Silver Petals Falling: Japanese Pioneers in San Diego’s Fishery
by Donald H. Estes
Amateurs see the ocean and they think the sea is clear, but we fishermen see it differently. When the sea is clear to the deeper part and you can see the fish swimming then the fish will bite. Blue and a little brownish color is all right, but the green tide is bad. The tides and the color of the sea are connected to each other. They are most important to those who can read them.1
For the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century fishing represented a major component of San Diego’s economy. San Diego has the good fortune to be located on the periphery of one of the greatest marine habitats on our planet, and even the most casual research will more than amply demonstrate that this community has always held close ties with the sea. In terms of commercial fishing however, the region had to wait until the late Nineteenth Century and the arrival of the Chinese, the first in a line of ethnic fishermen who would pioneer an industry.
The rapid Chinese entry into the local fishery can best be explained by the fact that at the time fishing represented one sector of the local economy where there were few race based restrictions and offered only a minimal competition with whites. The success of the early Chinese fishermen was quickly off-set by a rising tide of anti-Chinese feeling which ultimately produced both punitive state and federal legislation designed to drive them out of business.
The collective impact of these legislative attacks coupled with the volatile racial mood in California brought a virtual halt to the extensive fishery that had been established in San Diego. As the Chinese departed never to return, the local fishery was left to stagnate as a handful of fishermen struggled to maintain a market fish operation, but little else.
As the Nineteenth Century closed, there was some renewed interest in the fishing potential of the San Diego area. Local Italians and Portuguese began to expand the market, but were being frustrated by the American public’s general reluctance to embrace fish as a regular part of their diet. The problem of public acceptance was further exacerbated by the lack of technology required to ship fish products any great distance and at the same time maintain a competitive price.
The Japanese entry into the local fishery was initially both inconspicuous and tentative. In the July 1899 two fishing boats working under the direction of Hatsuji Sano sailed out of San Pedro, dropped anchor in San Diego Bay and to begin fishing operations. The men working the boats had all been fishermen in Japan and hailed from Wakayama Prefecture and the Island of Shikoku. A measure of the level of success of these first Issei was that local Japanese working the salt pans in the South Bay quit their jobs and joined Sano’s crew, forming the nucleus of a new fishing community.2
Buoyed by the optimistic reports of the earlier Issei fishermen, Jirohichi Kikuchi moved his small fleet of three boats from San Pedro to San Diego in June 1908 and began to collect and process abalone from as far south as Punta Banda in Baja California. Eschewing the Chinese methods of collecting abalone, Kikuchi harvested the mollusks utilizing two methods popular in Japan. The first technique involved two men teams working from small boats using a long bamboo pole with a iron steel attached to one end. The second method was to employ divers in suits and hard helmets. The abalone was then dried on the peninsula and shipped to Japan.3
The large scale entry of the Issei into the local fishery appears to have been triggered by two major events. The first of these came in 1911 when the price of albacore rose to fourteen dollars a ton with the direct result that a number of local Japanese who had been engaged in other occupations switched to fishing. Also involved in this alteration of occupational patterns was the increasing legal pressure being exerted by white farmers and politicians who were intent on denying the ownership or even use of agricultural land to the Issei. With the adoption of California’s Alien Land Law in 1913 many Issei moved into the local fishery which was, at least at this point in its development, still an occupation in which anyone willing to work long and hard was welcome.4
The second event was the arrival in San Diego of Masaharu Kondo, the man who by all Japanese accounts is credited with opening up the San Diego-based fishery to the Issei. Born in Kyoto less than twenty-five years after Commodore Perry had arrived in Japan, Kondo was a graduate of Japan’s most prestigious school, Tokyo Imperial University. Upon graduation from Todai he was immediately hired by Japan’s Imperial Fishery Institute. The Institute had been established by imperial decree in 1905 for the express purpose of planning the modernization of Japan’s fishery. The cornerstone of the plan was the Pelagic Fishery Encouragement Act which included government funds for establishing fishery schools, building marine research vessels, and even providing direct government subsidies to individual fishermen.
