The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1977, Volume 23, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor


Images from the Article


“In my opinion the Japanese were the best of all fishermen, and their boats were unequalled.”1

Thus wrote Lawrence Oliver in the autobiography he published in 1972. Oliver, a Portuguese American who has spent his lifetime fishing the Pacific Coast of North America, is recognized as a man who knows both fishing and fishermen. Who then were these men described by Oliver as “. . . the best of all fishermen. . . . ?”

Research into English language literature dealing with the development of the fisheries of Southern California and the west coast of Mexico will quickly show that there is a definite paucity of information available on the history and contributions of the Japanese. While materials in English are indeed lacking, this does not mean that the record of the Japanese who helped establish the west coast fisheries is lost or not in existence.

The Japanese who came to the United States have left a rich, and until recently, largely untapped literary resource in the form of Japanese language histories, diaries and letters.2 In addition, at this time many of the Japanese who helped build the Pacific Coast fishing industry are still in a position to recount their first person experiences. These men and women are able to provide the human dimension that is all too often missing in the chronicling of history.

While it is impossible to credit or to trace the genesis of Japanese interest and involvement in the west coast fisheries to any single individual, a number of written sources, as well as both Japanese and non-Japanese fishermen, appear to be in general agreement that one of the men most involved in pioneering the industry was Kondo Masaharu.3 Even now, over sixty-five years since he first came to the United States, very little is known of Kondo’s life and story.

What is known is that he was born in Kyoto, Japan in the tenth year of the reign of the Emperor Meiji (1877). He attended the then Tokyo Tekoku Daigaku (Tokyo Imperial University) where he majored in agriculture. At that time the curriculum of the Imperial Universities included the study of fisheries and oceanography under the broad heading of agriculture. After graduation Kondo began to teach at the Imperial Fisheries Institute of Tokyo where he was eventually appointed to the school’s Board of Commissioners. While serving in this capacity, he was appointed to undertake a tour of the world to investigate the state of fishing technology outside Japan. The first country on his itinerary was the United States.

Shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1908, Kondo visited the Los Angeles-San Pedro area to observe at first hand the activities of the fishing fleet. It was through acquaintances in Los Angeles that he met and became involved with Aurelio Sandoval. Mr. Sandoval, a resident of Los Angeles, was the head of the International Fisheries Company which held an exclusive concession to the fisheries of Baja California which had been granted by the regime of Porfirio Diaz. Sandoval wanted to develop the Mexican fisheries but lacked the necessary capital and so approached Kondo on the possibility of large scale Japanese financing. Sandoval may have been encouraged in his effort by the fact that several Japan based companies had already begun to make substantial land investments in Baja California4 Sandoval’s efforts to arrive at an understanding did not go completely unrewarded; Kondo was quite positive about the potential of the Mexican fisheries, but was noncommital on the question of capital investment.

In fact Kondo was quite interested in the investment potential offered by Sandoval and the Baja California fisheries, for at the same time he was working at the Imperial Fisheries Institute, Kondo was also in partnership with Mizukami Sakesaburo of Iwate Prefecture. Mizukami and Kondo had a substantial abalone processing business going in Iwate. In addition, Mizukami had been involved in the fur trade, and as a result of the Japanese government’s agreement to limit the number of arctic fur seals taken, had been paid a fifty thousand dollar indemnity by the government. It was Mizukami’s desire to re-invest this money as soon as possible.5

Kondo and Sandoval parted with a promise to stay in communication with each other about the question of investment. Kondo finished his assignment from the Institute by visiting Britain, France, Belgium, Italy and Russia. He crossed Russia via the Trans Siberian Railway to Dairen in China where he took ship for Japan, arriving home in l911.6

Sandoval on the other hand faced increasing problems with his concession. In 1910 Mexico entered a period of revolutionary activity that was to span a dozen or more years. Early in 1911 the forces of Francisco Madero captured Ciudad Juarez bringing on the resignation and flight of Diaz to Europe. The sudden disappearance of the Diaz regime left the whole question of the legality of Sandoval’s concession unresolved.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 notwithstanding, Sandoval, with the assistance of French investors, opened a small lobster cannery in Baja California on Santa Margarita Island in Magdalena Bay. To supervise this operation Sandoval obtained the services of a Japanese fishery expert who had been trained at the Imperial Fisheries Institute named Takasaki Tatsunosuke.7 While he was attempting to establish a financially viable enterprise, Takasaki managed to ensnare himself in an international incident involving a purported attempt by the Japanese government to purchase Magdalena Bay as a naval base and agricultural colony.8

Early in 1912 Kondo returned to the United States with financial backing provided not only by Mizukami, but also by a group of the old nobility (Kuge) from Kyoto. Armed with the necessary funds, Kondo obtained concessions to fish on the west coast of Baja California from both Sandoval and the Madero government. As part of the agreement with Sandoval, Kondo assumed ownership of the canning operation at Magdalena Bay, and Takasaki became an employee of Kondo’s M.K. Fisheries Company of San Diego, California.

