Revived History

Tim Thomas (left) is the author of The Japanese on the Monterey Peninsula; Larry Oda’s (right) grandfather opened the first cannery on Cannery Row.

Maybe you’ve seen it on your way to the Monterey Sports Center, Jacks Park or MY Museum: an old white building built in Western false front style, with wood paneling and wraparound steps leading up to double doors. It looks like a church without a steeple. Kids call it the “jackal” building because of a sign overhead that reads “JACL.”

That’s an acronym for the Japanese American Citizens League, the nation’s largest and oldest Asian American civil rights organization, founded in 1929 and comprised of 110 chapters. And the building – constructed in 1926 with $100 in seed money from a Tokyo prince – is home to the Monterey Peninsula chapter of the JACL, founded in 1932.

Formerly called the Japanese Association Hall until the local JACL took it over in 1942, the building was the epicenter of Monterey’s former Nihonmachi (Japan town) neighborhood, home to two dozen Japanese businesses and a number of families. It was a center of civic life: weddings, funerals, performances, Buddhist observances, Boy Scout meetings, judo and language classes.

“I remember coming here and buying cookies and a Coke and watching samurai movies,” says JACL Monterey Peninsula member Larry Oda.

Born in a WWII internment camp in Texas, Oda was once the president of the national JACL.

Today, JACL Hall is the last aging remnant of that once-thriving neighborhood, and with its kitchen, multiple rooms and theater stage, it’s served as a venue for JACL’s Japanese language classes, Nisei Memorial Post 1629 of the VFW, Mugen Shinshu Daiko drum classes, Monterey Bay Lion Dance Team rehearsal, tai chi and Jazzercize.

It’s about to take on a higher profile. For 10 years the Monterey JACL has been working to create a heritage center and museum in the building; it will debut this weekend during Monterey History Fest. It’s downstairs in a 900-square-foot space packed with fascinating history – including about the abalone industry – curated by local fisheries historian Tim Thomas.

“In Japan, abalone is a big deal,” Thomas says. “In the West – except for the Rumsiens, where the word ‘abalone” comes from – [Americans] didn’t know what to do with it.”

But Otosaburo Noda did. According to one of the museum’s panels, in 1895 he was working as a lumberjack in Monterey when he noticed the abundance of fish and red abalone in the bay. He and Gennosuke Kodani (separately but simultaneously) began the first Monterey Bay Japanese fishing colony with migrant fishermen from Wakayama and Chiba.

“For the next 20 years, the individuals of Japanese ancestry dominated the fishing industry in Monterey Bay,” the panel states. The museum tells the story of that industry and the people in artifacts, images, text and video.

A panoramic photo of Monterey Harbor shows a fleet of small fishing boats, the caption explaining that in 1910, there were 185 salmon fishing boats in the bay – 145 of them Japanese owned. There are copper diving helmets, goggles with pig bladder pressure pumps, giant abalone shells, models of fishing and diving boats, replicas of canned abalone.

Two cases are laid out with beautiful trinkets, spoons and thermometers inlaid with the iridescent abalone shell mother of pearl. There is a crude chair made from branches of a tree.

“Sebastian Vizcaino and Junipero Serra were said to have held their first mass under a big oak tree overlooking the bay,” Thomas says. “Noda’s nephew, Ichiro, made this chair from its branches.”

There is a union dues ledger kept by Tak Sasaki, with a blank period starting in Feburary 1941 representing his induction into the U.S. Army’s most highly decorated combat regiment, the Japanese 442nd. The ledger shows that after his service, in October 1945, he returned to work.

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There is a case devoted to Pop Ernest, who sustained the Japanese abalone industry by popularizing abalone steak and abalone soup served in the shell.

“They would plug the holes in the shell with lead,” Oda says with a chuckle.

There are display items that Thomas transferred over from the former Monterey Maritime and History Museum, and from last year’s traveling Japanese internment exhibit, Courage and Compassion, and procured from local families and other sources.

When Thomas points to another artifact, Jeff Uchida, JACL Monterey’s president, quips “Another eBay thing?”

The exhibit shows that there was cultural exchange that ran deep. A set of items is devoted to the Japanese community’s love of playing baseball, which bonded Japanese and Sicilian families and facilitated business relationships.

Thomas says regular hours will come when they recruit docents, that they are expanding (one idea is to re-create an internment barrack), and CSU Monterey Bay’s Library will house their archival material for posterity and research.

“We struck gold with Tim [Thomas], someone with that kind of knowledge,” Uchida says. “This is about preserving history for future generations. That’s my driving thing.”

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