As a member of the Institute’s Board of Commissioners, Kondo was directed to make a world tour for the purpose of studying fishing technology outside Japan. In June 1908, the same month Jirohichi Kikuchi began hauling Baja California abalone aboard his boats, Masaharu Kondo stepped off the train in San Diego.
Kondo a scholar with the eye and brain of an entrepreneur quickly recognized the untapped potential offered by San Diego and the West Coast of Baja California. Intuitively sensing his immediate future lay in the San Diego area, Kondo immediately began making important social and financial contacts throughout Southern California. By far the most important of these contacts was with Aurelio Sandoval, President of the Los Angeles based International Fisheries Company. It was Sandoval’s company that held the exclusive concession to the fisheries in Baja California.5
With Sandoval’s promise to keep in close contact, Kondo completed his world tour and returned to Japan in 1910. Kondo spent the next year working for the Institute and on the side, he scoured the country in search of venture capital for his proposed West Coast enterprise. In early 1912 Kondo returned to San Diego with the cash necessary to launch his new business. Upon arrival Kondo discovered Mexico in the throes of a revolution. Covering all eventualities he quickly entered into negotiations for fishing concessions in Baja California with the Government of Mexico, then headed by President Porfirio Diaz and followed up by obtaining a covert agreement from the rebel government headed by Francisco I. Madero. Next, he incorporated the Lower California Mexican Industrial Development Company as a legal California entity and had his men began gathering and drying abalone at Turtle Bay for markets in China and Japan.6
Yahachiro Inouye was one of the first contract fishermen Kondo brought to Turtle Bay and remembered the it as a place where:
Abalone were found in abundance. It was common to find them in layers of twelve or thirteen. Now  it is considered good if a diver catches fifty or a hundred kilos of abalone. At that time divers used to catch five to six tons a day. Those using hooks [from small boats] could catch a ton a day.7
Kondo, however was by no means the only Japanese who recognized the potential of the local fishery. Lured by the promise of high wages, other Issei with a wide range of fishing experiences began to settle around the growing Japanese community that was centered on Fifth and Island streets. By 1913 the San Diego, like other West Coast cities had its own independent fishermen’s association. The local group, headed by Kichisaburo Nakamoto and Ichimatsu Hamaguchi was incorporated with the State of California as the Japanese Fishermen’s Association of San Diego. Hamaguchi in particular was a tireless organizer and worker. Stories are still told of his patient attempts to teach the skills he had learned over a lifetime at sea to men who had always been farmers. The majority local Japanese fishermen were however, experienced practitioners of their trade and brought with them techniques and equipment that set the standard for the growing fleet of tuna boats operating out of San Diego.8
From the technological perspective, the stage was now set for the expansion of an industry that would eventually put the food products of San Diego on the nation’s tables. There was however, still one significant element missing – consumer demand.
In the second decade of the twentieth century Americans were not a nation of fish eaters. It ultimately required a world war to modify our long held dietary habits. Assisting the American people to survive the patriotically inspired “meatless” days of World War I were a number of protein alternatives of which by far the most successful was canned tuna.
For the firm, white meat, tasting a good deal like chicken, it was simply a matter of the right product being available in commercial quantities at the right time. By 1914 the supply of inshore market fish was depleted to the point that local fishermen were being pushed further out to sea, where they discovered and began to harvest large catches of tuna. Of equal importance to the industry was the concurrent development of a method that successfully allowed the canning of tuna. It was this breakthrough that facilitated the marketing of tuna to the interior areas of the United States. 9
By 1918 the size of San Diego’s Issei owned or operated fleet had grown to over forty-five boats and the membership of their five year old fishermen’s association to over two hundred working fishermen. The rapid growth in the number of Japanese fishermen in the state was noted in a 1920 California Fish and Game Report Commission report:
…records show that in the 1915-16 year there were 491 Japanese fishermen out of a total of 3758, or approximately 13 per cent. The year 1919-20 shows 1316 Japanese out of a total of 4671 or 28 per cent of the total.10
In 1923 the United States Department of Commerce stated that the: “… Japanese in San Diego make up 50 per cent of the crews [of fishing boats], 30 per cent are Italian, 10 per cent are Portuguese, and 10 per cent are Americans.”11 Economic conditions were good enough that the Issei fishermen’s association built a new hiring and meeting hall at the foot of Crosby Street near the Van Camp Cannery.12
By using the advanced technology they had brought with them from Japan, Issei fishermen rapidly gained reputation for quick voyages and full boats, a fact that did not go un-noticed by local Italian and Portuguese tunamen. Within months, Japanese methods and technology were in use throughout the fleet.
