The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1978, Volume 24, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

By Donald H. Estes

Images from the article

PRECISELY at noon, on April 8, 1942, a way of life for a people who had lived in San Diego for over fifty years was abruptly terminated. What followed was the mass uprooting and exile of all men, women and children of Japanese ancestry regardless of their citizenship, potential or contributions to the community.

Today, that event has become a touchstone for the Japanese Community; an experience by which all other experiences-past and future-are measured. This forced removal and all it stands for has been memorialized by a simple white stone monument set in the high desert of California’s Owens Valley. Inscribed on the shaft in delicately powerful calligraphy are the words Ire To – Soul Tower; a tribute to both a people and a vanished way of life.

For those Japanese who came to San Diego the past began in the tumultuous boom years of the 1880’s. They arrived amid a flood of newcomers, largely unnoticed because of their small numbers. The earliest arrivals were young men, under twenty for the most part, who called themselves dekaseginin, a Japanese term used to describe individuals who left their roots in a hometown or village while going elsewhere to seek employment. Later, the term Issei came into use, marking the immigrants as the first generation of Japanese in the United States-the pioneer generation.

As is all too often the case, the names of the first Japanese to arrive in San Diego County are unknown. The earliest Issei came sometime between 1885 and 1887 and were employed on the track crews (opposite) of the California Central Railroad. Later, some of these men remained in the county to work in the salt fields and farms of the South Bay.

In all probability the first Issei to make San Diego his home was Tanaka Kohei who arrived in early 1887 to manufacture Japanese style charcoal for the recently opened Hotel del Coronado. The same year also saw the appearance of the city’s first Japanese owned and operated business, the Go Ban at 1065 5th, advertised locally as the area’s “. . . only direct importer of Japanese goods.” The Go Ban’s proprietor, Azumagasaki Kikumatsu, had purchased his initial inventory of Japanese art goods from an exhibit at the Southern Exposition held at Louisville, Kentucky in 1883.

Within a decade as many as two hundred and fifty Japanese were working in San Diego County. The great majority of these were seasonal laborers who were employed in the citrus groves and packing sheds of Lemon Grove, La Mesa, and Chula Vista, with a lesser number settling in the city proper. Some of the immigrants who came into frequent contact with non-Japanese Americanized their names. There were the cooks: Charles Tanaka and Joseph Sasemoto, and George Nakamoto who opened a restaurant at 515 5th. The first Issei woman in San Diego was probably Annie Kawai, who operated a cigar store at 261 “H”. During this period there were those who lived in Caucasian homes as “school boys,” to improve their grasp of English. Others were working as waiters, gardeners, and handymen all hoping to save enough to set themselves up as independent businessmen.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, an ever increasing number of Issei were drawn to San Diego as a result of descriptions they had heard of the temperate climate and availability of good, reasonably priced agricultural land. By 1905 the Japanese Consul in San Francisco reported that there were thirty-two Japanese owned or leased farms in places like Mission Valley, Bonita, and Palm City.

Two kinds of violence – one social, and the other natural – marked the real genesis of San Diego’s Japanese community. Beginning about 1900, for racial and economic reasons, anti-Japanese activity had become increasingly hostile in Northern California, especially in San Francisco. This antagonism was compounded further by nature on April 18, 1906 when a major earthquake and fire leveled the bay city. As a result, many Issei decided to relocate in Southern California.

As hostility towards the Japanese grew, the question of unrestricted immigration from Japan came under attack in the California Legislature. Subsequently, in 1907 an exchange of diplomatic notes took place in which the Japanese government agreed to limit the numbers of skilled and unskilled laborers coming to the United States.

That same year the nucleus of a Japanese business community in San Diego began to form around 5th and Market. The “community” was composed of pool halls, restaurants, barber shops, and boarding houses. In addition a Japanese Congregational Mission established on 8th Street, began teaching English at night along with religion.

By the end of the decade, a number of pioneer Issei had become well established businessmen. Shima Hyonosuke who had arrived in 1898, and Obayashi Uichiro and Imamura Shigenobu, both of whom came in 1908, were all operating thriving businesses. In La Jolla, Nakamura Najiro, who had served as a chef for both the University Club and John D. Spreckels, opened the Brown Bear restaurant across the street from the Green Dragon Colony.

