The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1982, Volume 28, Number 4
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

By Donald H. Estes
Instructor of History and Political Science at San Diego City College

Images from the article

Stupidity has never been a negligible force in human affairs, and it has been an especially potent factor in the history of California’s relations with persons of Japanese ancestry.

A perceptive observer of California’s racial tribulations prior to World War II was the social historian Carey Mc Williams, who observed in 1935 that anti-Japanese activity in the state had always been characterized by its “. . . offensive stupidity.”1 As these words were being penned this particular phenomenon already reached back in time over forty years, and would, within seven years, become a major factor in the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast.

Some of California’s most pernicious adventures into anti-Japanese discrimination are known, but the great bulk of these activities have passed public notice largely unstudied. A specific example of this type of oversight was the struggle of Japanese fishermen in the state to earn a livelihood in an industry that they helped pioneer.

Fishing has always represented a major element in California’s economy, and has likewise been an endeavor which welcomed virtually any individual not afraid of hard, physical labor. The Chinese had been among the earliest of the immigrant ethnics to capitalize on the sea’s potential, and by the beginning of the twentieth century the Italians had initiated a coastal fishery to meet the growing demand for market fish.2 About 1910 the Japanese began to explore the economic possibilities of the state’s fishery with Southern California singled out for special attention. These early Japanese fishermen brought with them a wealth of experience and technology that heretofore was not available in the area.3

This technology notwithstanding, Americans, in the first decade of this century, were not a nation of fish eaters. It required a world war to modify the dietary habits of the United States. Assisting Americans to survive the patriotically inspired “meatless” days 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 local supply of inshore market fish had begun to decline to the point that fishermen were pushed farther out to sea where they discovered, and began to harvest, large catches of tuna. During the same period a method for successfully canning tuna was developed, making distribution of the product to interior areas of the United States feasible.4

By 1919 the Japanese with their superior techniques had become the dominant force in the growing industry. They represented over fifty percent of California’s tuna fishermen, and accounted for eighty-five percent of the total annual catch.5 Their activities had become increasingly concentrated in San Diego and San Pedro, due to the proximity of these two ports to the fishing grounds.

A small Japanese fishing community had existed in San Diego since 1889, relying primarily on inshore fishing for the local market.6 As tuna fishing grew in importance other San Diego fishermen quickly recognized the advantage of adopting Japanese methods, and within a few years the long, slender, amazingly strong bamboo pole equipped with a barbless feathered hook known as a “squid” was in use throughout the fleet. Technique too was readily copied. The throwing of live bait, or “chumming,” to create a feeding frenzy among the tuna was also a Japanese innovation.7 A man intimately involved with this expanding industry and its development in San Diego was Abe Tokunosuke.8

This man, better known in local fishing circles as T. Abe or H. T. Abe, who was to figure so prominently in the shaping of San Diego’s fishery in the 1930s, had been born in Iwate-Ken, Japan in 1885, the descendant of a Samurai family. After completing high school and marrying he decided to emigrate to the United States. Arriving in Seattle in 1906, Abe worked at a variety of jobs before moving to Southern California. While employed in the Los Angeles area he attended Woodbury Business College and graduated with a degree in accounting and business. The offer of a job as secretary of the San Diego Japanese Vegetable Growers Association brought Abe south. In the course of this employment he came into close contact with the leaders of San Diego’s growing Japanese community, one of whom was the president of the Mexican Industrial Development Company, Kondo Masaharu.9 Later Abe resigned his position with the vegetable growers and joined Kondo’s firm as the office manager and accountant.

With the onset of the Great Depression in October, 1928 Kondo’s company began to experience difficulties. In 1931 the enterprise’s cannery and operation at Turtle Bay in Baja California were expropriated by the Mexican Government, and shortly thereafter Kondo Masaharu left the floundering company and returned to Japan.

The departure of Kondo left Abe surrounded by a financial shambles, plagued by numerous creditors and outstanding debts. Of most immediate concern, however, was the status of over one hundred and fifty contract Japanese fishermen who were dependent on the company, and scattered in isolated fish camps ranging from Cabo San Lucus to San Diego. While he attempted to keep the company out of the bankruptcy courts, this was not to be. Although not personally liable, Abe felt a strong obligation to clear the debts of the now defunct operation, and placed his home, auto, and even personal possessions up as security. His son Toshio recalls the family car being seized during this period.10 Working virtually alone Abe was finally able to sort out the financial obligations, and keep the fishermen in Mexico on a modified payroll, even though Kondo’s company “. . . had gone down the financial drain.”11

In early 1933, after some thought and hesitation, Abe decided to organize a completely new company known as the Southern Commercial Company, with his brother-in-law Aizumi Kyuji, and Miura Koshiro, who had been supervising operations in Baja California, participating in the venture as junior partners. Like their counterparts elsewhere in California, the Japanese fishermen in San Diego had earned the reputation of being tenacious and innovative pliers of their craft. Abe, too, as a recognized leader of this energetic community, had garnered stature as an extraordinarily capable businessman who knew the industry. When he sought fiscal backing for the Southern Commercial Company assistance was forthcoming from the Van Camp Sea Food Company, Westgate Cannery, United States National Bank, and the Security Trust and Savings Bank, an impressive vote of trust in those depression ridden years.12

At the beginning of 1934 the fledgling company consisted of two regular employees, and one small boat with a ten-ton payload. Within five years the Southern Commercial Company was in control of twenty-five tuna boats, making theirs the largest fleet under a single management in Southern California.13 These vessels ranged in size from sixty to 130 tons, and regularly sailed down the west coast of Mexico to Central and South America in search of tuna.