Canning lobster was an uncertain business in 1912 with many of the hand packed and hand soldered cans going bad easily. In addition, canned lobster did not travel or ship well once it was packed. All things considered, the new company’s lobster processing operation was a distinct financial liability. Lobster, however, was not to be the product that Kondo and his partners were literally putting their money on. They were far more interested in the abalone that were found virtually everywhere on the peninsula.

In 1913 Kondo arrived at Magdalena Bay with a Japanese trained abalone diver and his assistant (tsunahiki). The diver, Yamasaki and his assistant, Watanabe utilized a diving suit and a heavy metal helmet to collect the abalone from the bottom of the bay. The abalone proved so abundant that in a very short time Watanabe was pressed into service as a diver, and fourteen Mexicans were added to the crew. To translate his orders Kondo had obtained the services of Inouye Yahachiro, who was also known as Luis Inouye, a Japanese living at Hermosillo, Sonora who had been recommended by the president of the Hermosillo Nihonjinkai (Japanese Association).

After working around Magdalena Bay for eight months, the entire crew moved two hundred and fifty miles north to Cape San Roque where a new abalone camp was established. Within several weeks, another abalone camp was set up at South Bay on Cedros Island.9 By the close of 1913 a semipermanent fish camp was built at Puerto San Bartolome, better known to west coast fishermen and mariners as Turtle Bay, some three hundred miles south of San Diego.

At about this same time Takasaki returned with Inouye to Magdalena Bay to recruit additional Mexican labor. According to Inouye, Takasaki was fond of the cantina at the bay and while deep in his cups one evening boasted that very soon Japanese ships would be replacing the American naval vessels that were then at anchor. Takasaki’s boast was reported to United States Naval authorities in San Diego, and shortly after, Takasaki was called home by the Japanese government.10 He later became the president of the Toyo Canning Company in Japan, and following World War II served as the Minister of International Trade and Industry.11

Meanwhile in Japan, Mizukami had recruited forty-three abalone fishermen from the prefectures of Iwate, Ibaragi, Ishikawa, Chiba and Mie. In 1914 he ordered the sixty ton schooner Chistose Maru to sail for Ensenada, Baja California with the newly recruited fishermen. Since Mexico was still in the throes of revolution, these fishermen arrived in Mexico without valid papers. The captain of the Chitose Maru, acting on Kondo’s instructions, told the authorities in Ensenada that the ship was damaged and drifting. Since the few Mexican agencies that were operating were more involved with domestic matters, no questions were raised, and the Chitose Maru sailed for Turtle Bay with the first load of Japanese contract fishermen to arrive in Mexico.

The fishermen who arrived on the Chitose Maru brought some old skills to a new land. Among other things, these men introduced a new method of obtaining abalone. These Japanese abalone fishermen traditionally worked in pairs with two men to a boat. One man was equipped with a long flexible bamboo pole that had a steel hook fixed to the narrow end. With the hook it was possible for the fisherman to pull a ton of abalone a day into the boat. It was the responsibility of the other man to guide the boat and hold it steady while the hooker worked. The men in each boat had a wooden box with a glass bottom which allowed them to see easily to a depth of twenty-five or more feet. What they saw at the bottom was described by one of the fishermen in these terms:

At that time Magdalena Bay was full of lobsters. The water was one or two fathoms deep. There were so many lobsters that the bottom looked red. We caught them with harpoons. Within an hour or so the canoe was filled with lobsters. There were lobsters everywhere.

Abalone was found in abundance too. 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 the divers used to catch five to six tons a day. Those using hooks could catch a ton of abalone a day.12

By the end of 1914 the fishermen working for Kondo had established a regular area of operation along the west coast of Baja California. They fished both Cedros and Natividad Islands, the coastline north of Turtle Bay to Point San Eugenio and south of Turtle Bay to San Roque Bay. They also continued to fish in Magdalena Bay, particularly around Santa Margarita Island.

Like the techniques for gathering abalone, the method of preserving the catch came directly from Iwate Prefecture. During this period of the operation the entire abalone catch was dried. The methods utilized by the Japanese fishermen to dry the abalone were likewise new to Mexico and so represented a technological alternative for the Mexican abalone industry. The processing technique was described by the supervisor at Turtle Bay, Miura Koshiro:

We would soak the meat in a large tank of salt all night. The next day we would wash the abalone in sea water. You can really clean them if you soak them in salt all night, the black spots come off very easily.

After cleaning them we would boil them in sea water for about an hour over a low flame. Then we would take them out and put the abalone on wire nets that we had strung in the drying area. They would be left there for three or four days, after which we would boil them again in salt water over a high flame. Once again we dried them for about a week, and then would boil them a third time. After that we allowed the abalone to dry very well.

This process was designed to save the shape of the meat. If you first boil abalone over a high flame the meat will crack and be misshapen, and not be good to look at. All total it took about two months to complete the drying.13

After the processing was completed at Turtle Bay, the dried abalone was shipped to the company’s warehouse in San Diego where it was stored until the meat could be sent to the concern’s primary market in China or to Japan. Dried abalone, however, was not the only cash product of Kondo’s operation. Abalone shells too had generated an important market in Europe.

The meat and shells were regularly classified into categories outlined by the staff interpreter, Inouye Yahachiro:

I supervised the classification of both the meat and the shells at the Turtle Bay operation.

