Pioneers Museum Chairman Tim Asamen gives a tour of the museum's Japanese American Gallery.
Pioneers Museum Chairman Tim Asamen gives a tour of the museum’s Japanese American Gallery.

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

A daylong trip from Los Angeles to the Imperial Valley or Teikoku Heigen, as the Issei called it, entailed a bus tour and museum visit.

Tim Asamen, who has been chair of the Japanese American Gallery of the Pioneers Museum since 1991, served as tour guide.

Asamen mixed in personal stories with historical facts and identified Nikkei-related points of interest as the bus rolled through Imperial Valley.

Bus Tour

When the bus crossed from Riverside County into Imperial County, Asamen noted that the Nikkei, who had once dominated prewar Imperial Valley agriculture, were not welcomed back in Imperial County after the war. Asamen said there was even a mass protest on the football field of Brawley Union High on Dec. 7, 1945 to oppose the return of the Nikkei.

To underscore the point, Asamen said the Westmorland Parent Teacher Association (PTA) roster for the1927-28 school year included 44 members, almost half of which included Issei names.

In contrast, when Asamen was going to school, he was the only Asian American in his entire middle school.

“When I went on to to high school in Brawley, there were a handful of Asian Americans, but I was still the only Japanese American,” said Asamen. “Whereas, before the war, in the 1930s, the Nisei routinely made up a quarter to a third of the graduating class.”

Among the bus stops was a patch of land, now an alfalfa field, that Asamen’s grandfather once owned. “When he bought it, it was desert so he had to reclaim it,” said Asamen. “And because of the Alien Land Law of 1913, he was not allowed to own land so he had to buy this property in the name of his son.”

When another alien land law attempted to close the loophole to prohibit Issei from serving as guardians of their American-born children, Asamen said his grandparents made arrangements with a Caucasian family to serve as guardian.

Once World War II broke out, the Asamen family was forced to sell a part of their land. “My family had to sell half their property in order to keep what we call our home piece,” said Asamen. “As you know, in camp, there was no real source of income but as property owners, you were still required to pay property tax and other expenses associated with land ownership so we sold this field in order to keep the house piece (where their house stands).”

The bus next stopped at Asamen’s current property, which his grandparents had bought in 1928 and could serve as a living museum with remnants of a home that his parents built in 1930; a Fresno scraper that was used to level the land before the war; and wooden stakes and poles for “brush covering,” an intensive labor technique used by Imperial Valley Nikkei farmers to promote rapid crop growth.

In Brawley, Asamen pointed out a vacant lot upon which the Japanese Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church once stood.

“The ME church served as a staging area for ‘evacuation,’ which was in May 1942,” said Asamen. “Something like nine city buses from Los Angeles was commandeered by the Army and brought down here to transport the Nikkei community to the Colorado River Relocation Center, better known as Poston.”

The tour bus also followed a part of the route that the Army buses took during the war to send the Nikkei from Brawley and the north end of Imperial County to camp.

In El Centro, Asamen pointed out remnants of what was once a thriving Japantown on Broadway, between 4th and 5th streets.

“This block was solid ethnic Japanese,” said Asamen. “…I won’t go into the unsavory aspects of Nihonmachi, but there were some brothels, and behind us, set back towards the alley was the Tokyo Club, which was a syndicated statewide gambling network. I think it was headquartered in Little Tokyo.”

Among the buildings still standing were what once housed the Matsuno Company grocery store, the Maeda shoe store, the Nihonjin-Kai, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and satellite offices for the Rafu Shimpo and Kashu Mainichi newspapers.

The original building of the El Centro Buddhist church also still stands, but today, it is a Sikh temple.

“Since the El Centro Buddhist church didn’t reopen (after the war), the altar, what we call the O-Naijin, from this church, was given to the Buddhist temple in San Diego, which had suffered damage caused by arson during the war,” said Asamen.

Asamen added that the Imperial Valley had three Christian churches and two Buddhist temples before the war, and none of them reopened after the war.

“In my opinion, one of the real sinister episodes from the war was that most of the churches were used as storage spaces for ‘evacuee’ property,” said Asamen. “But during the war, those churches were reclassified as commercial warehouses so they lost their tax-exempt status, and when the Nikkei came back to their former communities, they found liens against their churches. And of course, everyone was struggling to get their families back on their feet so re-establishing a church became secondary.”

