Terminal Island Japanese Fishing Village Memorial
On one of our trips to San Pedro, we were traveling across the expansive Vicente Thomas Bridge when we noticed an exit sign that said “Japanese Fishing Village Memorial.” With time on our hands and our usual curiosity, we turned our sedan onto the exit ramp to explore further.
Through the maze of streets we drove, marveling at the old abandoned buildings sitting dormant against the backdrop of the dynamic port of Los Angeles. Across the bay you can see the massive cargo ships stacked many stories high with containers from all over the world. The enormous vessels remain motionless while the towering cranes work furiously either loading or unloading the shipping crates.
The sheer magnitude of the commerce that is accomplished at this port every day is amazing.
Yet on this side, the buildings were empty, worn down, and decrepit. At water’s edge, rusty old cranes were discarded and left in place, leaving you to only imagine what they were like in their heyday. Nearby would have been functioning canneries with conveyor belts unloading the catches of the day.
The canneries of course, are no longer there. They are now empty shells of buildings filled with cobwebs and ghosts.
When we reached the memorial, It was very quiet…a slight gust of wind provided the only sound in a place that was once full of activity, once full of life.
This was home to the Terminal Island Japanese Fishing Village.
Abandoned buildings and cranes. In the distance you can see the blue tops of the newer cranes.
To understand the memorial, we must go back in time.
It was the early 1940’s where a vibrant community of over 3,000 Japanese and Japanese-American residents settled this area. The neighborhood was filled with energy from a booming industry of tuna fishing and canning.
This fishing and canning district actually started in 1907 when there were over 600 Japanese fisherman working the boats, while wives providing some of the labor at the canneries.
Life was simple; everything was in such close proximity. You could hear the whistles blowing, signaling the arrival of a fishing boat making its way from the open sea.
The boats and cannery circa 1938
At its peak over 3,000 Japanese residents owned homes, stores, restaurants. There were billiard rooms, churches, candy stores, banks, shrines, and even a judo hall. A school was built in 1924 to accommodate the hundreds of children living here.
The families lived close together so there was a strong sense of community. This was especially noticeable when the families were left behind while the men were on the fishing boats for long stretches.
This was their life, they were a tight knit group who helped each other out if needed.
Sadly, life changed on December 7th, 1941.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a newly formed committee was stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment with the idea that the fisherman and villagers were spies. Since they were located near a U.S. Navy facility, the village was the first to feel the effects of this campaign.
The government took the entire non-native Japanese fisherman into custody. The women and children were left behind to fend for themselves. This obviously put them in dire straits not having the working fisherman in the family. Some of the men were released and some were later reunited with their families at detention centers.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.
The residents were told that they had 72 hours to prepare for relocation, leaving only a short period to sell all of their possessions. Obviously they had to sell for pennies on the dollar as they weren’t given much of a choice.
All had to say goodbye to their way of life, their Fursato, as they called it, their “Home Sweet Home.”
Three years later, on January 2, 1945, the exclusion order was rescinded. Not much of a consolation as most returnees came back only to find their beloved homes or property demolished and bulldozed over by the Navy. Only the canneries were still open and some went back to work there.
Others left the area, saddened by the memory of their once thriving community and to find jobs elsewhere.
In 1971, the Terminal Islanders Club was formed as a way for these former residents to keep in touch and preserve the history of their neighborhood. They still meet for annual picnics and gatherings to this day. Over 1,000 people get together at these happenings which includes many generations and descendants.
The club dedicated the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial in 2002 in remembrance. There is a statue of two Issei fisherman, a gateway of a Shinto Shrine, and panels giving the history of Terminal Island.
Today, fishing boats still line the docks
For me the statue and memorial here serves as a reminder to never let this happen again. It is heartbreaking to read stories of what they had to go through.
If you are ever in the San Pedro, take a short trip over to the Japanese Fishing Village Memorial.
Take time to imagine this area as a flourishing village with bustling activity. A place with active canneries, boats full of tuna, kids playing, neighbors chatting, and the delicious aroma of food escaping from the kitchens. I am told the former residents come to visit from time to time and I am sure these are the exact memories they try to conjure up in their head… and their heart.
However, let’s not forget the history and the dark time they had to endure.
We have to embrace history in all its good or bad, so we can learn from it. I was definitely moved when researching this story.
Thanks to this memorial, everyone can gain knowledge of this period. This is a place and time that they have obviously not forgotten, and now…we won’t either.
Not from that era but still almost 40 years old, the culture can still be seen along the streets of this area.
Story and photos: Debbie Colwell
Except from shot for 1938: Courtesy Google Images