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Tuna Canyon Interns Learn About Terminal Island

Minoru Tonai chats with Tuna Canyon Detention Center college interns Ariel Imamoto and Keith Matsushita at the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial. (Photo by Nancy Hayata)

Minoru Tonai chats with Tuna Canyon Detention Center college interns Ariel Imamoto and Keith Matsushita at the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial. (Photo by Nancy Hayata)


There is a little known yet beautiful memorial that is a tribute to the Japanese Fishing Village in East San Pedro known as Terminal Island. The Terminal Island Japanese Memorial features life-size bronze statues of two fishermen who are guarded by a torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred, with the Japanese characters for “dai ryo” (plentiful fish) on it.

This was the backdrop for Min Tonai, who grew up on Terminal Island, to educate Tuna Canyon Detention Center (TCDC) college interns Ariel Imamoto and Keith Matsushita about life on Terminal Island, and why fishermen, including his father, were wrongfully picked up by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and taken to places like TCDC.

They met on June 11 and informally ate bento lunches while they learned of life from another era, of a unique community of Japanese in the United States. The internships are sponsored by the Aratani CARE grant.

Tonai, who is a great storyteller, explained that prior to World War II, there were 3,000 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans who called the Japanese Fishing Village home. Most residents worked in the fishing industry and there were approximately 250 fishing boats that they owned or operated. Those who did not fish worked in the canneries.

Most of the residents came from Wakayama Prefecture, and because they were in a secluded community on Terminal Island, they came to develop their own unique language, which was a combination of Japanese and English words, in a similar fashion that Hawaiian pidgin evolved.

This was a time when prejudice prevailed and people would not rent to the Japanese. The Japanese were excellent fishermen, so the canneries built barracks, and if one worked for a particular cannery, one could get housing, often living with other families, in that canneries’ barracks.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, many of the Terminal Island Issei were suspected of being spies or saboteurs especially since it was close to military installations. However, fishermen needed guns and two-way radios. They roamed the Pacific coastal waters, and had been carefully profiled by the FBI. Their nets cost thousands of dollars and if a shark came in with their catch, they had to shoot it, for they could not afford to have their nets ruined. The radios were used when they were returning with their catch. They would use them to let the canneries know the size of their catch and expected time of landing so that the canneries knew how many workers to call in to start the process of cleaning the fish as soon as the boats landed.

That night when the fishermen were returning home for the day, there were barricades and the crew of each boat was interrogated before being allowed to return to shore. Over several days, the FBI arrested 91 Issei men and sent them to Tuna Canyon.

On Feb. 2, there was another roundup of hundreds of Terminal Island fishermen, and about 128 were sent to the San Pedro Detention Station and then to Tuna Canyon.

Later that month, after the issuance of Executive Order 9066 by President Roosevelt, the rest of the community was given 48 hours’ notice to be off Terminal Island by Feb. 27. A majority of the population was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp and some went to Poston in Arizona as bulldozers razed the vibrant village. The Japanese Americans lost their belongings, businesses, and most of all their way of life.

Today, the Terminal Islanders, an association of former residents and their grandchildren, remind visitors of the Japanese village’s history with the memorial and a wall of photographs depicting prewar Terminal Island.

Imamoto said, “I learned a lot from Min about not only Terminal Island but also about life.”

The Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition is dedicated to education, to raising public awareness about the detention, which was a violation of civil liberties, and to the continuing struggle of all peoples. It plays a key role in the development of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Memorial at 6433 La Tuna Canyon in Tujunga.

For more information, call (818) 935-2603 or visit Donations will be accepted. Send checks to Tuna Canyon Detention Station, c/o 12953 Branford St., Pacoima, CA 91331 or donate online.

Background information provided by Dr. Russell Endo, University of Colorado, and Marie Masumoto.

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