A ton of first class abalone was sold in 1914 for two hundred dollars a ton. A ton of second class abalone sold for one hundred and fifty dollars, and a ton of third class abalone would sell for one hundred dollars.

At this time abalone shells were worth more than the meat. First class shells sold for two hundred and fifty dollars a ton. Second class shells were worth two hundred dollars a ton and third class shells were sold for one hundred and fifty dollars a ton.

The first class meat classified because of its good color and shape. The abalone with average color and shape were placed in the second class and the third class abalone was not considered to be at all good.

As for the shells, those with no holes and no scratches were classified as being first class. Those with a few holes were second class and those with many holes were third class. The shells worse than third class were thrown back into the sea.14

In a final effort to make use of virtually all of the abalone the gills and guts were boiled in shoyu (soy sauce) and dried to make an appetizer known as tsukudani. Kondo had discovered a large and lucrative market for tsukudani among the Japanese in Hawaii.

While the M. K. Fisheries Company was getting established in Baja California, the rest of the world was moving toward war. Once the war became a reality, the Imperial German East Asiatic Squadron, under its commander Vice Admiral Graff von Spee, left its base at Tsingtao in China and began to raid British and allied commerce in the Pacific. On Sunday, November 1, 1914, units of the British navy and the German squadron met off Coronel in Chile, with the British suffering a major naval defeat. As a result of the defeat and the German threat units of the Japanese and Australian fleets were called upon to jointly patrol the Pacific Coast of North America.

On January 31, 1915, the Japanese armored cruiser Asama, which was part of the joint Japanese-Australian North American Patrol, went aground in a storm at the mouth of Turtle Bay. The immediate cause of the accident was an uncharted rock which tore a fifteen foot gash below the ship’s waterline.15 The Turtle Bay fishermen mobilized to assist the stricken cruiser and dispatched a boat for San Diego at once. When word reached San Diego on February 8th, the M. K. Fisheries Company immediately sent five of its boats south with provisions and orders to assist the Imperial Navy in any way possible.

The Asama remained aground until April when it was re-floated and returned to Japan for repairs to the extensive damage done to the ship’s hull. During the intervening three months Kondo organized a relief and assistance effort among the Japanese communities of San Diego and Los Angeles, with a variety of gifts and supplies being sent to the officers and men of the Asama. The civilian relief operation at Turtle Bay was coordinated by one of Kondo’s long time associates, Okoshi Shozo.

As a result of these efforts on behalf of the stranded Japanese naval personnel, the Emperor, in November, 1916, presented Kondo Masaharu with the Sixth Order of Merit of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. Okoshi Shozo received the White Order of Doyo and two hundred yen for his relief activities. These awards represent the first Imperial decorations made to Japanese living in the United States.16

With the advent of World War I and the resultant need for the United States to field large armies, the American people found it necessary to make a number of adjustments in their former lifestyle. One of these adjustments was in the area of diet. As meat was gradually pre-empted for the military, canned tuna became a widely used and increasingly popular protein substitute. The growing popularity of tuna had not been missed by Kondo who had for some time been discussing with his partners the possibility of emphasizing the processing of tuna rather than concentrating exclusively on the production of dried abalone. Another and perhaps a more pressing consideration was that the abalone in Baja California had not come back as rapidly as the Japanese had expected. The experience in Japan had been that the mollusks replenished themselves over a relatively short period of time, but such was not the case in Mexico.

At this time Kondo had in his employ two fishery experts who had originally been invited to the United States by the California Fish and Game Commission to undertake a resource survey and write a detailed analysis of the fishery potential of the Southern California coastline. After completing the report, both men had been hired by Kondo.

The two men were Taniguchi Takezo and Fukuno Hisamatsu, both former students of Kondo’s at the Imperial Fisheries Institute in Tokyo. After an extensive survey of the west coast of Baja California, they reported to Kondo that the peninsula had so little fresh water flowing into the Pacific that the plankton which the abalone feed on were less numerous and slower growing than the plankton found in Japanese waters where large amounts of fresh water ran to the sea. They therefore warned Kondo that there were definite limits to the availability of abalone in Baja California.17

In the face of these developments Kondo decided to return to Japan in 1918 leaving the camp at Turtle Bay under the supervision of Okoshi Shozo, while the San Diego office was turned over to another long time associate, Abe Tokunosuke. Kondo’s primary reason for returning to Japan at this time was to obtain the capital necessary for the conversion of his operation in Mexico to tuna fishing. An equally important reason for returning was to recruit fishermen who were familiar with tuna fishing techniques.

Once in Japan, Kondo centered his search for financial backing on the industrial and commercial city of Osaka. In a relatively short period he was able to gather eleven local businessmen who were willing to join him in his new venture.18 Together the twelve men formed the Bokoku Kogyo Kabushiki Goshigaisha (Mother Country Industrial Joint Stock Company). In California where the company was incorporated in 1918 by Kondo, the concern was known as the Mexican Industrial Development Company.

