A Community Erased: Japanese Americans in El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley

Nishida Family in El Monte
The Nishida Family of El Monte courtesy of Gail Downes (granddaughter of Rikizo Nishida)

A visit to El Monte, California reveals many official signs and markers that harken back to the town’s pioneer past. The local history museum is designed to look like an American West frontier town, complete with wagon wheels and mannequins outfitted in long skirts and bonnets. With its fertile location between the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo, El Monte is often presented as a dream destination for westbound wagon trains, not to mention the indigenous populations and the Spanish before them. Not surprisingly, as had happened throughout the West Coast, the verdant farmland that made the San Gabriel Valley attractive to white settlers in the late-1800s would prove inviting to later agricultural migrants, specifically Japanese and Mexicans, a few decades later.

Being Japanese American in El Monte

Japanese immigrants began arriving in the San Gabriel Valley in the early 1900s. By 1913, enough Japanese had settled in the region to warrant the establishment of the Japanese Farmer’s Association of the San Gabriel Valley.[1] That year, the Association hosted a celebration in El Monte to welcome a visiting delegation of the Japanese Navy to Southern California. Just over twenty years later, a 1936 Japanese American Citizens League census found some five hundred first-generation and one thousand second-generation Japanese Americans, also known as Nikkei, living in the San Gabriel Valley.[2]

In El Monte specifically, the vast majority of Japanese lived outside of the main areas of town. They settled on large farms where they grew produce and flowers to sell at local farm stands or the larger farmers markets in Southern California. Such business relations meant that the Japanese of El Monte interacted on a daily basis with not only local white residents on whom they relied as customers, but also other Japanese from throughout the region.[3] These daily economic interactions at Los Angeles-area produce markets only further engrained a sense of ethnic solidarity across Southern California’s Nikkei that local organizations, such as the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles and the Japanese America Society worked tirelessly to cultivate. Until World War II, Japanese Americans from the San Gabriel Valley routinely participated in Japanese language speech contests and other community celebrations, many of which were held in LA’s Little Tokyo.

The experience of Rikizo Nishida and his young family illustrates the complicated communal ties of many prewar Japanese immigrants. Nishida left his home near Hiroshima, Japan for the United States in 1903. After working on a Hawaiian sugar plantation for three years, he moved to San Francisco and then Nebraska, before reaching Southern California in 1911. After a year, Nishida returned to his hometown near Hiroshima, in all likelihood with the intention of finding a wife to bring back to the United States to start a family. While further Japanese migration had been prohibited under the terms of the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement between the US and Japanese governments, immigrants already in the United States–the majority of whom were single males–could invite immediate family members to accompany them. As a result, just a year later, in 1913, Rikizo and his new wife Iwano returned to the Los Angeles area, settling first in Covina where they opened a restaurant. In 1916, Nishida quit the restaurant business and took up farming. Four years later, he invested $10,000 to open a ten-acre berry farm in El Monte. As a resident of El Monte, Nishida was active in the local Japanese community, serving numerous positions in Nikkei organizations: member of the San Gabriel Valley Men’s Association, treasurer of the local Japanese Language School, and governor of the San Gabriel Valley Berry Growers Co-op.

the elite of little tokyo
Little Tokyo Elite courtesy of Ike Hatchimonji

On August 23, 1929, Nishida and his family were traveling to Los Angeles Harbor to join a large number of other Japanese Southern Californians to greet two visiting Japanese naval cruisers. However, a day that made Little Tokyo “gay with flags and bunting of America and Japan” proved tragic for the Nishida family, when the car that they were riding to the celebration struck another vehicle on Lower Azusa Road.[4] Rikizo was killed when a piece of the nearby guardrail struck his head and three other passengers were injured in the accident. In the aftermath, the now-widowed Iwano could no longer support her family singlehandedly. Instead, she sent her middle daughter Mary Kikuye to live with an uncle and aunt in Japan, though she would return a few years later to attend high school in El Monte. Later, she would meet her husband, himself a second-generation Japanese American, at one of Los Angeles’s farmers markets where he was working for his family’s fruit company. In maintaining a sense of a Japanese national identity, to the point of wanting to welcome Japanese naval vessels to Southern California, while living in the United States and also routinely moving between both countries, the Nishida family’s experience reveals the transnational identities that first- and some second-generation Japanese Americans embraced prior to World War II.