It was in the area of agriculture, however, that the Issei made their first major impact in San Diego. As the business community developed, farmers like Owashi Sataro, Ozaki Toraichi, and Tsunada Joshichi were growing tracts of vegetables and strawberries within the city. In Mission Valley, Fukutani Dozen and Sato Genjiro had over sixty acres of cantalopes and potatoes under cultivation, while Yamashita Toshitaro, Nakamura Sadakichi, and Tani Jiro were tilling an aggregate of over 100 acres of flowers in Pacific Beach. Sogo Aizo, who would live to see his hundredth birthday, Yamamoto Hidejiro, and Kida Jizaemon were in Spring Valley. Iwashita Suekichi had been farming in Chula Vista since 1905 and the Iguchi brothers-Kiyotaro and Kumataro- were working seventy acres in Palm City.

In early 1912 a significant contribution to local agriculture was made by Yamamoto Mitsusaburo and Muraoka Fukutaro who introduced winter celery to Chula Vista. They discovered that the rich soil and exceptionally good water in the South Bay were especially conducive to large scale celery production. Harvesting the premium crop by hand, loading it on horsedrawn wagons, the two Issei quickly helped make Chula Vista the “Celery Capital of the World.”

While most of San Diego’s produce moved by rail, it was the harbor that presented the greatest commercial potential to the growing city. The Port of San Diego’s long maritime ties with Japan stem from the visit of the Imperial Japanese Naval Ship Tsukaba which called in 1887. In 1912 the merchant marine training vessel Taisei Maru arrived to begin an eighteen day visit. The Taisei Maru was welcomed by an airship flown by Glen Curtiss who operated a flying school on North Island. One of the first students at the school was Kondo Motohisa, the first Japanese in the United States to attain an international pilot’s certificate. Two later students of Curtiss were Nakamura Tokuji and Arthur W. Matsuda.

In 1913, the San Diego Nihonjin-kai (Japanese Association), which had been founded in 1906 by Eejima Kiichi, was legally incorporated with Kondo Masaharu as the first president. One of the Nihonjin-kai’s initial tasks was to co-ordinate the participation of the Japanese community in the Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park in 1915.

In the park the Formosa Tea Pavilion stood out among the uniformly designed Spanish colonial architecture of Bertram G. Goodhue. The building was modeled after a Japanese temple located in the Katsura district of the old imperial capital at Kyoto. The pavilion, bridges and gates were constructed under the direction of architect Mr. K. Tamai. They were then broken down and shipped to the exposition site to be re-assembled by Japanese workers who utilized wooden pegs and wedges in the construction. Following the exposition the teahouse was managed by Asakawa Hachisaku and his wife Osamu, assisted by a cousin Asakawa Gozo.

As many Issei began to achieve a relative amount of economic success the old anti-oriental antagonisms that had excluded the Chinese from the United States in 1884, and helped drive the Japanese from the San Francisco Bay area, rose up once again to bedevil the immigrants. White supremacy and the “yellow peril” had become doctrines accepted as fact by the overwhelming majority of Californians of all political orientations.

James D. Phelan, successful Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in 1914 suggested that California should say “diplomatically” to Japan that we regarded the “. . . unassimilable Japanese as efficient human machines,” but that “. . .as such, they are a menace to our prosperity and happiness. Then the more sensitive citizens of Japan may find some consolation in our confession of economic inferiority.”

A year earlier, in 1913 the California Legislature, with the blessing of progressive Republican Governor Hiram Johnson, passed the Heney-Webb Alien Land Bill. This piece of discriminatory legislation limited the rights of Japanese to own or lease agricultural land. The Japanese were not mentioned per se, instead the legal euphemism “aliens ineligible for citizenship” was employed.

The great majority of the Issei who came to the United States were bachelors who were precluded from intermarriage because of an anti-miscegenation clause in the California Constitution. Due to these legal restrictions, and other equally powerful social taboos, Japanese in San Diego began around 1915 to utilize the time honored custom of Omiai, or arranged marriage. This same practice later became known as Shashin Kekkon, or picture marriage.

The usual procedure was for the prospective bridegroom to forward his photograph to a relative or friend in Japan who would then attempt to locate a woman willing to enter into a marriage. Frequently both parties came from the same or neighboring villages and so had some prior knowledge of each other. With the receipt of the proposed bride’s picture and background by the waiting bachelor, the proxy introduction was complete. With the agreement of both families the marriage was formalized by entering the new wife’s name in the official record of the groom’s family, known as the Koseki. Now legally married she was free to join her husband in America.

With passport in hand, and clad in a traditional kimono, the lady arrived after a three week voyage at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Here she was met by her husband who quickly introduced her to three other men who became virtually indispensable to these occasions: the Japanese clothing salesman, the Japanese photographer, and the manager of a Japanese hotel. Kimono stored away, in some cases never to be worn again, ladies were outfitted in the latest Western-fashion to pose for a wedding photograph with their new husbands.

