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So What's The Deal With Japanese Americans & Fishing?

Fishing has always been popular in the Japanese American community and understanding our community's history, it makes sense.

I have always been on the receiving end of fishing trips, rather than an active participant. Meaning, I loved when family friends would drop off fish from their coolers or bring freshly caught sashimi to family gatherings and potlucks. Unlike so many of my Japanese American classmates, teammates, and family friends, my family and I haven’t taken any Mammoth fishing trips and unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve had a picture of my “catch” featured in the Rafu Shimpo.

For as long as I can remember, it was a normal occurrence to hear about folks going fishing in the Sierras near Mammoth, going on deep sea fishing trips, or spending hours pier fishing along the Southern California coast. So why is fishing so popular amongst Japanese Americans?

Simply put, people know how to catch fish. Our community has a long history of fishing, in large part due to a number of first generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) who settled along the West Coast of the United States or on the island of Hawai’i. Because of their intricate fishing techniques and skill catching albacore tuna and sardines, Japanese fishermen were actively recruited by big West Coast canneries beginning in the early 1900s. Canneries in the Los Angeles Harbor built more than 300 houses for workers and their families, which became a thriving fishing community on Terminal Island. In Naomi Hirahara’s description of her book Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor, she describes it as a home to a community of Japanese families, “people whose link was their lineage and their amazing ability to capture the most and biggest fish the Pacific had to offer.”

Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

But when WWII started, these families were rounded up and sent to incarceration camps, most notably to Manzanar. The 2012 film Manzanar Fishing Club described Terminal Island as the biggest community represented in camp. During their time there, it became common for men to escape camp for the day and go fishing in various creeks and lakes in the Eastern Sierras. Everyone had their own reason for fishing—for many, this was an act of resistance, a statement against their confinement and incarceration, for others, it was the only freedom they had.

Erin Middo, whose grandfather fished in Manzanar, remembers him describing fishing with a sense of freedom and amongst his most peaceful moments. From her grandfather and then her father, she learned how to fish, but also about the value of appreciating the beauty of one’s surroundings and enjoying the company of those around you. Some of her earliest memories were on the river bank with her dad, grandpa, and grandma, so when I asked her if she’d hope to pass fishing onto her future family, she encouragingly talked about slowly bringing her boyfriend into the fold, bringing him on fishing trips, and teaching him how to fish.

Photo courtesy of Erin Middo

Similarly for Patrick Higashi, teaching friends how to fish and bringing his girlfriend on trips to Mammoth have become a regular activity. He notes that it’s become more popular over time, as individuals who may have only been to Mammoth to ski or snowboard previously, are open to trying fishing for the first time. But for him growing up, it was always an activity done with extended family, and one he’s grown to love even more over time. He even went on to say that he would be heartbroken if his future kids didn’t like it.

The hope of passing on the shared experiences, memories, and skills was a common sentiment amongst those I talked to. Whether it’s because of the deep family ties or lucky poles and gear that has been passed down, it makes sense why fishing continues to be popular amongst younger generations of Japanese Americans who look forward to making similar memories in the future. Jacie Matsuura talks about her ambitions of buying a Mammoth cabin for future fishing and snowboarding trips with friends and family (after her stint as an emergency resident physician and begins to earn “doctor money.”) Growing up, her mom would take a picture of her with any fish she caught and submit it to the Rafu Shimpo, where it became a fun opportunity to send the cutouts/features to Jacie’s grandmother to keep over the years.

Photo courtesy of Jacie Matsuura

Jerry Fukui is no stranger to having his catch featured in the Rafu, where a number of his deep sea fishing excursions have been photographed. Although his father got him started freshwater fishing when he was younger, deep sea fishing became a fun, yet difficult challenge as he got older. Over time, he’s learned the tricks of the trade such as what size hook you’ll need, which bait to select, where to throw your line, which rod/reel to use, and where to fish on the boat (pro tip: always fish with the wind in your face). Yet despite that intimidating list of skills, Jerry says a great part of fishing is that anyone can catch a fish.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Fukui

And maybe that’s part of the appeal—even as a novice, there’s an opportunity to reap some of the reward because you don’t know what you’re going to get on a trip. Bryan Furumoto, whose family roots are in Hawai’i, referenced that kind of attitude of appreciation balanced with a sense of determination each outing. He learned a lot from one of his uncles, particularly about how fishing is more about the person behind the equipment, rather than the equipment itself. That kind of intuition, familiarity, and experience can’t be replaced by the most expensive gear on the market—the communal knowledge sharing is key to becoming more skilled in fishing.

If you don’t have your own highly skilled uncle, Johnny’s Sport Shop in Pasadena, CA might be the next best thing. Christian Miyamae, who started fishing more regularly during the pandemic, compared his almost weekly visits to Johnny’s as going to a local diner whose regulars ask how the lures you bought last week were. One won’t necessarily find that kind of communal experience when buying gear online from Amazon or watching a YouTube how-to video. Kent Marume emphasized the dynamic of sharing tips/tricks, trying new skills, and using special gear when discussing his trips with his cousins and with Christian since the start of the pandemic: “it’s the beauty in watching someone champion something, seeing people persevere, and enjoying just being outside.”

After getting the opportunity to talk to so many generous individuals, my understanding of and appreciation for the popularity of Japanese Americans and fishing has only grown. It is so popular and common, in fact, that it turns out my own dad used to fish all the time growing up, unbeknownst to me until about two weeks ago. Here's to hoping he'll pass on his no-longer-a-secret skill set just like the rest of you.

I want to give a special shoutout and thank you to everyone who generously indulged my questions and curiosity about their family’s fishing history—you truly embody the generosity, humility, and kindness of the fishing community.

Article featured in this issue:
June 2021
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