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Interviewee: Richard Chikami

Role: Retired U.S. West Coast Tuna Fisherman

Date of Interview: 11/22/2012

Collection: Tuna Industry Pioneers of San Pedro and Terminal Island, CA

Click on the link below to view the interview.

Richard Chikami interview

Abstract: Richard was born in San Pedro in 1946; a third generation Japanese-American (sansei). In this interview, he recounts how his family came to be living in San Pedro from Japan, and the challenges they faced because of “yellow exclusion laws” and other discriminatory practices that prevented his grandparents from becoming U.S. citizens.  His grandfather settled initially in a Japanese fishing community near Santa Monica, California where he ran a fish market. However, he was not legally allowed to hold a business license until 1954 when he was allowed to become a U.S. citizen.  Richard describes the forced removal of the Japanese-American community from Terminal Island with only 48 hours of notice at the outset of World War II and the devastating impact the relocation had on their fishing community.

Transcript:

My name is Richard Chikami. I was born in 1946 in San Pedro. I’m sansei. What [that] means is [third] generation. My grandmother’s side of the family were merchants and my grandfather was a kind of a minor official in the government. He already had been to the United States so he was very much interested in coming here so he came to the U.S.

At that particular time, the Japanese government had just opened up immigration into the United States but the other hard part of that was that they were having quite a few of these yellow exclusion laws and he wanted to come here and be a U.S. citizen that was not allowed specifically for Japanese and Chinese at that time. That’s why it’s called the yellow exclusion law.

So when the Southern Pacific [Railroad Company] allowed the Japanese [to build housing], there was a community in Santa Monica that was 5 miles down from the actual City of Santa Monica and they had about 200 or 300 people living there and that was a fishing community. The Southern Pacific allowed the Japanese community to build houses and that was another factor that was very hard if you weren’t a U.S. citizen – to own a house or have some place to live.  And that’s where my grandfather wound up where my mother was born and he started a fish market there. The Japanese were fishing through the surf, in other words with dories rowing out, and he started a fish market and as soon as he became very good at it you couldn’t get a business license; that law was changed in 1954, where Japanese specifically could become U.S. citizens in the first generation.

I think as far as the fishing industry, the war was devastating to a lot of [Japanese] people. The people on Terminal Island – it was kind of even more since the government just decided that you’ve got 48 hours to get out. They evacuated everybody else off the west coast at a later date and [they had] a little more knowledge.  It wasn’t, you know, you’ve got to leave your home in 48 hours and lose everything. A lot of people were arrested – a lot of people were not even allowed to go on their boat again because I guess they were scared they might take them out. A lot of people, supposedly boat owners, like my uncle, were taken away for being some kind of Japanese Naval reservists,  and so the teenagers and whoever was left had to evacuate their home and move off of Terminal Island.

To learn more about Richard and view his photos, click here.

This collection is part of an effort to create a film about the origins and history of the West Coast tuna industry in San Pedro and Terminal Island, CA. At the heart of it all were immigrants from Japan, Croatia, Italy, and Portugal. The current global tuna industry still uses many of the innovations pioneered in those early days.  More information and footage at:
 http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/fisheries/migratory_species/voices_from_the_fisheries.html