The first item to be universally embraced were the strong yet flexible bamboo poles seen on all Japanese boats. Soon the use of one, two, three and even four man poles allowed the landing of even larger fish. The appeal of the poles, as opposed to the nets, was that they minimized damage to the catch.
Motosuke Tsuida who skipped his own boat, the White Cloud, described what the Japanese fishermen still call, “the pole method”:
The Italians and Portuguese were very good fishermen. We learned from them and they from us. They were good, but they didn’t know about the advantages of the bamboo pole. They used nets at first, and it took too long to get the tuna free, plus the fish were usually damaged in the process.
Using the pole the Japanese fishermen could catch the fish fast. Our men fished with a certain rhythm and the fish would come off the hook in mid-air. From a distance the tuna looked like silver petals falling from a tree. 13
Facilitating the rapid removal of the tuna from the line was another Japanese innovation – the “squid.” A “squid” was in fact a barbless hook introduced into this area by Takezo Taniguchi. Taniguchi was hired by the State of California following World War I to conduct an extensive fishery survey of Southern California. Later, Kondo employed Taniguchi to conduct a similar survey of the West Coast of Baja California. In 1928 Taniguchi left Kondo’s employ and opened a fish and poultry market on the corner of Fifth and Market in downtown San Diego. As a sideline the Taniguchi began to offer fishing equipment imported from Japan like bundles of bamboo poles and a new item : mass produced barbless hooks which became the basic component of the “squids.”
To assemble the “squids” the Taniguchi family secured a cluster of hackle feathers from a rooster to the shank of the hook by wrapping it in dried chicken skin. The finished “squid” was then attached to one, two, three or four pole swivels depending on the size of the hook.
Within a short period of time the Taniguchi was catering not only to Japanese fishermen but to Italians and Portuguese as well. Six months later the market was closed and the operation devoted exclusively to the needs local tuna fleet. 14
Another Japanese fishing technique that the fleet adopted with alacrity was “chumming,” a practice that was widely used in Japan, but unknown on the West Coast. The early Issei fishermen knew from experience that tuna would strike at live bait if certain conditions were present. As Captain Tsuida explained it:
Tuna are very strange. We knew that when they had nothing in their stomach, they would not eat. After they have something in their belly they go crazy and will strike at anything. Today you call this a feeding frenzy. In Japan we learned to open the belly of the first tuna to see if the catch was going to be good. 15
Koshiro Miura, who supervised Kondo’s fishermen in Mexico described the chumming process: “One man was designated to throw live bait into the water in one place to bring the tuna together. That job needed special skill and was usually done by an old and experienced fisherman.” 16
Between 1915 and 1921 many of the Issei fishermen began to marry. Initially their goal had been to make icihiman doru, or ten thousand dollars, and return to Japan. According to Taketaro Enomoto another of Kondo’s fishermen:
I think that the best men saved about seven or eight hundred dollars a year at that time [1927 to 1933]. You could work four years and save two or three thousand dollars. That was like five or six thousand yen. If you wanted to build a nice house in our village it would cost you three or four hundred dollars. If you could save five or six thousand dollars you would be a very, very rich man. That’s why we did everything we could to save money. 17
Wealth, even in America, proved an elusive commodity, as some of these men began to think about establishing homes and families.