While the company was prospering with Abe as chief executive officer another battle was looming not only for him, but for all Japanese fishermen in California. Beginning in the 1930s there had been a strong resurgence of anti-Japanese feeling in the state, with much of the attention directed to the role of the Japanese in the tuna industry.

The efforts to exclude persons of Japanese ancestry from fishing can be traced to the year 1899, when the California Legislature introduced an act to prohibit them from harvesting abalone. Groups such as Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West and the Asiatic Exclusion League who were working actively to restrict Japanese economic activity faced two major hurdles in their campaign. The first centered on the fact that the Imperial Japanese Government monitored the well-being of their nationals closely, and were quick to forward diplomatic notes when these subjects’ rights were abused, particularly when the abuse emanated from one of the states. The second dilemma was equally difficult—how to target the Japanese for restriction, and at the same time not affect other “white” immigrant groups in the state who were, at least potentially, future citizens and voters.

A partial answer was found in the fact that the Japanese were among a select group of immigrants—including, strangely enough, Native American Indians—who were not eligible for naturalization. The basic requirements for naturalization had been laid down by Congress in the Act of March 26, 1790, which decreed that eligibility rested on being a ” .  . . free white person.”14 Although other criteria were added later, the basic requirement remained “color,” and for purposes of bureaucratic convenience those not provided for under the Act became: “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”15

The opposition’s strategy emerged in 1919 with the introduction of AB 135, California’s first piece of anti-Japanese fishing legislation.16 The intent of the bill was to restrict commercial fishing licenses to citizens of the United States, and aliens who had declared their intention to become citizens, wording which would have effectively removed Japanese from the commercial fishery without ever specifically mentioning them by name. The act, however, failed to pass because of the organized efforts of the Central Japanese Association of Los Angeles, the fish canning industry, and a coalition of both Japanese and non-Japanese fishermen’s organizations.

While this first attempt was unsuccessful it in no way diminished the efforts of those opposing the Japanese. Between 1919 and 1933 seven bills were introduced into the California Legislature utilizing citizenship, or some form of citizenship, as the basic qualification for obtaining a commercial fishing license. All of these attempts floundered because of the strong efforts of caucasian owned canneries, and local Japanese community organizations.17 A new tactic was called for.

In April, 1933 the anti-Japanese forces in the legislature were successful in amending Section 990 of the State Fish and Game Code to read:

A commercial fishing license may be issued only to a person who has continuously resided in the United States for a period of one year immediately prior to the time of making application for such a license.18

In addition, the amended Code mandated that all persons involved in the taking of fish on the high seas for sale in California also be holders of commercial fishing licenses.

California’s Attorney General in 1935 was Ulysses S. Webb, a man with both a long and active role in the state’s anti-Japanese movement. In 1913 while serving as an assemblyman, Webb had co-sponsored California’s alien land law, an act still popularly known as the “Webb Act,” which forbade the sale, and restricted the lease of agricultural land to aliens ineligible for citizenship.

Under pressure from Webb’s office State Fish and Game authorities were directed to seek out Japanese who might be in violation of the newly amended Section 990, and initiate proceedings. So it was that one of the first individuals to have the modified Code applied against his operation was Abe Tokunosuke.

Abe was both eligible and a current possessor of a valid California commercial fishing license. It was, however, common practice for the Southern Commercial Company to regularly utilize Japanese fishermen who were residents of Mexico, a nation which still allowed Japanese immigration, to man their boats. As a result none of the crew of the Osprey had resided in the United States for the required year prior to landing their catch in San Diego. As a consequence State Fish and Game officers attempted to prevent tuna from being unloaded upon the boat’s arrival at San Diego. This action was followed by a threat from the State Attorney General’s office of immediate prosecution if Abe did not cease and desist.

If the state expected Abe, who had been a local leader in the fight against the discriminatory legislation of the past decade, to quietly comply with their order, they had completely misjudged him. He was not a man to run from a fight. Through his San Diego attorneys, Harrison G. Sloane and Fred Steiner, who would later die on the beach at Normandy, Abe immediately filed suit in Superior Court, naming the California Fish and Game

Commission as the defendant. On September 18, 1934, Judge C. N. Andrews ruled in Abe’s favor, finding the residence requirement of Section 990 to be a violation of the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Webb, acting for the Fish and Game Commission, immediately appealed the decision to the State’s Fourth District Court of Appeals. One year later speaking for a unanimous court, Presiding Justice P. J. Barnard agreed that Section 990 did indeed represent a violation of the U. S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. In his opinion, concurred with by the two other sitting Justices, Judge Barnard cited the fact that: “The appellants frankly concede that the statute is discriminatory.” He then concluded by noting:

In fact the discrimination thus attempted is much more onerous than mere inequality in taxation, amounting as it does to an absolute prohibition.