Within a year the Nisei, or second generation, began to be born. These children acquired by birth the citizenship that would be denied their parents until 1952. Now there were two generations, one immigrant and one native born. Consequently, the term Nikkei, which refers to all persons of Japanese ancestry in America, began to come into use.

At this time in their lives most Issei were still planning to eventually return to Japan with the result that many San Diego Nisei grew up with one foot planted in each culture. On some occasions they would dress traditionally, while at others they were attired in the height of American children’s fashion.

In the long run, perhaps the most important feature of this decade from 1910 to 1919 was that Nikkei families began to sink their roots into San Diego County. The years just prior to the onset of the twenties were busy ones for other reasons too. Issei farmers banded together to market their own produce because Caucasian brokers frequently refused to take Japanese grown produce. One of the earliest Issei cooperatives was the Vegetable Growers Market at 400 6th. Hashiguchi Kasuke was the company’s first driver and swamper. When he was not working for the market Hashiguchi was landscaping and gardening with his friends. He and two companions planned and built a Japanese style garden at the Point Loma home of Joseph Sefton during this period.

It was about this same time that Japanese fishermen began to arrive in San Diego in increasing numbers. The Issei interest in the area’s fishing potential dates back to 1908 when Kikuchi Jiroichi began to catch abalone with a small group of fishermen he employed. From this early beginning the local Japanese fishery grew until 1918 when it was estimated by the Department of Commerce that fifty percent of all the crews in San Diego were Japanese. One reason that many Japanese fishermen chose this area was the success of the M.K. Fishing Company headed by Kondo Masaharu and managed by Abe Tokunosuke. Sailing from the Santa Fe Wharf, boats like the Vasco da Gama searched the waters from Mexico to Panama for tuna. The Japanese sailing from San Diego were responsible for introducing the bamboo pole to tuna fishing, as well as long range refrigerated boats. Lures first imported into this country by ship chandler Taniguchi Takezo were so superior that they quickly became the standard for the industry.

Canneries like Van Camp at the foot of Crosby provided piecework for the wives of many of the fishermen. In back of the cannery over the waters of the bay were the homes of many of the Nikkei who were involved in the tuna industry. Here young Nisei like Osa Himaka, Masato Asakawa, Haruki Koba, and “Lefty” Okomoto were watched over by old fishermen like Namiki San as they lived, worked and played on the wharf over the bay.

In town, one measure of the growing affluence of the Issei business community could be seen in the size and quality of the inventory at stores like Nippon Shokai, at 5th and Island, operated by Kubo Kichita, Shima Hyonosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro, and Imamura Shigenobu. During the twenties many local Issei began to move into new types of commercial enterprises. Koide Taju and his wife Miwa opened the Star Laundry, while Asakawa Hachisaku and Fujii Yutaka organized the San Diego Fertilizer Company. Obayashi Uichiro occasionally sold soup from his shooting gallery. It was so well received he eventually converted the gallery into the Sun Cafe on Market Street. Increasingly the Japanese business community began to move outside the confines of 5th and Market. Yato Tsuketsuru opened a vegetable stand at 9th and Broadway, Ono Shintaro had a fruit and vegetable market at 25th and Broadway, and Ikeda Otomatsu’s nursery and gardening service was on Front. An earlier Issei-owned nursery had been opened in 1924 by Esaki Ainosuke, a friend and co-worker of the well known San Diego horticulturist Kate Sessions. Esaki would develop a famous strain of bougainvillea known as “San Diego Red” in 1940. In La Jolla Nakamura Najiro had moved and opened a new restaurant, The La Jolla Cafe, on Prospect.

Agriculture was likewise flourishing. Otay Mesa was being opened up by farmers like Takashima Katsue, who had run a downtown boarding house for a year in 1914 and then moved to the area near the Mexican border to farm forty-five acres of vegetables. Yoshimura Tazao in Chula Vista was operating a Japanese labor camp to provide agricultural workers for the South Bay. Muraoka Saburo, a younger Issei, had bought twenty acres of land and was growing celery and cucumbers. In the process he introduced a method of increasing the productivity of cucumbers by planting them on a ridged slope and covering them with a tent. This technique was soon in wide use throughout the South Bay.

The years between 1920 and 1930 also saw Issei farmers begin the large scale cultivation of the North County. Possibly the first Japanese to farm the area was Takenaka Minejiro, a former bank manager who obtained 500 acres near Vista to grow bell peppers, strawberries, and nursery seedlings for the area’s lemon ranches. In 1921 Ikemi Eizaburo purchased forty acres to cultivate cucumbers, beans, and peas. A year later Kurokawa Seizo and Hasegawa Kinsaburo began to plant truck vegetables around Vista for the Los Angeles market. Miyata Iwaji and Ono Tohiichi are said to have been the first growers to attempt large scale citrus plantings in the North County using methods which were soon adopted by local Caucasian farmers.