Farm Management and the Berry Strike of 1933

For Japanese residents of El Monte, their geographic separation from the center of town mirrored their socioeconomic and legal position in the city. Understandings of class in El Monte were essentially triangulated along ethnic lines between the city’s white, Japanese, and Mexican residents. Although California’s Alien Land Laws prevented first-generation Japanese immigrants from owning land, upwardly mobile Japanese, like Rikizo Nishida, managed to either lease land from white landowners or own land through their second-generation Japanese children, who were American citizens. Over time, an increasing number of Japanese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley shifted from being farm laborers to farm managers, especially when the Great Depression caused a drop in land prices and compelled many white landowners to lease their lands to Japanese growers. With more land, the Japanese themselves began hiring an increasing number of Mexican laborers. For these Japanese, the rough transition from farm worker to farm manager would culminate in the El Monte Berry Strike of 1933.

The same macroeconomic factors that contributed to increased Japanese control of San Gabriel Valley farmland led to a drop in agricultural labor prices throughout Southern California and left many Mexican pickers, including those residing in Hicks Camp, facing desperate conditions. In June 1933 outside labor groups, led by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, organized El Monte’s Mexican berry pickers to demand higher wages from Japanese growers. The labor dispute would quickly become articulated in ethnic terms. While most historical analyses of the 1933 Berry Strike concern the Mexican pickers’ important contribution to California labor history, the strike was also a significant moment for El Monte’s Japanese community. When the growers refused to give in to the laborers’ demands and the strike proceeded, the Japanese community mobilized to support their own. The city’s Japanese leaders successfully petitioned the principal of El Monte High School to dismiss Japanese students for three days to help with the berry harvest.[5] Moreover, according to historian Charles Wollenberg, labor leaders managed to expand the strike beyond the San Gabriel Valley; throughout Southern California, Mexican farmworkers picketed Japanese-run farms.[6] The conflict would only end six weeks later when officials from the State Bureau of Labor Relations, along with the white-led El Monte Chamber of Commerce, grew concerned that the labor strife would begin to affect the bottom lines of non-Japanese growers. Not only did white property owners have a vested interest in ensuring that their farms, leased to Japanese, remained profitable, but community leaders feared that labor unrest might also spread to white-run farms in the area. Ultimately, the State Bureau of Labor Relations issued a compromise ultimatum.

A happy Los Angeles Times write-up of berry farm conditions a year after the strike proclaimed that that “While Japanese, Mexicans, and Filipinos work and live in harmony and gain subsistence in the fields, berry patches covering 200 acres in the Arcadia district are serving delicious ingredients for strawberry shortcakes and Youngberry pies to an appreciative audience.” Dubbed the “Berry King of the San Gabriel Valley” and leader of the Japanese Farmers’ Association of the San Gabriel Valley, grower Otokichi Sakamoto explained that, “No thoughts of strikes are in the minds of these people… Pickers, who sometimes work from 6am to 6pm… now earn twenty-two cents per hour on an hour basis. Before the recent strike, they were receiving seventeen cents.”[7] The wage increase, however, fell short of the twenty-five cents per hour that pickers and labor leaders had originally demanded. Analyzing the final result of the Berry Strike, Wollenberg concludes that, “The Japanese may have ‘won’ the El Monte strike, but … the strike demonstrated the ultimate power of white institutions over Japanese interests in rural California.”[8] As much as the Japanese aimed to achieve social mobility in the first few decades of the twentieth century, they still retained little control over the economic and legal structures that governed Japanese American life in El Monte.

Segregated Schools

Nowhere was this inequality more apparent than in the city’s segregated public school system. Aimed at separating poor, and often transient, Mexican students from established white schools, the practice of operating separate schools for racial minorities was a common practice, especially in agricultural areas, throughout much of Southern California.[9] Although the city’s secondary schools were integrated, El Monte’s primary schools (through the fifth grade) were not. And, despite whatever progress the Japanese community had made in the previous half-century, it was here that the myth of Japanese equality with the town’s white residents would be shattered: in El Monte, young Japanese and Mexicans attended the Lexington Grammar School while white students attended separate, better furnished primary schools. While El Monte’s leaders had come to the assistance of Japanese farmers in settling the Berry Strike of 1933, the very same leaders forced Japanese children to attend the same schools as the children on the other side of the picket line.