The judgement is affirmed.19

Once again the Attorney General immediately appealed the decision, this time to the State Supreme Court in hopes of gaining a more favorable review. Such was not to be the case. On November 25, 1935 Webb’s appeal was denied without comment.

Abe’s victory in the courts stemmed for a time the momentum of the legislative pressure on Japanese commercial fishermen, and allowed them to turn their talents and energy to the expansion of San Diego’s tuna industry. By 1934 there were over 300 Japanese fishermen on thirty-four boats working out of San Diego. The total Japanese investment in the local fishery was estimated to be well over one million dollars.20 In the same year the Japanese share of the catch landed in San Diego was placed at half a million dollars.21 These figures support the contention that by the mid-thirties the local tuna industry was progressing in an economically satisfactory manner, but again, the forces of reaction struck out at the Japanese.

One of the continuing themes that had been used by the anti-Japanese forces in California was the threat of potential military activity by Japanese nationals. As Japan’s military adventurism in Asia became more pronounced in the 1930s these charges began to re-appear with increasing frequency, and with a greater degree of public acceptance than ever before. In some respects this thesis boded well for at least one of the organizations traditionally opposed to the Japanese, the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. This group had been noticeably weakened by the effects of the depression, and now grasped at this supposed threat of subversion as a propitious mechanism for rebuilding their flagging membership.22

In August, 1934, Lail T. Kane, a marine surveyor for the County of Los Angeles, and an officer of American Legion Navy Post 278, appeared before a Special Committee on Un-American Activities of the U. S. House of Representatives. Initiating an ongoing crusade , Kane charged that Japanese fishing vessels then operating out of San Diego and San Pedro could easily be converted into mine layers and torpedo boats within from three to six hours, and then be utilized to hinder the operation of the United States Pacific Fleet.23

With the movement revived, and strong backing from the State American Legion, Senate Bill   444  was introduced into the legislature at the 1935 general session. Although the bill never made it out of committee, it did survive long enough to receive national attention when Representative John Dockweiler of Los Angeles brought the matter up before the House Military Affairs Committee, testifying that Japanese and Japanese owned fishing boats in California were a military threat to the United States.24

In May 1938 Commander Ellis M. Zacharias arrived in San Diego to take up his duties as Intelligence Officer for the Eleventh Naval District, an area he described in a 1946 work as:

. . . the very hub of the wheel of Japanese espionage . . . [an] exceptionally important outpost embracing a large Japanese population and in a position to watch Japanese espionage activities off shore centered in the fishing fleets in which scores of Japanese sailed our seas.25

On the basis of this and similar observations found throughout his book it is apparent that Zacharias had arrived holding the pre-disposed belief that the Japanese fishing community in San Diego was thoroughly infiltrated by agents of the Imperial Japanese Government.26

About this same time the Abe family recalls the navy began to show a distinct interest in their fishing operation. Eventually pressure from the local naval authorities compelled the company to move their offices from the West Santa Fe Wharf to a point further down the bay at the San Diego Marine Construction Company then located at the foot of Sampson Street, and finally, by 1940 they were forced to move off the bay front altogether. There is, in fact, evidence of a direct correlation between Commander Zacharias’s arrival in San Diego, and the fact that naval intelligence became highly visible in the local Japanese community.27

In like manner, the intensity and tone of Lail Kane’s anti-Japanese campaign became increasingly vocal after 1939. This appears to be more than simple coincidence, and may be explained in part by the fact that Kane apparently was also a naval reserve officer assigned to the Intelligence Branch at this same time. In 1940 the Los Angeles daily Rafu Shimpo printed a copy of a letter from Rear Admiral R. S. Holmes, then Director of Naval Intelligence, to United States Senator Sheridan Downey stating: “. . . there is a Reserve Officer [of Naval Intelligence] named Lail  T.  Kane of Los Angeles . . . .”28

Other forces were now beginning to rally around Kane including the United States Attorney for Southern California, Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, who was a long time and active member of the Native Sons, had assumed his post in August of 1937, and by his own account had immediately and vigorously moved against alien-owned fishing craft that he believed were in violation of title 46, section 325 of the United States Code. In the process of preparing his cases the attorney discovered some important facts of the state’s economic life, including, among other points, that in 1937 the annual ocean catch for California was in excess of 34 million dollars, with an additional 10 million represented by cannery investments. This cannery operation, he noted, employed over ten thousand people. As the attorney was later forced to observe: “I further learned that a strict and harsh enforcement of section 325 would seriously disrupt the industry.”29 This must have indeed been an important discovery for a publicly appointed official of a nation struggling to come out of a severe economic depression.

