• Art Nomura

Chapter 13, segment 1 of 2, 'California!'

In the summer of 1927, the Nomura family left rural Montana for sunny Southern California.

On the Sunday before leaving, Kazuichi took a moment to explain to Mizuko why the move was necessary.

“There are not enough Japanese in Deer Lodge,” he stated.

“Enough to do what? asked Mizuko, thinking ahead to what it would take to re-start her life yet again.

“To marry. There aren’t enough Japanese to marry,” said Kazuichi, acting as if it pained him to say such an obvious thing.

“But the oldest children have just come back from living in Japan where everyone was Japanese,” countered Mizuko.

Kazuichi ignored her logical statement. “In California, there are many Japanese and even more work opportunities. The boys need to marry Japanese women in order to maintain the Nomura bloodline. Also, Shigeko needs a husband.

Why are you even asking questions? I have thought of a plan that is guaranteed to work,” he insisted.

Mizuko winced, remembering all the failed guarantees her husband had issued in the past.

“It has already been decided. I have sold my share of the poultry farm to help pay for our travel and our initial expenses once we get to California. Prepare the children and get all of our belongings together. We leave in the morning.”

After seven relatively stable years in Montana, Mizuko’s life as she knew it was ending. She looked at her impetuous, unpredictable husband for a moment, than turned away.

Life is change, she reminded herself.

In the flurry of travel preparations she was able to offer hasty farewells to only a few of the many railroad workers she had come to befriend. Leaving the known for the unknown was difficult, especially since she would be parting with her ally, friend, and married step-daughter, Chiyoko.

The following day, the eight members of the Nomura family, Kazuichi, Mizuko, Shigeko, Takuma, Jiro, Yoshiko, Kaworu, and baby Ayako boarded a southbound passenger train toward the arid sprawl that was Southern California. Since Mizuko was a long-time and valued employee, the family was given a sizable discount for their passenger car train tickets. The two-day journey took them from the wilds of Montana, across mountains and deserts to the misty shores of Long Beach, California.

Kazuichi had heard of work for Japanese at the Terminal Island Fish Canneries near San Pedro, just east of Long Beach. In the late 1920s, upwards of 1,800 Japanese called the half-mile-wide island community their home. The burgeoning fish cannery industry had become a major employer of Japanese immigrants in Southern California.

The workforce was expanding so quickly that the new hires exceeded the capacity of housing available on the island. When the family discovered that there was no housing they opted to rent a cheap little house in East Long Beach instead.

Even if housing had been available, living in cannery-owned housing also required the tenant to sign an exclusive work agreement with a specific cannery, a condition that the independent-minded Kazuichi did not find acceptable. Living off-island meant commuting four miles to and from work, but Kazuichi calculated that even with the cost of bus fare it was more advantageous for them to live further away from work than to have to comply with the restricted working conditions of living in company housing closer by.

Kazuichi, Mizuko, Shigeko and fourteen year-old Takuma worked at the cannery while the younger kids took care of the house and went to school. Eleven year-old Jiro, eight year-old Yoshiko (when she could find someone to watch her two-year old sister, Ayako), and five-year old Kaworu walked to nearby John Muir Elementary School in Long Beach.

Unlike the school on Terminal Island that was mostly Japanese students, the Long Beach elementary school was fully integrated with children from many different backgrounds. Most were from immigrant families like the Nomuras, so relations between the various children remained mostly cordial but somewhat distant as they all shared in the challenge of adapting to American culture and values. Yoshiko was no longer the lone Japanese and minority student as had been the case in Montana. Long Beach was a melting pot of Asians, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Black Americans who had migrated from the south, and transplanted mid-western white children.

When not in school, Jiro did what shopping was necessary and helped Yoshiko cook and clean house. They both looked after their younger siblings, Kaworu and Ayako.

The patterns of family life were dictated by the success or failures of the cannery fishing fleets. The weather and even the phase of the moon affected their work schedule. The fishing fleet sat at dock during the week of the full moon, effectively reducing the potential of making money to only three weeks a month. But even that exception was not consistent.

When the cannery whistles sounded, the workers went directly and quickly to their job stations, no matter the time of day, the weather, or what was happening in their personal lives. To distinguish the cannery calls from one another each cannery used whistles with their own distinctive sound and patterns. The two major canneries, French and Van Camp, used two toots and three lengthy blasts respectively.

After a few weeks of intermittent cannery labor, Kazuichi shared a thought with his wife.

“I don’t think that working at the cannery is the best long-term choice for us.”

Mizuko, looked up from a haircut she was giving her son Takuma, and waited for her husband to continue.

“Working for wages alone won’t get us anywhere. We need to think beyond earning just a daily salary.”

Mizuko brushed the clipped hair from her son’s shoulders and put down her scissors.

Takuma pulled the towel from around his neck and shoulders and shook the trimmings onto the floor. He folded the towel neatly and sat back quietly, intrigued by the conversation and hoping his father would not tell him to leave.

Kazuichi got up and started to slowly pace across the room. “Working for wages is limited to an hourly or daily rate. Once you reach the limit of that rate, you can earn no greater amount."

"On the other hand, if you run your own business, the amount of money to be made is only limited by your ambition,” he said.

“And the number of hours in a day,” said Mizuko while she swept the hair clippings onto a piece of cardboard.

“Think bigger then that. Look at the canneries as businesses. The men that own them do not work for hourly wages. They work with big ideas and make deals to grow their profit."

"They hire others to do the dirty work,” he contended. “With the endless number of people down here in California, there’s no reason why we can’t make money like they do. All we need is the right idea!”

Kazuichi slapped his hands together for emphasis, startling Ayako, who was nodding off nearby.

“And what is your idea?” queried Mizuko, as she set a pot of rice to boil on the stove for the next day’s obento.

“I don’t know yet, but it will come to me. In the meantime we must save our money to fund it when I do.”

“My father told me something when I was young that I still remember,” replied Mizuko wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“And what is that?” asked Kazuichi, intrigued by Mizuko’s unusual admission.

“He told me, ‘If you have a good idea use it. If you don’t use it you’ll just keep thinking about it and not think of new ones. So his advice was: ‘If you have a good idea, use it, sell it, give it away or throw it away,” she said with conviction.

A week later Kazuichi sat down to breakfast with a gleam in his eye. “We will open a grocery market,“ he announced. Once the first is established, we will open another, then another. By the time I die, we will have a chain of stores that will support you, the children, and their families,” he said grandly.

“Selling is the best and quickest way to make money. And everyone needs to eat.”

end of Chapter 13, segment 1 of 2, 'California!'

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