By 1924 extensive farming was underway in the Oceanside – San Luis Rey Valley. Because of the sandy soil and relatively frost-free climate, chile peppers became a major crop. Among the most successful of these Issei chile farmers was Yasukochi Kizo and his sons Taisuke, Shozo, and Morio. The senior Yasukochi had introduced chile peppers to Orange County in 1908. Other early farmers around Oceanside were Tanida Masato, Tachibana Chikamori, Yoshimura Torao and Yoshimura Toshitaro. These Issei farmers, especially the Yasukochis, developed techniques for drying peppers that allowed earlier shipment to market than had previous methods.

In 1924 the United States Congress, largely at the urging of California, totally excluded Japanese immigration. This racially inspired act was to cast a pall over relations between the two countries until their final break in 1941.

The social center of the Nikkei community had always been the churches. The first Christian church had been founded in 1907, but over half the community were Buddhist. The Buddhist Temple was formally founded in 1926, but had its origins in the “Hatfield Flood” of 1916 when Otay Dam broke. Among those killed were a number of Buddhists. The resulting need for religious services caused the community’s Buddhists to meet informally in places like Kawamoto Kikuji’s Frisco Cafe until they could support a temple. Finally, on May 19, 1926 an upper room on the corner of 6th and Market was rented and an altar dedicated. Led by Reverend Kusuhara Ryusei of Los Angeles, an Ochigo parade of costumed boys and girls wound along Island and Market as part of the ceremony. Later a permanent site was acquired at 2929 Market and the Temple was dedicated in 1931.

There has always been time in the local Nikkei community for recreation. Picnics have always been one of the most popular pastimes. In the summer men like Dr. Kitabatake Gizo would fill a car with kids and head for La Jolla or Mission Bay for a cookout and a swim.

Frequently larger outings which included not only food and games, but exhibitions of Japanese sports like Judo, Sumo, and Kendo, were sponsored by the churches or the Nihonjin-kai. Sumo was a special favorite of the crowds because it gave the little guys a chance to try to throw the big guy out of the ring. For those like Jerry Tasaki who desired individual sports there were always plenty of ducks to be found in the marshes that fringed the bay.

Denied entrance to some San Diego theatres, small groups of amateur thespians grew up primarily under the aegis of the churches. Traditional theatre like the Shibai, with Japanese costumes and setting, along with contemporary plays like Kikuchi Kan’s The Home Coming were presented. Also popular were poetry recitals by Shigin clubs and the talent shows which were put on by the students of the Japanese schools at the end of each academic year.

In 1930 the Oriental Missionary Society founded a Holiness Church for interested local Nikkei after eight years of evangelistic home meetings. Instrumental in the founding of the church on Newton were Mukai Tasaburo and his wife Fusae, who took turns playing the drum for street meetings the members held every Sunday night at the corner of 5th and Island.

Chula Vista in the 1930’s was known to Issei farmers throughout California as “. . . the heart of the anti-Japanese movement.” Beginning in 1931 a series of arrests were made in that community for violations of California’s Alien Land Law. These arrests culminated in 1933 in the case of Morrison v. California, in which four Japanese farmers were found to be in violation of the 1913 act, but received suspended sentences. The Morrison case notwithstanding, the antagonism of some local Caucasian growers continued unabated until efforts to reach a compromise were undertaken by a leading member of the Japanese community, Chino Tsuneji. Working with Kawashima Isami, a reporter from the San Francisco Nichibei, and Fred Stafford, the leading spokesman for the anti-Japanese forces, an agreement acceptable to both sides was worked out. The basis for the settlement was the formation of the San Diego Celery Growers Association, with Stafford as president and Chino as vice president. With this organization established, anti-Japanese activity in Chula Vista gradually subsided.

As the thirties progressed the local Issei gradually became more settled. Even though they still faced both legal and social discrimination they put thoughts of returning permanently to Japan a little further back in their minds.

Housing, however, was an area of continuing concern because San Diego abounded with restrictive covenants, severely limiting the ability of persons of Japanese ancestry to purchase a home. Another particular concern of the community at this time was a regulation promulgated by the California Fish and Game Commission which forbade the issuance of commercial fishing licenses to “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

Incensed over this overtly anti-Japanese action local captains like Tsuida Motosuke, Koide Taju, Seld Genzo, Chiba Choshichi, Ueno Tadaro and Issei : commercial fishermen throughout the state rallied under the leadership of Abe Tokunosuke, a long time resident and president of the Southern Commercial Company. They used the company’s boat Osprey as the focus of a test case and the rule was held unconstitutional by the State Court of Appeals in 1935. The United States Supreme Court later declined to hear the case, thus affirming the lower court’s decision.