Instead of an equal application of the law what Harrison proceeded to do was to draw on his strident nativist orientations and begin a selective application of the federal regulations against the Japanese. At the same time he initiated a highly publicized speaking campaign directed against “the evil,” as he viewed it, of Japanese owned fishing boats.30

As Harrison’s campaign began to pick up momentum the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was organizing a fishing strike among its members in San Pedro. Shortly after the strike began, large numbers of Japanese fishermen left the union to join the non-striking American Federation of Labor (AFofL), thus earning the bitter enmity of the Southern California CIO. At this time one of the striking union’s major supporters in the state legislature was a young Democratic assemblyman, with an intense nativist perspective, named Samuel W. Yorty. At the urging of the State CIO leadership, and working in concert with Kane, who publicly identified himself as the “real” author, Yorty introduced Assembly Bill 336 on January 10, 1939.31

Yorty’s tactic, embodied in the bill, was to propose amending section 990 of the State Fish and Game Code by restricting commercial fishing licenses to citizens of the United States and legal residents of California. It was estimated that if adopted, this amendment would have removed three out of four Japanese fishermen from the state’s commercial fishery.32 In point of fact the Yorty bill represented the most serious and concentrated threat that California’s Japanese fishermen had faced yet, for not only were such forces perennially hostile to the Japanese as the Native Sons represented, but this bill was also receiving strong support from the CIO and the State American Legion. Joining this already formidable line-up were U.S. Attorney Harrison and Commander Zacharias.

The task of marshalling and organizing the forces opposed to the Yorty bill fell to a young Sacramento attorney and President of the fledgling Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Walter T. Tsukamoto. Working in close concert with Tsukamoto to co-ordinate activities in the allimportant southern part of the state was Abe Tokunosuke, who immediately set about the task of mustering local support.

On January 18, 1939 Tsukamoto notified Abe that State Senator Jack D. Metzger had introduced SB 278, an even broader bill, which would have additionally required that seventy-five percent of all stockholders in commercial fishing companies be American citizens. “When taken together with the Yorty bill . . . ,” Tsukamoto wrote, “the practical effect would be to remove all alien Japanese from ever being employed in commercial fishing.”33

To further solidify their position both Yorty and Metzger approached their long-time ally Senator Irwin T. Quinn to introduce a measure which not only encompassed the provisions of their two proposed bills, but added the citizenship requirements for all employees of the subject corporations. This corollary had been appended to specifically preclude the utilization of Japanese fishermen residing in Mexico, as was the regular practice of the Southern Commercial Company.

As activity began to increase in Sacramento, U.S. Attorney Harrison joined the fray by announcing that he intended to intensify his libel actions against alien-owned fishing boats, and citing the fact that in 1938 he had personally initiated eighty such actions.34 Within the Japanese community there was a growing belief that the scope of Harrison’s activities had narrowed remarkably as the United States’ relations with Japan had deteriorated.35

In San Diego, Abe was working with George Obayashi and George Ohashi of the local JACL chapter to help raise funds and public support. Under the aegis of the JACL a letter was sent to every Japanese home in the county explaining the anti-Japanese intent of the bills and appealing for funds.36 While Abe worked with the canneries and fishermen’s associations, Obayashi and Ohashi garnered support from local politicians like State Senator Ed Fletcher, a long-time friend of the local Japanese.37

As Abe countered in San Diego, Assemblyman Yorty accelerated his campaign for public support by reiterating charges that had regularly been made by Kane since 1934 stating that there was “. . . conclusive evidence from a reliable source pointing to Japanese espionage activity in the harbor [Los Angeles-San Pedro] area.”38 At the same press conference the assemblyman added: “All aliens at the fishing harbors will be given time in which to become American citizens.” When reporters present pointed out that the Japanese, who were most directly affected by his bill, were ineligible by federal statute to become citizens, Yorty declined comment.39

On March l6th, the day before AB 336 was to receive its first public hearing before the Fish and Game Committee Harrison, the U.S. Attorney, speaking in Los Angeles observed that: “Japanese operating out of our ports know every foot of the coast of North and South America, including where cables are located and mines could be laid.”40 Less than a week later John P. Cassidy, a member of the Southern California Republican Assembly and a former secretary of the Fish and Game Association of California told a gathering:

The past 16 years’ history of these [fishing] bills, particularly in the past two sessions of the legislature, in 1935 and 1937, proves conclusively that these proposals are anti-Japanese.41

Cassidy continued by saying that these pieces of legislation aimed at the Japanese had become known in Sacramento as “cinch bills,” or legislation which forced Japanese fishermen “.  .  . to pay a price for having them dropped—which they always had been.”42 In an immediate response Kane told the press that: “.  .  . the sole motive for the so-called anti-alien commercial fishing bills .  .  . has been one of national defense.”43 This then was the nature of the highly charged environment in which the Assembly hearings began, and in which Tsukamoto and Abe had to wend their wary way.