The bus also drove by Martin Luther King Junior Street, where a prewar swimming pool once stood. Like many prewar public swimming pool policies, the facility was “whites only.”

“There was one Nisei who got to go swimming in the pool in El Centro (on a regular day), and her name was Chiyo Tashima,” said Asamen. “She was a renowned athlete, and because she was so good at softball, she wasn’t relegated to the Nisei team. She played with the hakujins on the hakujin teams. And whenever they had victories, they would celebrate at the Plunge. So that’s how she got to go.

“But there was one day a month that people of color got to go swimming in the Plunge, and that was the day before the water got drained and changed in the pool.”

Other prominent athletes to come out of Imperial Valley included Hank Sasaki, who earned a football scholarship to USC in the late 1930s and became the first Nikkei Trojan quarterback, and George Kita, who almost made it into professional football.

The bus tour visited sites including the Asamen family property and the former locations of the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church and several Japanese American Businesses.
The bus tour visited sites including the Asamen family property and the former locations of the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church and several Japanese American Businesses.

Pioneers Museum

The Japanese American Gallery of the Pioneers Museum is one of 15 exhibits on permanent display.

A plaque bearing the names of Imperial Valley pioneers garnered a lot of attention.

Mae Yamasaki Minamide had a typical reaction. “It was kind of a thrill to see my father’s name on that plaque of all the pioneers from this area,” she said. “I also saw my grandfather’s name from my mother’s side. He’s a Tamura.”

Minamide was born in Brawley but has little recollection of her time in Imperial Valley. She was five when the war broke out, and her family was among those who moved out of the restricted military zone to avoid going into camp and moved to Oklahoma.

“My father farmed seeds in Oklahoma,” said Minamide. “And my mother was only in her mid-20s but she had three children and she had to work so hard. In retrospect, it might’ve been easier for her if we had gone to camp, but I don’t think my father was the kind of person to go into camp.

“Until I got here and heard Tim (Asamen) talk, I just never realized how important the pioneers were in the valley and how prominent they were. I just never knew all the activities they were involved in because my parents never talked about it. They were just so busy farming, so I have a lot of questions when I get home to Mom. She’s 98 years old.”

Minamide’s two daughters, Traci and Mitzi, also joined their mother. Both were struck by the replica of the “moveable house” displayed outside the museum.

“It’s been interesting learning more about our family history,” said Traci. “We finally know where Brawley is, and it was nice to see a real moveable house.”

Sister Mitzi concurred. “Our grandmother used to talk about that (moveable house). She would talk about the cracks in the wall and the wind blowing through. And there were cracks in the floor so when she swept the floor, all she had to do was sweep everything into the cracks. So when I saw the house, I thought, ‘Yeah, Grandma talked about this.’ It’s kinda cool to see that in real life.”

According to Asamen, the alien land laws forced the Nikkei to move every three years so the Issei constructed “moveable houses” that could be easily transplanted from one place to another.

“There were no two houses alike,” Asamen noted. “All were different but they typically consisted of two structures — one had a kitchen, dining and living room area and the other structure was the sleeping quarters. Some had screens all the way around but there was no electricity or running water.…

“Moving a house was a community affair arranged through the Japanese Association. It was put on the calendar and all the farmers would gather. The men did the heavy lifting. They jacked the house up and either put it on a flatbed truck or a horse-drawn trailer. Some were even dragged, but the houses were not taken apart.”

Lynn Yamasaki, Minamide’s niece, also participated on the trip. This was not her first time to the Imperial Valley but she found this to be a more enriching experience since Asamen joined them on the bus as a guide.

“It’s incredible that they were able to squeeze so much into one day and also into this gallery,” said Yamasaki. “I know a lot of work went into this so we appreciate all the work that went into this trip.”

Yamasaki added that her family and the Hatchimonji family knew each other since before the war and wished that her 98-year-old grandmother could have joined them.

“It’s just too bad our grandmother couldn’t come,” said Yamasaki. “It would’ve been nice since I saw her name as one of the pioneers on the plaque. I took a picture of that.”

Tour participants enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Golden Corral restaurant in El Centro.
Tour participants enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Golden Corral restaurant in El Centro.