With the assistance of his old friend Mizukami Sukesaburo, Kondo gathered seventy tuna fishermen from the prefectures of Iwate, Wakayama, Nagasaki, Chiba, and Shizioka. On the twentieth of January 1920, the fishermen sailed from Yokohama aboard the two hundred ton schooner Toni Maru19

The sailing vessel took thirty-five days to cross the Pacific. During the crossing the fishermen spent most of their time singing songs from their native villages, and playing the Japanese board games Shogi and Goh on sets they had made themselves from available scrap materials. Porpoises followed the ship and were caught and quickly made into sashimi, which was universally enjoyed by both the passengers and the crew. Another welcome addition to the ship’s larder was an occasional albatross which was caught and roasted without any of the concern or hesitation a western bred seaman might have felt.20

Shortly after the Toni Maru made its North American landfall just off Santa Barbara, California, the schooner sailed directly for the Mexican port of Ensenada where the fishermen were duly registered with the local authorities. Anticipating the arrival of the men the Mexican Industrial Company had purchased four small twenty horsepower fishing boats, and sent them ahead to await the men at Turtle Bay. As soon as the men had settled in at the camp these small boats and their six man crews began to range the entire length of the peninsula in search of albacore and bonito.

The tuna fishermen found life at Turtle Bay austere at best. There were no permanent facilities; the men lived in tents and bathed in the open. Because of the harshness of the climate found in that part of Baja California, many of the men were reduced to simply wearing shorts or even converted gunny sacks with holes cut for the arms and legs. As one of the former fishermen put it: “. . . we must have looked like bandits.”21 While Turtle Bay has always been considered one of the finest natural harbors on the west coast, the bay has always suffered from one serious deficiency which the Japanese working there were acutely aware of?that is an almost complete absence of fresh water. This circumstance forced the company to import fresh water from San Diego via a weekly tender to meet the needs of the camp. The shortage of fresh water also meant that all non-essential activities like bathing and washing were done in salt water. An idea of the isolation faced by the men is illustrated by Inouye Yahachiro’s comment: “The campsite got so lonely. The only visitors we ever had were coyotes.”22

The day of a Turtle Bay fisherman has been described by Miura Koshiro as one filled with activity:

On the way to the fishing grounds we were assigned specific jobs. Some did cooking, some took care of the boat, and some were responsible for the machines. We took turns; say four hours at a time. One usually took two turns a day, working eight hours. The rest of the time we would sleep, eat, listen to the radio or do whatever we liked.23

Once the boat arrived at the fishing grounds, Miura went on to explain how:

. . . everyone suddenly became very busy. The boat had to be prepared to begin fishing at a minute’s notice. A lookout would be sent up the mast to search for a school of tuna. The boat would slow down and begin to circle the fishing grounds. We would all take turns watching one or two hours at a time. When a school of fish was discovered everyone would rush to his position at once. One man was designated to throw 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. Once you got to the fishing grounds there was no time off for anyone.24

In the process of fishing for tuna these Japanese inadvertently introduced a technique that was to have a major technological impact on the American tuna industry. All of these men, familiar as they were with Japanese methods, fished for tuna by utilizing a long, flexible, and exceedingly strong bamboo pole rather than with nets. The net method, known as seining, caught more fish, but in the process many of the fish were damaged or bruised. The result was that blood spots would show up in the cans of otherwise white tuna meat. By utilizing poles the Japanese fishermen were able to bring the fish aboard the boats without any damage to the meat. Once the San Diego canneries discovered this method, they promoted it among the entire west coast tuna fleet.25

These early fishing trips were usually only of a day or two in duration. The tuna was iced and brought back to Turtle Bay where the fish were transferred to a large tender for shipment to a cannery in San Diego.

Several other experiments were tried by the men with varying degrees of success. In one case they attempted to pack the fish in dry ice; this not only proved to be expensive, but it also destroyed the tissue of the fish, and so had to be discarded.

Another method that was tried was an adaption of a technique known as Hainawa. Hainawa was a common method used by the fishermen of the Boso Peninsula in Japan to catch tuna for sashimi (sliced raw tuna). In Japan the lines were run from offshore by small boats. In Mexico the Japanese fishermen would play out long lines of baited hooks of a mile or more. After playing out the line, which took an hour or more, the boat would return to the starting point and begin to retrieve the line and hopefully the fish. The technique worked in Mexico just as it worked in Japan-except for one thing. The sharks which inhabit the waters off Mexico simply got most of the catch. As Miura pointed out: “. . .there were just too many sharks.”26

A third fishing technique that Kondo’s men tried involved the use of a type of fish net known as a Daibo net. Daibo nets were designed to be used on tidal flats to trap sea life as they rode the tides to shore. The nets were installed at Descanso Point, north of Ensenada and on Santa Margarita Island in Magdalena Bay.

