Japanese Fishing Village — Terminal Island Memorial

LAXG: Japanese Fishing Village — Terminal Island Memorial

Japanese Fishing Village
Terminal Island Memorial

Back in early 20th century, Japanese fisherman and their families made their homes in Fish Harbor, a small village on Terminal Island where the fish were plentiful and life was simple. Then World War II came. All that stands there today is an often overlooked memorial.

If you’ve ever driven The 110 South into San Pedro, you’ve probably seen a green highway sign informing you that a Japanese Fishing Village Memorial is just up ahead. This sign is a bit of a tease. It doesn’t give you a good sense of just where this memorial is, but you’re left with the feeling that it’s just off the next exit in San Pedro. But it’s not — instead it’s on Terminal Island over the Thomas Vincent Bridge.

A Community of Fishermen

Today there isn’t much on Terminal Island other than warehouses, freight yards, marinas, and a federal prison. But back in the early 1900s, when it was called East San Pedro, the island was the center of a thriving fishing industry. Numerous canneries operated on the island and a small village with a population of around 3,000 people, primarily Japanese immigrants and their U.S.-born children, lived there.

The village of Fish Harbor on Terminal Island as it looked in 1941. Image via Los Angeles Public Library, Herald Examiner Collection.

Most of the village’s residents worked in the fishing industry. There were about 250 fishing boats registered to village residents, and the fishermen who worked these boats used nets and poles to bring in daily catches of albacore tuna and abalone. Many of the residents who weren’t fishermen contributed to the island’s industry by working in one of the numerous canning factories set up on the island.

In addition to being a home for fishermen, the village had a Shinto shrine, a Fishermen’s Association Hall, grocery stores, an elementary school, martial arts schools, and other business offering entertainment and recreation.

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A Community Torn Asunder

On February 25, 1942, after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, all the Japanese villagers were told they had 48 hours to vacate their homes on Terminal Island. Most families had to leave their belongings behind — including the fishing boats and fishing gear that provided their livelihood — as they were sent off to internment camps.

Once people were removed from the island, the U.S. Military took over. Soldiers bulldozed the village and seized or destroyed any remaining fishing boats. By April 1942, the entire village had disppeared as if it had never existed. When residents were released after the internment order was lifted in January 1945, they returned home to find there was nothing left.

Terminal Island Memorial

In 2002, a group of second-generation Japanese-Americans (Nisei) who had grown up on the island established a Japanese Village Memorial as a remembrance to the village of their youth.

The Japanese Fishing Village Memorial, looking south. Photo from the author’s collection.

The memorial is relatively understated. It consists of a long, raised concrete walkway displaying brass plaques inscribed with the names of the donors. A series of seven plaques along the front of the memorial describe what life was like in the village and showcase black-and-white photos from the village’s past.

The memorial features a Japanese Torii at one end that frames a sculpture of two fisherman — one working a net and the other gazing back at a glass panels featuring images of the village’s boats.

Henry Alvarez’s sculpture of two fishermen working the nets. Photo from the author’s collection.

The two fishermen were sculpted by Henry Alvarez, a veteran sculptor whose work has been seen in numerous movies, including Legend, Total Recall, Robocop, and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

On the north end of the memorial, a series of glass panels feature images of the vilalge’s fishing boats next to a short poem that reads:

Black current off our shore
Fishes so plentiful
yet, hardships parents endured
we remember
and honor forever
our village no more

A glass plaque featuring an image of the village looks out over the harbor. Photo from the author’s collection.

Through the glass, you can see the modern-day marina covered over by the ghostly image of boats moored at the former fishing village with canneries from across the harbor in the background. It’s a haunting image and dark reflection of the community’s tragic history.

A visit to the Japanese Fishing Village is a sobering experience. It’s far off the beaten path from the more popular places to visit in San Pedro, making it likely that you’ll be the only visitors when you stop by — a fact that only adds to the site’s emotional impact.

When it’s time to leave the island after your visit to the Japanese Fishing Village Memorial, be sure to head north along Seaside Drive. Your GPS may direct you south, but if you follow those directions, you’ll quickly come to the Terminal Island Federal Correction Institute (which once held Al Capone, Timothy Leary, and Charles Manson). Don’t go this way — it dead-ends on the prison’s grounds.

Instead, head north along Seaside Drive, back the way you came and back over Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Vincent Thomas Bridge

The most expedient way to get to the Japanese Fishing Village Memorial (and back) is over the green-painted span of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, named after former State Assemblyman Vincent Thomas who spent nearly 20 years lobbying for its construction. This is a towering cable suspension bridge connecting Terminal Island to San Pedro. Traffic on the bridge is dominated by large freight trucks, and driving across the bridge can be a somewhat harrowing experience.

Japanese Fishing Village (Terminal Island Memorial)

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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