In his interview with the Densho Project, an online Japanese American oral history archive, Bacon Sakatani, a second-generation Japanese American who lived in El Monte for a time as a child, describes attending the Lexington School. He notes that of forty or so students, the school was twenty-percent Japanese and eighty-percent Mexican. Many of the Mexican students were very poor: “I have a photo that shows them barefooted and some of them were not even bringing lunches to school.”[10] Moreover, though the premise for segregating primary schools was to prepare students for the rigors of higher grades, Sakatani remembers that the majority of Mexican students did not end up attending secondary school, while the Japanese students, who almost all attended secondary school, generally did not need such remedial support. In fact, Sakatani faults the segregated schools for what he believed to be his limited vocabulary once he began attending integrated schools in nearby La Puente. Although El Monte schools were some of the few segregated primary schools in the San Gabriel Valley, he states, “As I recall there were no protests. People just accepted those kind of schools.”

El Monte’s Japanese community may have begrudgingly accepted segregated schools at the community level, but at the individual level, there was notable resistance. As a young child growing up in 1930s El Monte, Ike Hatchimonji’s experience differed from most of his fellow second-generation Japanese. For starters, his father, Kumezo Hatchimonji, was one of the few first-generation Japanese in El Monte to have been educated in the United States. Having studied English from American missionaries in northeast Japan, Kumezo came to the United States after taking a job on a merchant ship. He graduated from New York’s Columbia University in 1927, and shortly thereafter moved to Southern California. In Los Angeles, he married the daughter of a Japanese Christian minister, Nobue Komoro, and the couple had twins, nicknamed Mike and Ike, in 1928. Then, Kumezo moved the family to Phoenix, Arizona where he established the Valley Seed Company, selling fruit and vegetable seeds commercially to Japanese and other small-scale farmers. The family moved again, this time to the San Gabriel Valley in 1934, where Kumezo continued to sell seeds commercially. A couple of years later, he opened a retail storefront for the Valley Seed Company on 402 East Valley Boulevard in El Monte, and the Hatchimonji family lived in a small rented house behind the store. There, they were one of the few Japanese families who lived in town as opposed to on farms outside of the city.

Kumezo Valley Seed Store, El Monte, courtesy Ike Hatchimonji

Seeing the rundown conditions at the Lexington Grammar School, Kumezo Hatchimonji received permission from the principal of the Mountain View Grammar School, in the adjacent but integrated Mountain View School District, for his sons to attend that school instead. Every day, Ike and his twin brother walked a half-a-mile each way to the boundaries of the Mountain View School District where they would catch a bus to and from school. Ironically, Ike remembers that his own home in El Monte actually abutted the grounds of an all-white elementary school that he was legally barred from attending. Moreover, he notes that he and his brother were only allowed to attend an integrated primary school because their father, an educated and fluent speaker of English, had personally spoken with the principal. In all likelihood, even if they had hoped for their children to attend integrated schools, many other first-generation Japanese would not have been comfortable making such requests of school officials. As both Bacon Sakatani and Ike Hatchimonji recall of their childhood in El Monte, it was not just the primary schools that were segregated. At movie theaters and public swimming pools, Japanese and Mexicans could only sit in certain sections or use the facilities on certain days of the week. Despite this segregation, Ike does not remember experiencing any direct prejudice. Most of his young friends were white and their attitudes toward him did not seem to change even with the beginning of World War II. If anything, he sees his childhood in El Monte as a time of innocence, especially in comparison to the experience he and other Japanese would face just a few years later.

Columbia drama Class 1927, courtesy of Ike Hatchimonji
Kumezo Hatchimonji attending Columbia drama class, Earl Hall 1927, courtesy of Ike Hatchimonji