Early in the hearings, Tsukamoto filed an extensive brief designed to offset the major arguments of Yorty and his supporters. To counter the charges that Japanese displaced American fishermen testimony was elicited from Wiley V. Ambrose, President of the Westgate Sea Products Company of San Diego, and a man who had been closely involved with the industry for over twenty years. Ambrose wrote:

The Japanese do not displace American fishermen by any means. The field is open and American fishermen are not in the field. Americans do not take this kind of work in any numbers, which explains the reason.

Ambrose continued:

I hold no brief for the Japanese or any other foreigner who comes to our shores with nothing to offer but a hungry stomach and wants us to fill it. These fishermen are not strangers among us; some of them I have known for twenty years. They are sturdy, hard working men, attending to their business and doing a good job of it. You do not find them on the city, county, or state welfare lists. You do not find them in our jails for reckless or drunken driving. These fishermen have more important business to attend to and they know how to attend to it.

Then in an attempt to remind the ever fiscally sensitive legislators of the facts, Ambrose concluded:

. . . they own their own boats and at this time are paying taxes on their property, and it is not an inconsiderable amount. They are filing their income returns and what is more important are paying plenty of money along with the return.44

It was no accident that Ambrose, one of the industry’s leading spokesmen presented such strong, pointed support of the Japanese, and opposition to the pending legislation. Abe was a long-time acquaintance, and it had been at his urging that the President of Westgate agreed to make his views public.

The charges of subversion and espionage leveled against the Japanese fishermen were perhaps the most immediately threatening since they represented the major argument for exclusion. Tsukamoto, in his brief, attempted to selectively refute those accusations he considered the most serious. The first to be dealt with involved Lail Kane’s “tuna boat to torpedo boat” thesis, which had figured so prominently in Congressman Dockweiler’s 1935 testimony. When questioned by members of the committee on the source of his information, Dockweiler had replied that his information had come from investigations carried out “. . . by the American Legion . . .,”45 which, in this instance, most certainly meant Kane. Indeed, Kane admitted as much when he appeared before a Special Committee of the House of Representatives in 1942.46

The reaction of Wiley Ambrose typified the industry’s position before the committee hearing the Yorty bill. “It was inconceivable,” wrote Ambrose, “that a man like Dockweiler could have been led astray by such utterly misleading statements.” The San Diegan concluded: “the idea of them having enough compressed air to fire a torpedo is silly.”47

Ambrose of course was not alone in these observations. Sam Hornstein, the President of the Coast Fishing Company, and a man with a life-time involvement in the tuna industry observed to the committee:

One is inclined to wonder from whence the information could have been derived, when one considers that our modern tuna boats are of such a design as to be utterly impracticable for serving any other nature whatever, other than their original purpose, tuna fishing.

Then to underscore his criticism of the “torpedo boat thesis” Hornstein added: “To consider them as potential weapons of warfare is really stretching one’s imagination.”48

Answering the charge that the fleet sheltered reserve officers of the Imperial Navy, B. Houssels, a vice president of the Van Camp Sea Food Company wrote:

The Japanese government has absolutely nothing to do with these boats, nor did they subsidize them in any way. The owners and captains have been residents for many years (20-30). I have known them for more than 20 years, or ever since I have been in the fishing business. If they are naval officers Japan must have had a long vision and started out 25 or 30 years ago. In my opinion this . . . is a bunch of hooey.

In conclusion Houssels noted: “I don’t believe that there is a man in California in a position to better know the relative facts than myself.”49

In attempting to emphasize the economic tenor of the times for the Assembly committee, Tsukamoto pointed out that Japanese fishermen provided over thirty percent of all the fish that came to California canneries. If this supply were suddenly to be cut off, the Sacramento attorney observed, “. . . an estimated 2000 to 2500 cannery workers will be displaced and thrown into an already strained labor market.”50 Hornstein added this word of caution for the committee’s consideration: “. . . it would create through legislation a situation where ‘supply’ would for a number of years approximate about half the present ‘demand’.”51

The last major point made by the brief was to emphasize the international ramifications of the proposed legislation by suggesting that there might well be negative reactions in Japan to the bill including a possible boycott of California goods. In addition, it was suggested that the Department of State might hold serious reservations since AB 336 appeared to violate the spirit, if not the letter of the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation which commercially linked the United States and Japan.