The nets not only worked, they worked too well. A number of local Mexican fishermen protested to their government fearing a too rapid depletion of the inshore fish population and the use of the method was ordered terminated.27

From 1920 to 1923 the abalone and tuna operations prospered to such a degree that Kondo once again decided to return to Japan to seek financing for two additional projects. The major thrust of this trip was to raise money to build a cannery at Turtle Bay which would allow the tuna catch to be processed in Mexico, and then shipped directly to the markets in Japan and the United States. A second project was to acquire several newly developed refrigeration boats so that some of the catch could be shipped directly to Japan for processing. On his return to Japan in 1924, Kondo made contact with Hisahira Fusanosuke, an influential industrialist, who had connections with the Kuhara Kogyo, a major Japanese investment company, and the Nichiro Fishery Company. Both concerns indicated a ready willingness to support Rondo’s Mexican enterprise especially since he had arrived in Japan armed with two newly acquired fishing concessions in Baja California obtained from the Obregon government.28 With these assurances of financial support, Kondo and Hisahira formed the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha (Southern Commercial Company) in the spring of 1924. The new company was later incorporated in California in 1927 as the Oceans Industry Company. Shown in the incorporation papers as the firm’s president is A. Rondo.29

The most immediate benefit that accrued to Kondo’s operation was the acquisition of two new eight hundred ton refrigerator ships. These ships, the Chichibu Maru and the Haruna Maru, were dispatched for Turtle Bay at once, arriving in the summer of’ 1924. The new boats made it possible to ship a portion of the catch made in Mexico directly to Japan for processing. The arrival of the Chichibu Maru and the Haruna Maru in San Diego harbor caused considerable interest in both canning and fishing circles, as they were among the first fully refrigerated boats to be seen in Southern California.30

Kondo had charged the task of recruiting a new group of tuna fishermen to Miura Koshiro, who had supervised the operation of the camp at Turtle Bay and had already been assigned the task of building the cannery at the bay on his return to Mexico. The standard procedure for recruiting fishermen was to draw them from prefectures and villages that had previously furnished men for Kondo’s company. Miura’s first step was always to visit either the local Prefectural Office (Kencho) or the Department of Foreign Voyages (Tokoka). Both of these governmental agencies received regular reports from police sub stations located in each village. The resident police officers in each village were usually men who knew their territory and would be aware of anyone who might wish to go to Mexico. Prepared with this kind of advance information, Miura never had any trouble filling his quota with volunteers.

A major incentive for the men in the villages was the knowledge that other men from the same area sent money home regularly to their families. It was fairly common knowledge that a man could save as much as a thousand dollars by the end of the second year of the standard four year contract. Enomoto Taketaro, one of these fishermen, recalled:

I think that the best men saved about seven or eight hundred dollars a year at that time (1927 to 1933). When they returned to Japan they probably took back about two thousand dollars. That was a lot of money for the Japan of that time. 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 in the village. That’s why we did everything we could to save money.31

The fishermen who accepted the contract Miura offered were classified as Keiyako Imin or contract immigrants, and it was understood that they would eventually return to Japan. Because their eventual return to Japan was assumed, it was possible for these fishermen to postpone their required military service if they had not already performed it. The Mexican government placed virtually no restrictions on the men’s activities and as contract labor working in Mexico, the men had no problems when they visited the company headquarters in San Diego as they regularly did.32

When the fishermen arrived at Turtle Bay, they were assigned to one of three types of work: ocean fishing, shrimp fishing, or the gathering and processing of abalone. The ocean going fishing boats in use at this time had risen in size to thirty through fifty ton boats, with each boat carrying a crew of six to eight men. After Miura’s arrival in 1928, the men were also put to work building the cannery.

At the time the cannery was started, there were approximately fifty Mexican laborers also working for the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha who lived on the site with their families. It is estimated that there were approximately three hundred and fifty people living at the bay in 1928.33 The water problem had been alleviated to a degree with the building of a two mile pipeline from a recently discovered spring. All the materials for the construction of the plant had to be shipped by sea from San Diego, or fabricated at the site. These problems notwithstanding, six months after the start of construction, the plant was in full operation.

The completion of the cannery brought a kind of economic prosperity to Turtle Bay that had been unknown up to that time. At first, as Kondo’s men began to train Mexican workers to operate the cannery, they found it was easier to pay the Mexicans in privately minted coins which were redeemable at a company run store; later they were paid in dollars.34 Another sign of the area’s growing prosperity was the arrival from San Diego of a man and five Caucasian ladies who set up operation out of a well situated tent.35

As the cannery went into operation, the Japanese running the plant made a major technological breakthrough in the method of canning abalone. Miura Koshiro explained:

The problem was that canned abalone had to be sliced very thin. Now the Chinese, who were our major market did not use sliced abalone in their cooking. The Chinese wanted the abalone whole so they could use it for a variety of dishes. Another problem we had was that sliced abalone lost some of its taste because it had to be sterilized at a very high temperature.

As a result we developed a process to can the abalone whole. Of course we sometimes had to cut the abalone in half so it would weigh about a pound. If the abalone was small we tried to can it like it was. Sometimes we would add a small piece to make it come up to the right weight.

First we would salt them in a large tank overnight. This made it very easy to clean the abalone. After cleaning the abalone we put it into cans. We added fresh water and sealed the lids. Then we put them in the sterilizer. The sterilization was the most difficult process. If you used too much heat the abalone would crack in the can, and if you didn’t use enough heat the abalone would rot.

