The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1997, Volume 43, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Book Review Editor

South Bay Monogatari: Tales of the South Bay Nikkei Community. By Donald H. Estes. Chula Vista — The Early Years, vol. 5. Chula Vista Historical Society. San Diego, California: Tecolote Publications, 1996. Bibliography. Glossary. Map. Notes. Photographs. x + 190 + index, unnumbered 5 pp. $12.50 paper.


Reviewed by Jonathan W. McLeod, Professor of History, San Diego Mesa College, author of Workers and Workplace Dynamics in Reconstruction-Era Atlanta (1989).

Through tales and photos in black and white, South Bay Monogatari highlights development of the Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry living in the US) community emergent in the South Bay region of San Diego County, particularly around Chula Vista and National City, since the 1890s. Donald Estes, a San Diego City College history professor, uses the narrative device to “provide a feel for the Nikkei experience, and at the same time cover some of the major events they were involved in locally” (v). The scope of the accounts about the South Bay Nikkei and the author’s succinct commentaries, presented chronologically, range widely. Topics related to the Issei (first generation of Japanese residents of the US) include: a demographic profile of the earliest immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the complexities of arranged marriages; efforts to establish farms, businesses, and community institutions; and the surge of European-American nativism undergirded by racist ideology, leading to restrictive legislation. Estes focuses on passage of California’s Alien Land Law (1913) and voter approval in 1920 of California’s Proposition 1 (Haney-Webb Act) — both of which proscribed Issei, (as “aliens” ineligible for citizenship by virtue of racial classification under federal naturalization laws), from owning or leasing land in the Golden State — and subsequent litigation. He also chronicles the efforts by South Bay Issei celery farmers (working land leased or owned by citizens) to mitigate those tensions in the 1930s through collaborative organization with white growers.

Following Imperial Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, a broad cross section of San Diegans who were not of Japanese ancestry responded indiscriminately against all “Japanese” people around them with fear, suspicion, and outright hostility. The 1942 issuance of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 provided for the arrest, detention, and relocation of all people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast. Drawing on the accounts of numerous South Bay Nikkei, the author outlines the subsequent disruption in lives of both resident aliens and US citizens of Japanese ancestry alike who abandoned property and livelihoods to be “relocated” first at Santa Anita horse racing track, and later at a Poston, Arizona concentration camp. As Estes demonstrates, the military distinction of the Nisei (second generation and, therefore, US citizens by birth), in the Allied European campaigns and as Japanese-language interpreters for the US in the Pacific theater added further to the irony of “relocation.”

The “relocated” Nikkei welcomed the war’s end in 1945, but anecdotes Estes includes show how the prospect of returning to the South Bay region raised some trepidations. Such concerns proved well founded. Some former camp internees had sold their property on short notice at a loss in February 1942, when they had been rounded up; in peacetime, they would have to start farms and businesses over. Others, upon detention, had entrusted property with neighbors, not all of whom subsequently acted honorably. They also faced rebuilding a way of life. Furthermore, California Governor Earl Warren’s commitment to resume enforcement of state alien land laws signalled the continuation of anti-immigrant/anti-Asian public policy after the war. Ultimately, in Oyama v. California (1947), the Japanese American Citizen’s League and the American Civil Liberties Union raised legal challenges to those alien land laws which the US Supreme Court sustained. In 1956, California voters approved Ballot Proposition 13 which categorically repealed all of the state’s alien land laws. Estes concludes South Bay Monogatari with accounts of how the Nisei and Sansei (third generation) endeavored to reenter agriculture in the South Bay. Subsequently, too, some of the Sansei and Yonsei (fourth generation) pursued careers in business and the professions. Estes also relates accounts of Nikkei and interested others, including himself, who have worked to establish a vibrant Japanese American cultural base and to sustain consciousness of South Bay Nikkei history.

In collecting and relating these monogatari as primary sources, Estes makes a real contribution. Some of the earliest narratives were originally in Japanese-language printed sources, which the author translated. Many anecdotes, however, are from recorded interviews conducted by Donald Estes and Matthew Estes. This narrative, therefore, adds rich detail to our knowledge of Nikkei history in the South Bay.

Generally the presentation of accounts is effective, though minor editorial and typographical errors appear on pages 91, 96, 107, 108, 113, and 131. A question also arises concerning the statement: “Under then [approximately 1909 to 1913] existing federal naturalization laws, American citizenship could only devolve upon, ‘…free, white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent (emphasis added) (30).'” The author references particular US statutes for 1790, 1793 [should be cited as 1795], and 1870 (38, n.4). Close reading of all those statutes, however, does not reveal this language, indicating an error of citation.

On the interpretive level, even as the first-hand tales Estes relates with commentary add to our information about Nikkei in the South Bay — particularly in highlighting the local conflicts over the alien land laws, the narratives are isolated from a larger context, knowledge of which ultimately is essential to developing an historical understanding even of the South Bay. Estes’s statement, for example, that Issei arriving in San Diego in the 1880s were “largely unnoticed because of the paucity of their numbers” submerging them in “the flood of other newcomers to the region” (p. 3) seems misleading, given the tumult elsewhere in the state concerning Chinese and Japanese laborers. An isolated and unexplored reference (p. 102) to a racial pecking order elevating Nisei soldiers to a privileged position over black soldiers vis a vis white GIs is another opportunity missed. While Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice (1974) and Frank Chuman, The Bamboo People (1976) are authoritative sources which Estes references, other scholars — Rodolfo Acuna, Albert Camarillo, Yuji Ichioka, Peter Irons, Alexander Saxton, Ronald Takaki, and Devra Weber, to name a few — also have written extensively on relevant issues, broadening our perspective on ethnic community building and race and class dynamics in California and nationwide. In sum, shortcomings noted above notwithstanding, South Bay Monogatari adds an element of feeling for and ample information to our knowledge about the Nikkei experience in the South Bay.