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Photo by Jim WashburnI attended a dedication ceremony recently for a memorial to the once-thriving fishing village on Terminal Island. While many California communities were devoured by progress over the years, this one vanished in 48 hours, which was how long the federal government gave the Japanese-American residents to vacate on Feb. 25, 1942. There was a grade school, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, sports fields, homes, shops, businesses—all made into an instant ghost town.
Most of the men had already been rounded up after Pearl Harbor because seaworthy Japanese were considered a security threat, so the women and children moved out on their own. Some few found a way to take their possessions, only to lose them three months later when all persons of Japanese descent in the U.S. were ordered into "relocation centers" for the duration of the war.
I spoke with a couple of the seniors among the thousands attending the Terminal Island dedication. Maybe 50 years from now, there'll be a memorial to the persons of Middle Eastern descent whose rights have more recently fallen victim to America's fears. In the meantime, the stories of these Japanese-Americans highlight both the worst and best of our nation's character.
Tosh Izumi is more a Californian than most of us: born in 1918 in Villa Park, where his father was a farmer. The elder Izumi had immigrated to the U.S. to make a better life for his family, which is why he moved the family to Terminal Island shortly after Tosh was born. Fishermen could earn more than farmers, and he pooled his resources with associates to buy a small boat.
Izumi recalled, "It was a fun place to be as a kid. With almost everyone in the village of Japanese descent, we did a lot of Japanese sports—judo, kendo and sumo—along with baseball. We had a grade school, but had to take a ferry to the mainland to go to junior high and San Pedro High School, where I graduated in 1936."
San Pedro was an ethnically diverse town. Izumi said the different nationalities tended to keep to themselves but got along with one another, even after Dec. 7. Whatever discrimination there was, he said, came from "on high."
"Following Pearl Harbor, my father was one of the first people the FBI arrested because he had served in the Japanese Army in the Russo-Japanese War. The fishermen weren't allowed to do any fishing. The FBI had a list of all their names, and soon they were all picked up."
When the surprise order came to vacate the community, Izumi, his mother and siblings were "among the lucky ones" who had a friend with a truck to help them move.
His father had saved years of fishing earnings to open a small market in the village, which Izumi had run. Later, while interned at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona, a government agent gave Izumi a pennies-on-the-dollar, take-it-or-leave-it offer for the store.
"The camp was mainly hard mentally," Izumi says. "We had a roof and food. But I regarded myself as an American, and we had lost everything we had worked for and were kept behind barbed wire for something we were innocent of. For a younger person like myself with a bit of ambition, that was hard."
Following the war, he served as an interpreter in the Army in occupied Japan. After the service, with the life he'd made before the war now gone, "I didn't know which way to turn. I was good with my hands and was able to get into the tile workers union. I was the only Oriental in the union, but everyone treated me real well. I don't like to pat myself on the back, but most of the Japanese-Americans made the transition and raised good families. I have four children, and all of them have masters degrees in their chosen fields."
Now, a half-century after he was interned, he says, "I think there is a parallel in what's happening now, but at least now things come out in the paper, where when we were sent to the camp, no one questioned it. I'm glad some of the leaders in the Japanese-American community are protesting the treatment of the Muslim people. We hate to see them go though the experience we had to go through."
Dr. Takashi Hoshizaki was at the Terminal Island memorial. Though he never lived there, his Los Angeles neighborhood was where many of the villagers relocated. Like Izumi, he saw little discrimination in his own life, though in the internment camp, he met kids from other areas who were in daily scraps with white kids after the war broke out.
His family owned a grocery, and they had white and black friends. Again, the discrimination seemed to come from authorities. Then-LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron made racist, fear-invoking speeches on the radio, warning that the city's large Japanese-American population was a race apart, "nonassimilable . . . regardless of how many generations may have been born in America," all waiting "with a prearranged plan wherein each of our little Japanese friends will know his part in the event of any possible attempted invasion or air raid."