Forced Relocation and Internment

The indignity of attending public school paled in comparison to the injustice that was forced relocation and internment during the Second World War. In the months preceding the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese in the San Gabriel Valley could not have imagined they would soon lose their homes and livelihoods. In fact, with the specter of war looming, many Japanese Americans were active in the local community’s preparations for national defense. Less than six months before they would be sent there as internees, local Japanese participated in the Japan Day celebrations at the 1941 Los Angeles County Fair at the Pomona Fairgrounds. Even during Japan Day, reports indicate that the fair’s “national defense theme predominated.”[11] Just two months later in November of 1941, the LA Times chronicled a local “Food for Defense Week Campaign” in El Monte during which the area’s farmers were expected to disclose their farms’ production to local officials. Given the plethora of first-generation Japanese farmers in the area, “At each [high] school, Japanese interpreters were present to help Japanese–mostly farmers of truck crops–fill out their patriotic reports.”[12] In all likelihood, the following year’s agricultural production fell far short of the Food for Defense drive’s estimates, as the area’s Japanese residents would be relocated prior to the 1942 harvest.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set in motion the relocation of Japanese Americans from throughout the West Coast to internment camps in the interior of the country. For El Monte’s Japanese, the time immediately following Pearl Harbor was one of great uncertainty. Ike Hatchimonji recalls attending school the day after the attacks and things proceeding more or less as normal, though he credits his parents for shielding him and his siblings from the worst news. When the orders to evacuate the San Gabriel Valley came in late-April, Ike remembers being called, along with his brother, to the principal’s office where the principal told them that he regretted that they had to go. With just a couple of weeks notice and little knowledge of where their final destination would be, Japanese in the San Gabriel Valley prepared for their relocation, selling whatever belongings they could. For the Hatchimonji Family, the timing of their removal was especially harsh. Since farmers bought seeds on credit to be paid back after their harvests, a May evacuation meant that while most seeds had already been planted, the Japanese farmers could not reap what they had sown. As a result, Kumezo Hatchimonji’s seed business suffered heavy losses and he struggled to pay his bills. In addition to selling whatever belongings they could, Ike remembers having to give away his family’s German Shepherd, as they were not allowed to take their pets with them.[13] In early May, the family, along with other El Monte Japanese, arrived at an assembly point in West Covina for the bus trip to their new temporary home at the Pomona Assembly Center on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.

By early April, the San Gabriel Valley was already home to one of the largest assembly centers on the West Coast: Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. The relocation of Japanese Americans proceeded over the course of six weeks, starting from the coasts before moving inland. By the time that Japanese in the San Gabriel Valley were ordered to evacuate in May, the makeshift barracks at the racetrack, including those in converted horse stables and under the grandstand, were already overcrowded.[14] Instead, residents were sent to the Fairplex, which itself sat just six or seven miles from their former homes. There, a series of hastily constructed barracks surrounded by tall, barbed wire fences had been built from scratch, since few of the fairgrounds’ existing facilities were suitable for human accommodation. Like at Santa Anita, the Pomona Detention Center eventually became so overcrowded that horse stables were used to house detainees. Upon arriving at Pomona, El Monte’s Japanese faced harsh conditions even compared to other detention centers. Outbreaks of food poisoning and athlete’s foot were common, and older residents struggled with the summer heat. Residents struggled to achieve a semblance of normalcy in the camps. Ike Hatchimonji remembers celebrating his grammar school graduation in camp, as he had missed out on his own at the Mountain View Grammar School by just a few weeks. In addition, he fondly recalls the kindness of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that brought books and supplies to the camp and made life somewhat easier for the Japanese Americans imprisoned there. However, Hatchimonji also notes that it was not until he arrived at Pomona and met other Japanese from throughout Southern California that he was instilled with a sense of Japanese identity and an understanding of the precariousness of his rights.

In August of 1942, the vast majority of detainees in the Pomona Detention Center were relocated to their more permanent home: the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp located in a barren area of northwest Wyoming.[15] After leaving Pomona, many would never return to the San Gabriel Valley or even Southern California. When Japanese internment came to an end in early 1945, many resettled away from the West Coast, in cities like Chicago and Salt Lake City. Having lost their leased lands in the relocation, even those who returned to the San Gabriel Valley typically entered industries other than agriculture. In 1988, the US Congress acknowledged the injustice of Japanese American internment when it passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The act provided a small but symbolic sum of $20,000 in reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned.

Bastos 070
Garden of Friendship in the small town of Bastos, outside São Paulo, Brazil, courtesy of Andre Deckrow

While El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley are still home to a small community of Japanese Americans, the demographics and the economy of the region have undoubtedly changed since World War II. El Monte is now largely Latino and the San Gabriel Valley is home to one of the largest Chinese populations on the West Coast. Few, if any, farms remain; the towns of the SGV are now bedroom communities whose economies are closely tied to Los Angeles. Today, there is almost no evidence of the Japanese American community that played such an important role in the region’s early twentieth century development.