We learned the process by trial and error and it became one of our secrets. After starting we waited a month before we shipped the abalone to the United States. We wanted to check the cans first. It is easy to spot a can with a rotten abalone in it because the gas makes the can puff up.

We brought the cans and the lids to Mexico from San Diego. We used a conveyor system to put the abalone into the cans. Our men stood on both sides of the belt and put the meat into the cans. We also had men who weighed each can to see that they were just right. Cans that did not weigh enough were immediately sent back so extra pieces of abalone could be put into them. All the packers kept small fish scales right beside them.

The cans then moved along the belt to the sealer. The lid would drop on the can and be tightly sealed. We used to seal the cans by hand, but very quickly we built a sealer. Then the abalone cans went to the sterilizer. After coming out of the sterilizer the cans were ready for the market.36

As the fishermen began to catch increasing numbers of barracuda, the cannery began to produce satsuma-age, a Japanese fish cake, for export. The processing of this additional product was also developed at the Turtle Bay site by the cannery personnel. According to Miura:

We would bone the barracuda and grind the meat in a suribachi (mortar). We would add katakuriko (starch extracted from the dog tooth violet), and ajinomoto (monosodium glutamate). The amount of each used was very important.

The consistency of the cake was a little softer than that of a dumpling. We would put the mixture in a copper tube a half an inch in diameter. At the other end of the tube was a machine with a steel wire to cut the cake into container size—about one centimeter. Just below the pipe was a pan of oil to fry the cake.

It was an assembly line operation. After a while the fish cake was taken out of the oil automatically. The factory workers would put the cakes into the cans and then seal and sterilize them.37

At the same time the company was processing cans, it was continuing to dry abalone which still represented a major item of export to China. In addition, the camp had begun to dry large amounts of bonito to be sold in Japan and Hawaii as katsuobushi (dried bonito).

Once the cannery was in operation, Kondo hired several hakujin (Caucasians) to undertake public demonstrations illustrating how abalone could be prepared. As a crowd gathered, the salesmen would open a can of abalone, and slice it very thinly, and then dip it in batter and fry it very quickly. The product was called abalone steak and was well received by the public throughout California, As Kondo is reported to have said: “. . .selling a new product to Americans simply requires planning and Preparation. “38

As the market for tuna began to grow, Kondo’s company began to acquire larger fishing boats. Some of these boats were owned outright by the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha, while others were owned partly by the company and partly by the fishermen themselves. These larger boats were equipped with refrigeration units which enabled the fishermen to range as far south as the equator in their search for tuna.

The season for the men at Turtle Bay commenced in March and ran through late November. From December to early January the men would either come to San Diego and live in the company warehouse located on the Santa Fe Wharf, or they would go to Ensenada in Baja California to stay with friends. In the early thirties the Japanese population of Ensenada numbered several hundred, and the fishermen were apparently always welcome. The men who decided to come to San Diego slept on mattresses on the warehouse floor; they divided their time between repairing equipment and playing a popular Japanese card game—hanafuda. The one memory of the stay in San Diego that appears to be the most vivid for the fishermen was the large Ofuro, or Japanese bath, which was maintained by the company and always at the men’s disposal. In early January all the fishermen would return to Turtle Bay to prepare for the new season.

Although the cannery and drying operations were a success, and the various satellite fish camps were working at capacity, the company began to experience financial difficulties. With the coming of the world-wide depression in 1929, industrial credit not only dried up, but prices—including the prices of fishery products—plummeted. Kondo and the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha were doubly hurt because of the large number of men under long-term contract with the company at that time—estimated to be approximately one hundred and fifty men.39

Another blow to the company came when the cannery was seized by the Mexican government in the early part of 1931 and then was heavily damaged by a fire of undetermined origin in September of the same year. The plant was re-built in 1933 by Mexican interests and is still in operation.40

Some financial relief appeared possible when Japanese fishing concerns from San Pedro, California expressed interest in investing in the financially troubled company. However, a satisfactory monetary arrangement could not be agreed upon and the San Pedro interests withdrew. As a result of steadily declining profits and increasing deficits, Kondo, unknown to virtually all his employees, filed for bankruptcy in January, 1931.41 He left shortly thereafter for Japan, never to return to the United States.

After Kondo’s departure, the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha was taken over by Abe Tokunosuke, Aizumi Kyuji, and Miura Koshiro. The three men raised money locally, maintained and supplied the far flung fish camps, and generally were able to put the company back on a paying basis. The three partners continued to operate the company until the outbreak of World War II. During that time Abe Tokunosuke, in particular, took the leadership in San Diego, fighting against the growing series of discriminatory laws passed by the State of California against Japanese fishermen.

One of Abe’s notable victories in the area of discrimination came on September 18, 1934, when a Superior Court judge in San Diego ruled that a California law which forbade Japanese-born fishermen from bringing fish caught in Mexico into the United States was unconstitutional42 The specific boat in question was the Osprey which was owned and operated by the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha. The California Fish and Game Commission appealed the lower court ruling to both the District Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court without success43

The outbreak of World War II, and the subsequent removal of all Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast, not only destroyed the Japanese fishing industry in San Diego, it destroyed the Taiyo Sangyo Gaisha too. Perhaps the words of Miura Koshiro contain the best description of what happened to the twelve boats his company either owned or had a share in:

We came back to San Diego in May of 1945. We found there was hardly anything left of our company. While we were gone the U.S. Navy had taken our boats and used them to patrol the coast of Mexico. California, and Oregon. For more than three years they used our boats without any repair. After three years of this kind of use the boats were barely usable; the bottoms had holes and were leaking badly.