Because significant numbers of single Japanese women chose not emigrate to the United States there was a distinct scarcity of Japanese women in America. Compounding the problem for Issei men were California’s strict anti-miscegenation laws. In these circumstances many Japanese men turned to the time honored Japanese custom of the omiai or arraigned marriage. With the aid of family or friends in Japan couples were united by proxy and the new brides set sail for the United States. On their arrival in San Diego many women found employment in the canneries that their husbands kept supplied with tuna.18
San Diego’s Van Camp Sea Food Company provided housing for the families of some of their Japanese fishermen. The area known as “Fish Camp” was located on a pier in back of the cannery that extended out over the bay. Here in near primitive conditions, Issei families lived in board and batten shanties and bore their American born children: the Nisei.
A second Japanese fish camp connected with the Westgate Cannery was established further up the bay at what is now the intersection of Kalmia and Pacific Highway. Because the Westgate camp was six miles north of Van Camp, the residents christened their community, “Hokkaido,” after Japan’s northernmost island.
Both parents of Hideko “Bubbles” Shimazaki worked for Westgate and she was born across the street from Hokkkaido. Bubbles remembers going to classes at the old Washington Elementary School and having a number of Italian playmates whose families also fished. They all used to swim together at a small beach next to the Coast Guard Station. As a child she was frequently invited to the homes of her Italian friends. She also recalls that the Japanese families, did not however shop in Little Italy.
The Italians kept pretty much to themselves. We had more contact with the Mexican workers who were employed by the cannery, especially the women who worked the line together. There were about an equal number of Italian, Japanese, and Mexican women working there.19
Local cannery operators, particularly the Van Camp Sea Food Company, quickly recognized the financial advantages of supporting one of the most productive sectors of the fishing community. As early as 1914 the Pacific Canning Company agreed to finance the purchase of tuna boats for Issei fishermen in return for a percentage of the catch as re-payment on the loan.
In discussing the financial assistance offered to Issei by local canneries, Taju Koide, Captain of the Enterprise, pointed out that: “On shore, the law would not allow us to own land, but at sea, one good trip and you owned the boat.” 20
In 1924 Kondo’s expanding operation sailed two newly constructed fishing vessels from Japan to San Diego. The arrival of the Haruna Maru and the Chichibu Maru generated considerable local interest as they were among the first fully refrigerated boats to be seen in Southern California. Four years later Kondo completed the construction of his cannery at Turtle Bay in where he pioneered a successful technique for canning abalone whole that is still in use today.
During the 1930s Issei and now a scattering of Nisei represented an important component of the local fishing fleet. It was also a decade that saw an increasing amount of their time and effort directed toward fighting off discriminatory legislation issuing from Sacramento.
Between 1919 and 1933, seven bills were introduced into the legislature to deny commercial fishing licenses to persons of Japanese ancestry. Each of these pieces of legislation was turned back by a strong coalition of both Japanese and non-Japanese fishermen’s associations and the state’s cannery interests. In 1933 the legislature succeeded in passing a restrictive change in the California Fish and Game Code that effectively denied commercial fishing licenses to the Issei.
These new state regulations were immediately challenged in the courts by Tokunosuke Abe, President of San Diego’s Southern Commercial Company: whose twenty-one boats represented the largest private fleet of tuna boats on the West Coast. In 1935 the state supreme court upheld Abe’s contention that the offending statutes represented discrimination based on race and as such were violations of both the California and United States constitutions. Three years later Abe spearheaded yet another drive to defeat new state legislation designed to restrict the role of Japanese in the state fishery. He and his fishing coalition were again successful and the legislation was defeated.21
What years of attempts to enact restrictive legislation against Nikkei fishermen had failed to accomplish, Pearl Harbor and the subsequent exile of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, accomplished overnight. Although these men had successfully weathered racially motivated attacks by elements of California’s society, they and their families became victims of a war inspired hysteria.