Yoshi “Bob” Morinishi was also happy to see his family’s name on the plaque. “I’m the only Morinishi left in the family so it’s good to see my father’s and mother’s name up there on the plaque,” said Morinishi. “Tim is doing a good job. He told some good stories about us. It’s good to have this museum here.”

Like most Imperial Valley Nikkei, Morinishi’s family was sent to Poston (Colorado River) Camp I and participated in the November 1942 strike that shut down the camp.

Similar to Manzanar, a suspected government collaborator was beaten, and the victim fingered two well-liked judoists. After negotiations to release the two men failed, the Issei called for a camp-wide strike.

“I was there,” said Morinishi. “Every block took turns guarding the jail (where the two men were imprisoned). The best part was that we didn’t have to go to school.”

Among the first exhibits in the gallery is a map of Japan, showing that the largest group of Nikkei to the Imperial Valley before the war came from Okinawa.

A large usu used to pound mochi stands on one side of the gallery. “The usu is made out of a concrete irrigation pipe,” said Asamen. “The Issei used whatever was available to carry on their traditions they brought from Japan, and I find this usu very Imperial Valley since it’s made from an irrigation pipe.”

There is also a rare Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day) doll display that had once belonged to Mary Shigematsu.

“When we get visitors, especially from Japan, they see the Girls’ Day doll display and point out that it’s missing the emperor and empress at the top,” said Asamen. “…After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she (Shigematsu) was afraid that the dolls, representing the emperor and empress, would be misconstrued as loyalty to Japan so she destroyed them.”

The exhibit also noted the prominent role Issei farmers played in Imperial Valley agriculture, especially in the melon, tomato and lettuce industries. Although history books credit East Coast produce and shipping companies for the rise in these products, Asamen noted that during the 1910s, 70 to 90 percent of cantaloupes were grown by Issei in the Imperial Valley.

The Issei also grew more than 95 percent of tomatoes from the Imperial Valley, and Kumezo Hatchimonji, father of twins Ike and Mike, is credited with developing a tomato cultivar named the Hatchi Special.

Most Nikkei fondly connect the Hatchimonji family, which ran a seed business before the war, with vegetables at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Authority camp.

“What happened is that he (Kumezo) had put all these seeds into storage when we went to camp,” said Mike Hatchimonji. “And among them were Japanese vegetable seeds and he somehow arranged to have them sent to Heart Mountain and donated those seeds. That’s how we were able to have Japanese vegetables in camp. I think a lot of the Japanese vegetables that could be shipped were shipped to other camps, as well.”

The Nikkei also dominated the dairy and cotton industries in Imperial Valley. “Up until World War I, there was more cotton grown by the Issei in the Imperial Valley by acreage than all of the vegetables,” said Asamen.

Among the pioneer cotton growers was Tamori Shimo, who would go on to become a kendo instructor at Chuo Gakuen in Boyle Heights. During the war, Shimo was one of the first to be picked up by the FBI and sent to various Department of Justice camps due to his affiliation with kendo.

Tamori’s son, Cedrick, who was born in Heber and was drafted into the Army on Dec. 8, 1941, protested his parents’ imprisonment at various camps. This got him kicked out of the Military Intelligence Service and sent to the 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion, a full-fledged engineering battalion made up of soldiers of Japanese, German and Italian descent and a few others whom the U.S. government wanted to keep under surveillance.

For Kazuo “Kats” Hirano, this was his fifth visit to the Pioneers Museum but he decided to come again because of a new addition to the gallery.

“My friend Lincoln Nagato donated his brother’s items, and Tim wrote to me and said it is now up so I wanted to see it,” said Hirano.

El Centro-born Hirano met Westmorland-born Nagato at Poston. “We were in the same block, and he’s my oldest friend,” said Hirano.

The new exhibit displays Fumitake Nagato’s military memorabilia. He was a 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldier killed in action and also the first Nisei to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“My brother had a full military burial at the time, with a horse-drawn cart and all,” said Nagato. “It was real impressive, and it’s nice that his items are now on display here.”

Jeanne Onishi, a relative of Hirano, praised the display. “The Japanese American exhibit is so well done in such little space,” she said. “I think they did a wonderful job putting everything together. And Tim did a good job with this and taking us around.”

Other notable or notorious Imperial Valley Nikkei stories on display included Tomoya “Meatball” Kawakita, who was tried and convicted of treason after the war for mistreating American POWs while serving as a guard in Japan; the flagpole connected to Harry Momita, an Issei pharmacist; and Wakako Yamauchi, a noted playwright; among others.