Furthermore when the Navy confiscated our boats they took the refrigeration systems out and put torpedo tubes in. At first we didn’t know if the boats had been taken permanently or not. When we came back from the concentration camp the Navy told us that they would pay us rent for the boats. That didn’t sound too bad until they told us how much they would pay—it was so cheap it was out of the question. But, it was war and we had been under arrest. We agreed to the price they proposed.

Checking the boats, I found that they were not usable at all. It was clear that it would be cheaper just to build new boats. What the Navy had done was to return stripped patrol boats to us.

What happened to the money the Navy paid us? Well our attorney charged us $10,000 per boat. I suppose they tried to get as much as they could since we were Japanese. They claimed to have negotiated with the Navy for us during the war. With the legal fees little was left for us.

After three or four months, I had to start working. The quickest way for a Japanese was gardening. I knew nothing of work on land, but I worked for three or four months as an apprentice and then I went out on my own. I gardened for ten years.44

As with Miura, Abe and Aizumi never returned to fishing following the War. Abe and Aizumi are both dead now, and Miura is retired and living in Monterey Park, California. Kondo Masaharu is reported to have died in Japan shortly after the conclusion of the War45 Inouye Yachachiro, the company interpreter, stayed in Mexico and settled in Ensenada. He founded the lobster cooperative and today is an honored and respected member of his community. Taniguchi Takezo, who studied the coast line for both the State of California and Kondo, went on to found a fishing supply company in San Diego. He is generally credited with the introduction in the 1920’s of a Japanese-produced lure known as a squid. Its technological superiority was so apparent that it became the standard for the west coast tuna industry. Taniguchi died in 1967 at the age of 75. His son Take and daughter-in-law Nellie still operate the family business.

In the final balance, it is impossible to assess Kondo Masaharu’s individual impact on the fisheries of the west coast because the very nature of his contributions is so intimately tied to the individual Japanese fishermen he brought to Mexico. Kondo was the mover, the catalyst who brought the men and their personal skills together at the right place and time to set in motion the development of a whole new industry.

There is no question that Kondo Masaharu is the man recognized by Japanese sources as being the first to understand the fishery potential of Baja California, and then to do something about it.46 It was his early success and initiative which induced Japanese capital to invest in the future of Baja California. This same early success was also in part responsible for drawing increasingly larger numbers of Japanese into the fishing fleets of San Diego and San Pedro. This rapid growth of Japanese fishermen was noted in a 1920 California Fish and Game Commission report which stated:

. . . 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.47

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 Portuguese, and 10 per cent are Americans.”48

Kondo’s impressive contributions notwithstanding, the activities of literally thousands of Japanese fishermen on both sides of the border must never be lost sight of. These were the men who built the fish camps and the canneries, who experimented with new fishing, canning and processing techniques, and who trained the Mexican workers in new skills, and diving methods. North of the border they were the men who revolutionized the American tuna industry with the introduction of the slender, but amazingly strong bamboo pole, and pioneered refrigerated, long-range boats. Mexico gained not only trained workers but also the knowledge that there were ready markets for the product of her seas. The United States gained a technology that would place her first among the tuna fishing nations of the world. The contributions and innovations of the Japanese fishermen benefited all those involved in the fisheries of the west coast, and their skills and initiative were quickly recognized by others like Lawrence Oliver.

This recognition had its negative aspects too. The long-standing anti-Asian prejudice which permeated the west coast had closed the United States to the Chinese in 1882 and produced a whole series of alien land laws, which now reached out to touch the Japanese fishermen. Beginning in 1919 a series of highly restrictive state statutes were passed to restrain the activity of Japanese fishermen from Alaska to California, and eventually even to Mexico. World War II, with its relocation and camps, ended with a cold finality fishing as a major Japanese activity in the United States.

Today, the story of Kondo Masaharu and the Japanese who fished the west coast is virtually unknown. There are numerous English language works on the history and development of the fisheries of the Pacific Coast, but none of them makes more than a passing reference to the Japanese who pioneered the industry. The experience of the Japanese fishermen on the west coast is the story of a people largely unknown. This ignorance is all the more strange when you consider they were recognized as “. . . the best of all fishermen.”


Don Estes grew up in the Japanese American community in San Diego, and has twice served as the President of the San Diego Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on the Japanese in America. Among these are: The Japanese in America, Evacuation and Relocation, and he collaborated on The Experience of Japanese Americans. In addition Mr. Estes wrote the film script for the award winning documentary Wataridori: Birds of Passage. He is presently conducting an oral history research project among San Diego County’s immigrant Japanese to ultimately serve as a basis of history of the Japanese in San Diego. Mr. Estes teaches history and political science at San Diego City College.