Bill Richardson, writing in the Fishermen of San Diego, observed that while there were clear boundaries between the four major ethnic groups that played significant roles in the development of the local fishery that: “There is very little evidence that this ethnic separation resulted in any harmful racism. Among these fishermen there was a mutual respect for the contributions each sector has made.” He concludes: “The racism which so severely injured the Chinese and Japanese was generated outside the fishing community, and was often the product of political ambition.”22
Echoing Richardson’s sentiments are the words of two men whose lifetimes were spent in the tuna community. Speaking in 1980 Anthony Mascarenhas, a Portuguese fisherman who grew up in the local fishery said, “If it wasn’t for the Japanese, we would all still be setting in small boats fishing out in the bay.”23
Veteran tuna fisherman Laurence Oliver gave San Diego’s Issei pioneers perhaps the simplest, but certainly most eloquent testimonial of all: “The Japanese – they were the best of all fishermen.”24
1. Interview with Motosuke Tsuida, interviewed by Donald H. Estes, tape recording, San Diego, California, November 15, 1973, conducted in Japanese.
2. Collectively all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States are known a Nikkei. Within that broad category are major sub-groupings to identify specific generations. The Issei are the immigrant generation; their children, the Nisei became citizens by virtue of jus soli . M. Sasaki, ed. Minamikashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi [Japanese in Southern California: A History of Seventy Years] trans. Donald H. Estes (Los Angeles: Nanka Nihonjin Shoko-kaigisho, 1960.)
4. For details of California’s Alien Land Law please see, Donald H. Estes. South Bay Monogatari: Tales of the South Bay Nikkei Community, (San Diego: Chula Vista Historical Society, 1996), 31-58.
5. Manchester Boddy. The Japanese in America, (Los Angeles, 1921), 180, Ko Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran [ Outline of the Works of the Japanese in America] (Los Angeles, 1940) 736-37.
6. For a more extensive discussion of Kondo and the San Diego fishery please see: Donald H. Estes. “Kondo Masaharu and the Best of All Fishermen,” the Journal of San Diego History, XXIII:3 (Summer, 1977), 1-19. Puerto San Bartolome is in fact two bays, with the smaller shown on charts as Bahia Tortugas. West Coast maritime circles refer to the whole area as Turtle Bay rather than the correct Puerto San Bartolome.
7. Interview with Yahachiro Inouye [also known as Luis Inouye], interview by Donald H. Estes, tape recording, Ensenada, Baja California, September 8, 1973. Conducted in Japanese.
8. Interview with Koshiro Miura, interviewed by Donald H. Estes, tape recording, Monterey Park, California, October 20, 1973. Conducted in Japanese.
9. Interview with Taketaro Enomoto, interview by Donald H. Estes, tape recording, San Diego California, 24 April 1975, conducted in Japanese.
10. State Board of Control of California,California and the Oriental: Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus, State Board of Control of California, (Sacramento, 1922), 105.
11. P.L. Bell and H. Bentley Mackenzie, Mexican West Coast and Lower California, United States Department of Commerce Publication 220, (Washington D.C.: Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, 1923) 34-35, 167-68.
12. Minamikashu Nihonjin Shichinen-shi, 145.
13. Tsuida, interview.
14. Interview with Takeharu Taniguchi, interviewed by Donald H. Estes, tape recording San Diego, California, August 18, 1976.
15. Tsuida interview.
16. Miura Interview.
17. Enomoto interview.
18. For a discussion of omiai please see, Donald H. Estes. South Bay Monogatari: Tales of the South Bay Nikkei Community, (San Diego: Chula Vista Historical Society, 1996), 11-22.
19. Interview with Hideko “Bubbles” Shimazaki nee:Tsuida, by Donald H. Estes, San Diego, California, January 27, 1999.
20. Interview with Taju Koide, San Diego, California, interviewed by Donald H. Estes, tape recording, January 15, 1972. conducted in Japanese.
21. For a fuller discussion of the anti-Japanese fishing legislation of the 1930s, please see, Donald H. Estes. “Offensive Stupidity and the Struggle of Abe Tokunosuke,” Journal of San Diego History, XXVIII:4 (Fall, 1980).
22. William C. Richardson. The Fishermen of San Diego, an unpublished Masters Thesis, San Diego State University, 1981, 148-49.
23. Interview with Anthony Mascarenhas, Interviewed by Donald H. Estes, San Diego, California, November 19, 1980.
24. Laurence Oliver. Never Look Backward, (San Diego: np, 1972), 67.