In the meantime the California Senate’s Fish and Game Committee had begun their public hearings on the Quinn and Metzger bills. In that house the forces supporting the legislation had the advantage of having both Quinn and Metzger sitting as members of the nine-man committee hearing the bills. With the battle now joined in both houses the Rafu Shimpo observed editorially:

. . . the outcome of the bills in both the Assembly and Senate, in the opinion of experienced capital observers, appeared 50-50 today, more likely of passage than any time in history.”52

In the Assembly Harrison and Kane renewed their charges of espionage and subversion before the committee; testimony Tsukamoto characterized as: “. . . suppositions and loose estimates.”53 Incensed at what he believed were distortions and wide-ranging innuendo by Harrison, Tsukamoto, in his role as National President of the JACL, wired President Roosevelt, California Congressman Frank Buck, and the Director of Naval Intelligence, that the U.S. Attorney’s charges had not been substantiated by any formal evidence, and added: “If Harrison’s statements are true then we strongly recommend immediate federal indictments and a proper mopping up.”54 The Nisei lawyer further suggested in his telegrams that if such evidence or federal charges were not forthcoming, the Assembly should be so notified. The communications were met with silence by Washington, and neither charges nor evidence was provided.

On March 30th, 1939, with four of its fifteen members absent, the Assembly Fish and Game Committee voted six to five to table Yorty’s AB 336, an act many thought tantamount to killing the bill. His narrow defeat notwithstanding, the Los Angeles Assemblyman immediately announced to the press plans to carry the bill directly to the floor of the Assembly, in an attempt to override the committee recommendation. During the press conference Yorty stated flatly that the bill was aimed solely at the alien Japanese.55

Under the Assembly Rules, Yorty needed the signatures of forty-one members to withdraw his bill from the committee’s control. In the process of gathering his support, Yorty uncovered one of those bureaucratic flukes that periodically appear to bedevil the legislative process. In printing the rules of the Assembly, a line had inadvertently been dropped, with the result that Yorty needed only a majority of those present, or thirty-eight signatures, instead of the usual forty-one. After a series of frantic, and at times heated, consultations AB 336 was ruled as being before the Assembly for consideration.56

In the debate that followed, the bill was characterized as a piece of vicious legislation and a subterfuge, and mainly a battle between the AFofL and the CIO. Finally, the Assembly voted to return the bill to the jurisdiction of the Fish and Game Committee for their recommendation.57

Realizing that they still had a long way to go in this struggle, Walter Tsukamoto made a hurried trip to Los Angeles where he met with representatives of the JACL and the Japanese Fishermen’s Association. Then, accompanied by H. Yokozeki of the fishermen’s association, he traveled to San Diego to consult with Abe on the developments in the Assembly and the upcoming hearings in the Senate. 58

On his return to the capital Tsukamoto wrote Abe that after some initial sparring both sides on the Senate Fish and Game Committee had agreed to withdraw the Quinn and Metzger bills from consideration pending the outcome of Yorty’s efforts in the Assembly.59 Everything depended on what happened in the Assembly.

As the Assembly committee once again prepared to deal with AB 336, John B. Pelletier, representing the 44th assembly district, told the press:

I want to call your attention to the fact that in 1935 and in 1937, this bill was brought here in the legislature at Sacramento and the Federal Government sent word to kill it because it was unfair and unconstitutional.60

Kane too was seeking public support via the press. Speaking in Los

Angeles he said:

The fight has just begun, and it is serious error to believe that an object as important as that which the American Legion is striving for can be brushed aside so easily.

Then, in a moment of amazing candor, considering all his public positions on AB 336 up to that time, Kane remarked: “The Yorty bill in its present form is definitely discriminatory and is aimed solely at the Japanese.”61

As a slightly amended version of Yorty’s AB 336 was coming before the Fish and Game Committee, the San Diego Evening Tribune hit the streets with a page one story dealing with the purported existence of a $250,000 “slush” fund provided by a “foreign” government “. . . which seeks to defeat California legislation aimed at the asserted spying activities of alien fishermen.”62 The source of this disclosure, according to the article, was Lail Kane. As quoted from the article, Kane told the press that:

. . . after making a phone call to Captain Ellis Zacharias, (Zacharias was not promoted to Captain until july 1, 1939.) intelligence officer of the 11th Naval District, he [Kane] was authorized to make the following statement:

The Federal Government is definitely interested in the report that there is a fund of $250,000 available and being spent in Sacramento to defeat state legislation at this time.

Quoting Zacharias further, Kane continued:

The legislation contemplates the restriction of all commercial fishing under the jurisdiction of the State of California to citizens of the United States and had been endorsed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other groups as a safeguard to prevent further espionage on fleet activities and operations.63

The Evening Tribune article is an interesting example of Kane’s handiwork. Kane was, at least as far as the public was concerned, a private citizen, acting as a member of the American Legion. His naval intelligence connection was apparently not public information at this time.