1. Lawrence Oliver, Never Look Backward (San Diego, 1972), 67.

2. Perhaps the most notable of the general Japanese language histories are: Ko Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran [Outline of the Works of the Japanese in America] (Los Angeles, 1940)., and Shinichi Kato, ed., Bekoku Nikkeijin Hyakunen-shi [A Hundred Year History of Japanese in the United States] (Los Angeles, 1962). Of the regional histories dealing with Southern California in particular there is: M. Sasaki, ed., Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi [Japanese in Southern California, A History of Seventy Years] (Los Angeles, 1960).

3. All Japanese names presented in this paper have been rendered in the traditional Japanese manner, that is the family name followed by the given name without a comma. For an English language reference to Kondo’s contributions see: Manchester Boddy, The Japanese in America (Los Angeles, 1921), 180. A Japanese reference to Rondo’s activities can be found in: Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran, 736-737.

4. P.L. Bell and H. Bentley Mackenzie, Mexican West Coast and Lower California, United States Department of Commerce Publication Number 220. (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, 1923), 34-35, 167-168.

5. Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran, 736. Interview conducted with Miura Koshiro, Monterey Park, California April 8, 1972. This and all other interviews cited in this article were conducted in Japanese.

6. Boddy, The Japanese America, 184.

7. Interview with Inouye Yahachiro [also known as Luis Inouye], Ensenada, Baja California, August 24, 1973.

8. A complete discussion of the Magdalena Bay crisis of 1912 can be found in: Eugene Keith Chamberlin, “The Japanese Scare at Magdalena Bay,” Pacific Historical Review, XXIV (1955), 345-359.

9. Interview with Inouye Yahachiro [also known as Luis Inouye], Ensenada, Baja California, September 8, 1973.

10. Inouye Interview, September 8, 1973.

11. Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran, 736; Sasaki, ed., Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi, 184.

12. Inouye Interview, August 24, 1973.

13. Miura Interview, April 8, 1972.

14. lnouye Interview, September 8, 1973.

15. San Diego [California] Union, February 6, 1915, Sec. I, p. 5, col. 1. Additional information is based on personal correspondence between Commander Kondo Takashi, Staff, Japan Training Squadron, Yokosuka Naval District, Kanagawa, Japan and the writer, December 13, 1972. For another, and different view of the Asama’s grounding at Turtle Bay see: Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram [Laurel Edition], Dell Publishing Company (New York, 1965), 60-63.

16. Sasaki, ed., Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi, 184.

17. Interview with Taniguchi Takeharu, San Diego, California, August 18, 1976. Interview with Miura Koshiro, Monterey Park, California, October 20, 1973.

18. The names of the twelve partners shown in the Articles of Incorporation of the Mexican Industrial Development Company were: Kondo Masaharu, Kita Matazo, Taro Genzaburo, Hanta Riutaro, Yamada Boku, Nango Saburo, Nakayama Setsutaro, Takeo Jiemon, Hori Kijiro, Yamaoka Jutaro, Yano Kitaro, and Takikawa Gisaku. File Number 1257, San Diego County, California.

19. The Chinese characters for Toni are written with the ideographs for the numbers ten and two. Thus the ship was named for the twelve partners involved in the Mexican Industrial Development Company.

20. Miura Interview, September 8, 1973.

21. Interview with Enomoto Taketaro, San Diego, California, April 24, 1975.

22. Inouye Interview, September 8, 1973.

23. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

24. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

25. lnouye Interview, September 8, 1973. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

26. Miura Interview. October 20, 1973.

27. lnouye Interview, September 8, 1973.

28. Bell, Mexican West Coast and Lower California, 318.

29. For reasons as yet unknown Kondo began to use the name Kondo Atsuhiro after his return to the United States in 1926.

30. Sasaki, ed.. Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi, 174.

31. Enomoto Interview, April 24, 1975.

32. Miura Interview, April 8, 1972.

33. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

34. There is at least one of these coins still in existence. It is presently in the possession of Senior Katsuo Nishikawa of Ensenada, Baja California. The coin is of copper and is slightly smaller than a United States quarter. Inscribed on the face of the coin is: “Vale Por $5.00 En Cambio.” On the reverse face is: “Empacadora De Bahia Tortugas M. Kondo.”

35. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

36. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

37. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

38. Miura Interview, April 8, 1972.

39. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973. Enomoto Interview, April 24, 1975.

40. Katsuo Nishikawa, “The Fisheries Development in Baja California,” A paper presented to the Asociacion Cultural de las Californias, VIII Baja California Symposium, Ensenada, Baja California, 1970.

41. Murai. ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran, 736.

42. San Diego [California] Union, July 18, 1934, Sec. I, p. 1, col. 3.

43. T. Abe vs Fish and Game Commission, 9 Cal. App. 2d 300, September 27, 1935.

44. Miura Interview, October 20, 1973.

45. Interview with Tanaka [nee: Aizumi] Mitsue, San Diego, California, March 12, 1976.

46. Sasaki, ed., Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen-shi, 174-175.

47. State Board of Control of California, California and the Oriental: Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus, State Board of Control of California, (Sacramento, 1922), 105.

48. Bell, Mexican West Coast and Lower California, 318.