However, in this regard, El Monte and the SGV are not alone. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, communities have grappled with how best to commemorate Nikkei populations that either no longer exist or are diminishing. In Latin America, where towns that were once entirely Japanese are becoming increasingly heterogeneous, Nikkei commonly build Japanese-style gardens in public parks. For these immigrants, the marking of public space in a traditionally Japanese style serves as a lasting symbol of their city’s history in the face of an uncertain future. Elsewhere on the West Coast, one of the largest and best-known public memorials to prewar Japanese Americans can be found on Bainbridge Island, Washington, just west of Seattle. Part of a local public history project, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial commemorates the lives and forced removal of the town’s 276 Japanese American residents in March of 1942.[16] The 276-foot long walkway at the heart of the memorial features a story-wall with numerous friezes depicting prewar Japanese American life. As it leads toward the water, the memorial allows visitors to retrace the final steps on the island of these Japanese Americans.

Sampa 016
Japanese Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo, Brazil, courtesy Andre Deckrow

On a smaller scale, cities in Southern California have recently either dedicated or have planned Nikkei memorials. In February, as part of the city’s public trails project, Santa Ana in Orange County commissioned a public sculpture to commemorate the its history as a Japanese American farming community.[17] And this past April, on the 70th anniversary of the removal of the area’s Japanese Americans, community leaders in Venice, led by the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker Committee, culminated a decade-long effort to dedicate a monument to the Nikkei community at the major intersection that served as the city’s assembly point.[18]

As both the numbers of Japanese Americans who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and of the area’s residents with memories of Japanese American friends and classmates continue to decrease, so too does the impetus for remembering El Monte’s Japanese American history. Yet, now as much as ever, it is important to recognize not only the important contributions that Nikkei made to the region but also the ease with which a vibrant immigrant community was effectively erased from public memory.

Andre Kobayashi Deckrow is a doctoral candidate in the History-East Asia program at Columbia University. His dissertation examines Japanese state-led migration to Brazil in the 1920s and 30s. Born in Japan, Andre grew up outside of Seattle, Washington. Prior to graduate school, he spent a year traveling around the Pacific Rim as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow researching Japanese gardens as symbols of historical memory.

[1] “Japanese Farmers Entertain Cadets: Are Hosts at Banquet Given at El Monte,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1917, 17.

[2] “Nipponese List Births: Citizens’ League Takes Census,” Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1936, 16.

[3] Scott Kurashige explains the effects of the Alien Land Laws on the economic structures and intra-ethnic relations of Japanese produce farmers in The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese American in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2008), 68-70.

[4] “‘Banzais’ Greet Naval Visitors: Japanese Training Ships at Harbor Welcomed,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1929, A1. And, “Three Killed in Traffic; Two Others Face Death,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1929, A1.

[5] “El Monte Berry Crop Threatened by Strike,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1933, A16.

[6] Charles Wollenberg, “Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933,” California Historical Quarterly, 51:2 (Summer 1972), 158.

[7] “No Strike Here: Arcadia Berry Pickers too Busy to Make Trouble,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1934, I5.

[8] Wollenberg, “Race and Class in Rural California,” 163.

[9] It was not until 1946 that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Menendez v. Westminster that segregated schools for Hispanics in California were unconstitutional.

[10] Bacon Sakatani interviewed by Tom Ikeda, August 31, 2010, Densho Digital Archive: http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx

[11] “Fair Attendance Totals 176,498 for Four Days,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1941, 10.

[12] “Farmers Begin Signing Up in Food for Defense Drive,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1914, 1A.

[13] Ike Hatchimonji interviewed by Martha Nakagawa, November 30, 2011, Densho Digital Archive: http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx Believing that he would eventually return to the San Gabriel Valley and reestablish his business, Kumezo Hatchimonji placed a considerable number of seeds in storage. While he would never return to El Monte, Kumezo was eventually able to get the seeds delivered to him at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Camp in northwest Wyoming. With the seeds, he helped found the successful Victory Garden program on the camp premises.

[14] Konrad Linke. “Santa Anita (detention facility),” Densho Encyclopedia http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Santa%20Anita%20(detention%20facility)/ (accessed July 15, 2014).

At its peak, Santa Anita would hold over 18,000 Japanese Americans. Today, only a small plaque in front of the grandstand commemorates the racetrack’s infamous history.

[15] The Japanese Americans from Southern Californians were completely unprepared for their first winter at Heart Mountain, where temperatures sometimes reached -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Mieko Matsumoto,”Heart Mountain,” Densho Encyclopedia http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Heart%20Mountain/ (accessed July 3, 2014).

[16] http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=MEMORIALVisitorInformation

[17] http://newsantaana.com/2014/02/04/city-to-fund-public-art-honoring-the-japanese-american-farming-community/

[18] http://www.venicejamm.org/ and http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/participate/storyshare/venice-japanese-american-memorial-marker.html