, making it hard to ignore or tidy up an ugly history that remains strikingly tied to our present. Stock condemnations of such atrocities often lapse into polite disapproval or generational amnesia. This amnesia is all the more striking when reports today detail detention centers in California deserts eerily similar to those Japanese internment camps we are ashamed of. Even now, with current US detention centers allegedly reviving corporate profits off detained labor, the Terminal Islanders’ history and the story of UCLA’s unjustly, but legally imprisoned students open up questions about how we repair past damages or protect against future injustices.

The ugly mark of history still remains on campus – about 700 interned UC students couldn’t graduate until 2009 due to their internment at concentration camps like Manzanar in Owens Valley.

In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, interned UCLA student Akio Hirashiki Yamazaki said that the school’s attempt to honor her after internment came 50 years too late:

“You ask will it make any difference … in my life. No. It won’t. I’m not going for an internship now. I’m 71, you know.”

If concentration camps like Manzanar are outrageous, then so too must be the Adelanto immigrant detention facility, also located near Los Angeles. When the historic pain of Terminal Islanders is mirrored in the nearly 2,000 detained in Adelanto today, and the countless more detained elsewhere, our interaction with history becomes both evident and necessary.

Stories like Terminal Island’s underscore how difficult it is to navigate our own violent histories. Perhaps we fog our historical vision when seduced by the impulse to see those touched by violence as mere objects, victims or even martyrs. When both awareness and compassion seem not potent enough to understand or prevent further tragedy, an active kind of remembrance becomes necessary.

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