For Zacharias, a serving active duty officer, to become publicly involved in a matter that was clearly one of state jurisdiction is perhaps strangest of all. Aside from the fact that the Commander’s statement is misleading at best, there is the whole matter of his none too subtle attempt to influence pending state legislation. This intervention in itself appears to fly directly in the face of the traditional military-civilian role vis-á-vis political questions. To compound this involvement Zacharias flew from San Diego to Sacramento to testify before the Assembly committee. After a closed session which lasted forty-five minutes, a somewhat disgruntled commander departed, sure that the representatives of the people simply could not understand the magnitude of this vital issue.”64

Yorty and Kane’s dramatic ploy to win over the committee majority with the help of navy intelligence almost succeeded. In the end however, they voted seven to seven to deny passage to the amended version of AB 336. An obviously pleased, but wary, Tsukamoto notified Abe of the victory, warning him, at the same time that the bill’s supporters were going to again attempt to bring the legislation directly to the Assembly floor despite the committee’s rebuff.65

In the meantime, the Senate had decided to suspend their hearings, pending an Assembly decision,66 and Harrison again returned to the public forum with a blistering attack on the opponents of Yorty’s bill who were characterized as men: “. . . who struck at the very foundations of Americanism.”67

Two weeks, later, on May 18th, Tsukamoto notified Abe in a hastily written note that AB 336 could be brought up any time, and that he had spent the entire day on the Assembly floor, “. . . working the bill.”68

Finally on June 6, 1939 came the word that Abe had been waiting for. His diligent attorney wired:

Assemblyman Yorty’s motion to withdraw bill from committee decisively beaten today 42 to 24. I do not believe that there will be any further action in the present session of the legislature.69

Abe replied with thanks and, from long experience, requested that Tsukamoto continue to keep watch until all possible chance for action by the Yorty forces had passed.70 The decisive defeat in the Assembly caused the Senate Fish and Game Committee to allow the Quinn and Metzger bills to die quietly.

The victory gave Abe and his supporters at least a year and a half to prepare for what they realized would be the inevitable renewal for the struggle at the next general session of the legislature. Indeed, throughout 1940 there were continued calls for the restriction of Japanese fishermen. Early in 1940, one of the legal protections the fishermen relied on was nullified when the United States terminated the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan. In June, Representative Charles Kramer of California introduced three bills into the Congress aimed at: “. . . eliminating Japanese craft from Pacific Coast waters, and the possible threat from tuna boats converted into torpedo boats.”71 Benjamin Harrison, about to become a federal judge, continued his public attacks, and caused another flurry of publicity in late June with a “Trojan Boats” theme. Harrison’s ideas were picked up and expanded in August by Bernarr MacFadden’s Liberty Magazine, which treated its readers to a detailed review of the position Lail Kane had been taking since 1934. The by-line credited the article to Jerry Lewis, a sometimes sportswriter, who informed his readers that the “real” author was: “. . . a member of the United States Naval Intelligence Department.”72 In a style unique to this type of journalism the author recounted a litany of potential horrors ranging from the deaths of 250,000 innocent Californians to the roasting alive of every man in the Pacific Fleet. In a vignette replete with racial stereotypes, the author recounted the alleged reaction of a Japanese fruit stand operator, who, in response to a customer’s concern over the condition of some oranges reportedly said: “When we Japanese take over California they’ll be too good for you whites to eat.”73 By September Representative Kramer was telling the Congress that Japanese fishermen in California were auxiliaries of the Imperial Navy and had to be stopped.74

Abe followed all of these developments with the deep concern of a man fighting to protect the economic livelihood of men who had helped create a great industry in Southern California, but the next fight was not to be his.

Abe Tokunosuke died on January 3, 1941. He was spared the wrenching experience of seeing the destruction of the Japanese tuna fleet he helped pioneer in California, brought on by the war that would break out eleven months later between the two countries he loved equally well. Perhaps the best assessment of this part of Abe’s life has come from his son Toshio, who served with distinction in the United States Army in World War II, spending twenty-two months in the disease-ridden jungles of Burma. Of his father he has written:

My Father in his lifetime maintained a low profile. He was one of many prominent citizens of San Diego, but he happened to be Japanese. He was an American at heart, which might be a revelation to many. This does not mean he was not proud of his heritage, from which he brought many fond memories.

Yet by many who did not know this man he was regarded as a potential enemy of the United States and no more than a second-class citizen. He preached Americanism to his sons. Today he would be called a ‘flag waver’ of the stars and stripes.

He did not live to see one of his sons come back from the wars after almost five years.

Another son, also an American, was rejected by the services as ‘undesirable’ purely as a matter of ancestry. He did not live to see this either.75


1. Cary McWilliams, “Once Again the Yellow Peril,” Nation, June 26, 1935, p. 735.

2. William C. Richardson, “The Fishermen of San Diego,” (Master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1981), pp. 41-42.

3. Donald H. Estes, “Kondo Masaharu and The Best of All Fishermen,” The Journal of San Diego History, 23 (Summer, 1977), pp. 9-12.

4. Interview with William C. Richardson, San Diego, California, August 15, 1981.

5. California Fish and Game Commission, 23rd Biennial Report 1912-1914,p. 118.

6. Eiji Tanabe, “Behind the Takahashi Case,” Pacific Citizen, March 27, 1948. pp. 2, 5.

7. Richardson, Fishermen of San Diego, pp. 41-42.

8. Abe’s name is rendered here in the Japanese manner, and the form commonly utilized by immigrant Japanese, that is family name followed by personal name.