Doreen Michi Kawamoto, who was in Manzanar, has no family ties with the Imperial Valley but had friends who grew up in the area. “This is all very new to me,” she said. “The museum exhibit is very nice but I don’t know how people lived in this hot, hot desert.”

Although Yonsei Ryan Taketomo has no family ties to the Imperial Valley, he felt an affinity to the area through his family’s connection to agriculture and nursery business.

“I’m actually really impressed with this gallery,” he said. “I liked how the captions were written and how the items were featured in the exhibit. The artifacts and pictures seem to have back stories so it’s been very educational.”

Nancy Oda, who has been active with preserving the history of the Tuna Canyon Detention Center, came to learn more about the Imperial Valley, although she, too, had no family ties to the area.

Oda gave a brief update on Tuna Canyon and invited the public to a June 25 celebration at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center in Pacoima. It is free and open to the public.

Volunteer Organizers

What started out as a modest idea for a day trip to Imperial Valley in a small van gathered so much interest through word-of-mouth that volunteers, who were not affiliated with any institution, ended up renting a bus with 45 people participating.

The May 31 Imperial Valley trip included a good mixture of Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei and non-Nikkei and was spearheaded by Ike Hatchmonji.

Ike Hatchimonji spearheaded the volunteer efforts to organize the trip.
Ike Hatchimonji spearheaded the volunteer efforts to organize the trip.

“I organized the trip because not too many people know about Imperial Valley and the experience of the Nikkei there,” said Hatchimonji. “I felt that the (Nikkei) gallery was so well done by Tim, and his guidance through it was worth the trip. I’m a little biased because I was born in El Centro and lived in the valley for several years.”

Assisting Hatchimonji in organizing the trip were Bob Moriguchi and Nahan Gluck.

Neither Moriguchi nor Gluck have family ties to the Imperial Valley but they were interested in learning more about the region.

Moriguchi noted that he last visited the Imperial Valley about 40 years ago when the Brawley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) hosted a Pacific Southwest District meeting.

“I was president of the San Fernando Valley (JACL) chapter, and that was the only time I’d come out here,” said Moriguchi, whose family was in the San Francisco area before the war. “I remember we went to Calexico. In fact, we went over the (U.S.-Mexico) border to have lunch. And the members were farmers so they gave us all kinds of vegetables to take home. It was very enjoyable.”

Gluck, who is of Irish German descent, grew up with Japanese Americans and was familiar with the World War II camp history but knew very little about the Imperial Valley.

“That’s exactly why I’m here,” said Gluck. “I wanted to learn more, and Tim did a marvelous job with the gallery.”

Gluck noted that they initially had to put together a waiting list for the trip but was glad those who wanted to participate in the May 31 were able to do so.

No trip would be complete without Nisei hospitality, and Irene and Shinji Nakagawa (no relation to the writer) greeted sleepy attendees, who had to gather between 6:30 and 7 a.m. for the trip, with hot coffee and fresh pastries.

Since refreshments and snacks were donated, organizers ended up with a small monetary surplus at the end of the day, which Hatchimonji said will be donated to Asamen’s Japanese American Gallery at the Pioneers Museum.

Anyone wanting to donate artifacts or monetary funds to the Japanese Gallery at the Pioneers Museum should contact Asamen at: PO Box 428, Westmorland, CA 92281.

Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo

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  1. Hi Tim,
    I’m the kid from Westmorland Elementary who you would give a piece of Grape Bubblegum to everyday on the high school bus on your way home from school. Not a kid anymore haha. Those were great times that I will never forget. I’m glad to see you are well and I have have warm memories of your friendship.

  2. Appreciated all the information you printed about the Valley. I didn’t know a lot about it even having been born in Brawley and evacuated from El Centro. And thanks for the mention of my father, Harry Momita.

    Elaine Morinaga

  3. Tim, thank you for this wonderful article. I definitely want my sons to read it and see what their dad, grandfather have gone through, no electricity, no running water yet Tadd loved his life in Brawley and I loved to listen him. I wish I could have joined this tour and listend to you Tim. But now I live in Kona Hawaii, since 2013. You know Tadd has been gone 11 years in two days. Aloha. Lili tokuda