By the end of the thirties some of the older Nisei had begun to marry and start their own families. Two new Gakuens, or Japanese Schools, were established; one in Vista and the other in Chula Vista, and the community looked forward to starting its sixth decade in San Diego. It was during this same period, however, that the United States and Japan were experiencing a period of rapidly deteriorating relations.

On December 7, 1941 time ran out not only for the United States and Japan, but for the Nikkei in San Diego County as well. Immediately after Pearl Harbor the community’s Issei leaders were arrested and shipped to Missoula, Montana where they were detained. The only communication with their families that was allowed was through heavily censored mail. One of the detainees at Missoula wrote a poem home entitled: “Thinking of My Family From the Place of Exile.”

Leaving a city of everlasting spring,
I am buried in the snow of Montana
In the Northern country.
You in San Diego, I in Montana,
The path of my dream
is frozen.


Presidio of San Francisco, California
April 1. 1942




All of San Diego County. California, south of a line extending in an easterly direction from the mouth of the San Dieguito River (northwest of Del Mar), along the north side of the San Dieguito River, Lake Hodges, and the San Pasqual River to the bridge over the San Pasqual River at or near San Pasqual; thence easterly along the southerly line of California State Highway No. 78 through Ramona and Julian to the eastern boundary line of San Diego County.

All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above designated area by 12:00 o’ clock noon, Wednesday, April 8. 1942.

No Japanese person will be permitted to enter or leave the above described area after 8:00 a. m., Thursday, April 2, 1942, without obtaining special permission from the Provost Marshal at the Civil Control Station located at:

1919 India Street
San Diego, California

The Civil Control Station is equipped to assist the -Japanese population affected by this evacuation in the following ways:

1. Give advice and instructions on the evacuation.

2. Provide services with respect to the management, leasing, sale. storage or other disposition of most kinds of property including: real estate. business and professional equipment. buildings. household goods, boats. automobiles. livestock. etc.

3. Provide temporary residence elsewhere for all Japanese in family groups.

4. Transport persons and a limited amount of clothing and equipment to their new residence. as specified below.


In February 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which authorized the army to designate military zones within the Western United States from which persons of Japanese ancestry could be excluded. On April 1, 1942 Lieutenant General John L. De Witt issued Civilian Exclusion Order Number Four, covering all of San Diego County South of Del Mar. It was April Fool’s Day-but it was no joke. Later on May 17th the remaining Nikkei in North County were interned under the provisions of Order Number Fifty-nine.

“All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non alien. …” both orders read. Our government could not quite bring itself to use the word “citizen” when referring to the Nisei. To the army, “Japanese ancestry” meant anyone who had a Japanese ancestor, regardless of degree.

Everyone, from the very young to the very old, prepared to leave. The churches and the Temple were locked and what could not be stored or sold in the seven days they were given was simply abandoned. The persons covered by Order Number Four reported to the Santa Fe Depot where they were placed on a closed and guarded train whose destination was unknown to them. Twenty-four hours later they arrived at an Assembly Center which had been hurriedly set up at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles.

In August most of the former San Diegans boarded another train, this time for the newly constructed Relocation Center at Poston, Arizona. Photographs of Poston, and its tar paper barracks, (above) show it as somewhat idealized. Perhaps a more realistic feeling for the camp can be gained through the pen of Aizumi Kyuji who wrote:

Extreme heat that could almost melt iron. No trees, no flowers, no singing birds, not even the sound of an insect. A full moon shone in the wilderness. Once a strong wind began to blow, sandy dust whirled in the air, completely taking the sunshine and light from us.

For the next three years this relocation center became the focus of life for most of San Diego’s Japanese. In the meantime the Nikkei community in San Diego County had ceased to exist literally overnight. It was struck down by the forces of racism compounded by an unreasoning, war-inspired hysteria, and carried out under the guise of “military necessity.” The victims were fellow Americans whose guilt was assumed simply because of their race.

As the war ended and Poston finally closed in 1945, the dilemma facing the San Diego internees was graphically framed by Kikuchi Yoshiko, the wife of a Christian minister, when she wrote: “Today again we were asked by our children where we have decided to go and when. I am at a loss to answer them.”

She then reduced the problem to a simple but eloquent Japanese poem:

Should we go West to our old nest,
Or should we go East to explore a new land.
There may be a big storm tomorrow.