9. Estes, “Kondo Masaharu,” pp. 9-12.

10. Letter from Toshio Abe to Donald H. Estes, September 15, 1978. The author is deeply indebted to Toshio and Hayao Abe for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

11. Ibid.

12. Letter from Hayao Abe to Donald H. Estes, January 25, 1982.

13. Toshio Abe to Donald Estes.

14. 1 Statutes 103, March 26, 1790.

15. It would take the Congress 162 years to eliminate “color” as a criterion for citizenship.

16. California, Assembly, Bill 135 (Mitchell), 1919.

17. Ko Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin Sangyo Soran [Outline Works of the Japanese in America], Los Angeles, California, 1940, p. 736

18. California, Fish and Game Code, Cal. Statutes, April 1, 1933, p. 479.

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

20. M. Sasaki, ed., Minami Kashu Nihonjin Shichijunen [Japanese in Southern California, A Seventy Year History], Los Angeles, California, 1960, p. 183.

21. Murai, ed., Zaibei Nihonjin, p. 738.

22. John Modell, “The Japanese of Los Angeles,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1970), p. 342.

23. Ibid., p. 343-44.

24. San Diego Sun, February 13, 1935, p. 2.

25. Ellis M. Zacharias, Secret Missions (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1946), p. 200.

26. Ibid., pp. 200-09 passim.

27. Interviews with: Hayao L. Abe, July 21, 1978, Joseph Owashi, March 25, 1979, and George Ohashi, February 7, 1982. All at San Diego, California.

28. Rafu Shimpo [Los Angeles, California] August 4, 1940, p. 1. Hereinafter: Rafu Shimpo.

29. U.S. Congress. House. Special Committee. Investigation of Un-American Activities in the United States. 77th Congress, 1st Session, 1942, p. 1823. Hereinafter: Un-American Activities.

30. Ibid., p. 1829.

31. Rafu Shímpo, March 21, 1939, p. 1.

32. Ibid.

33. Letter from Walter T. Tsukamoto to Abe Tokunosuke, January 18, 1939. Hereinafter subsequent letters will be shown indicating recipients last names only.

34. San Diego Union, February 7, 1939.

35. Rafu Shimpo, February 7, 1939. Abe, Owashi, Ohashi, interviews. Ibid.

36. Rafu Shimpo, February 15, 1939. San Diego Chapter, Japanese American Citizens League, Solicitation Letter, n.d.

37. Ohashi interview. Ibid. After World War II broke out Mr. Ohashi reports that Senator Fletcher suggested having the title of Japanese-owned fishing boats placed jointly in his and Ohashi’s names to protect them from possible seizure.

38. Rafu Shimpo, February 16, 1939, p. 1.

39. Ibid.

40. San Diego Union, March 17, 1939.

41. Rafu Shimpo, March 20, 1939, p. 1.

42. Ibid.

43. Rafu Shimpo, March 21, 1939, p. 1.

44. Walter T. Tsukamoto, A Brief Presenting Certain Facts Offered in Opposition to Assembly Bills 336, 1883, 2414, and 2415, and Senate Bills 278 and 736, n.d. Hereinafter: Brief. This brief was presented to the Assembly and Senate Fish and Game Committees at the Fifty-third General Session of the legislature on Janaury 10, 1939.

45. U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Military Affairs, To Authorize Permanent Stations and Depots for the Army Air Corps. 74th Congress, 1st Session, 1935, pp. 103-05, 132-40.

46. U.S Congress. House. Un-American Activities, p. 1823.

47. Tsukamoto, Brief, p. 5.

48. Ibid., p. 13.

49. Ibid., p. 16.

50. Ibid., p. 2.

51. Ibid.

52. Rafu Shimpo, March 23, 1939, p. 1.

53. Rafu Shimpo, March 26, 1939, p. 1.

54. Ibid.

55. San Diego Union, April 1, 1939, p. 3.

56. Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1939, p. 4.

57. San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1939, p. 7.

58. Fred Steiner to Abe Tokunosuke, April 8, 1939.

59. Tsukamoto to Abe, April 11, 1939.

60. Rafu Shimpo, April 13, 1939, p. 1.

61. Ibid.

62. San Diego Evening Tribune, April 21, 1939, p. 1. San Diego Union, April 22, 1939, p. 1.

63. Ibid.

64. Zacharias, Secret Missions, p. 210.

65. Tsukamoto to Abe, May 2, 1939.

66. Ibid.

67. Los Angeles Daily News, May 6, 1939, p. 1.

68. Tsukamoto to Abe, May 18, 1939.

69. Tsukamoto to Abe, June 6, 1939.

70. Abe to Tsukamoto, June 6, 1939.

71. San Diego Union, June 14, 1939.

72. “Yellow Peril in the West,” Liberty, August 3, 1940, p. 58.

73. Jerry D. Lewis, “5th Column in California,” Liberty, August 10, 1940, p. 13-14.

74. San Diego Union, September 5, 1940.

75. Toshio Abe to Donald H. Estes, September 15, 1978.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the author.