On August 26, 2015, you will have the opportunity to meet and listen to Jerry Yamashita along with Rod Magden to learn about the Japanese involvement on the oyster business in western Washington and the Pacific Coast. You won’t want to miss the event. But in the meantime to whet your interest in Jerry I thought I might share a little bit of Jerry’s early background.
Many of us think that Hubert Blaine Secor started the oyster business in 1929 when he and his wife started what is now Mintercreek Oyster Company on Minter Bay and Rocky Bay. But there were others like Jerry’s father Masahide, and in 1921, two Japanese men from Olympia, Emy Tsukimoto and Joe Miyagi.
Lee Makovich wrote a wonderful article on Jerry Yamashita on November 1999 in The Fisherman’s News entitled Farming the Seashore, Jerry Yamashita …Oysterman. I wanted to put a link to the article for you to read at this time but unfortunately it is not in the archived articles on the internet at this time. However, you can certainly read it in the Research Room at the Harbor History Museum. It is, as all Lee’s articles, an excellent explanation of the oyster business on Washington’s Pacific Coast.
In fact, there are so many excellent articles on Jerry and his involvement in the oyster industry, in various news outlets I cannot list them all. But do check him out on the internet. That way you’ll be able to access them including a video on www.vimeo.com entitled “Ebb & Flow, the Life Journey of Jerry (Eiichi) Yamashita”.
So the following excerpts are taken from Jerry’s own words in an oral biography he did for the Harbor History Museum back in March 2011. But again we’ll will concentrate on parts of his life outside the oyster business during his early years.
It starts with Jerry explaining about his father coming to the US.
“Probably around 1900 my father came over from Japan. I think initially he thought of going to school, however money was important to make a living. So he ended up getting involved working for Hardy’s Jewelry Store in Seattle. Then there were many young people of his race about the same age and there were also many young people that were growing up about the same time. And as a normal thing, where there’s a lot of young people, there are problems of youth involved in things that they’re not supposed to be involved in. So many father got involved in helping them organize a club; writing newsletter and things like that so that they would be occupied in constructive things rather than some of the other things that young people tend to get into, which is not very good for the community. He also organized a baseball club. That was for some of the old people of his age.
“… The name of the team was Tengu. … Anyway, the youth organized a ball team and they played but they could seldom win. They founded that pitching was a problem. So they had to hire a Caucasian pitcher to fill in the gap. I never learned whether they were a better team after that, but I do know that my father had a reunion with the old team members and this Caucasian pitcher at our home in Seattle on Beacon Hill. They really had a great celebration.
“ …Everybody was getting married that he knew. So he went to Japan to seek somebody. He ended up - my mother was a cousin of my father’s. Their mothers were sisters. My maternal grandfather wanted him to stay in Japan and find something to do rather than come back over here. So my father tried. He tried all kinds of things that might be appropriate for him to do. He really was not very successful at it. My maternal grandfather gave up on that. He was a lumberman in the city of Sowana which was very close to Tokyo. So my maternal grandfather introduced my father to a fellow lumberman in the lumber district of Tokyo. This man I guess was quite wealthy. So he offered my father an unlimited letter of credit so that he could buy whenever the bargain showed up, he could buy it and send it to him. That plan of action was very beneficial to both the lumberman and my father. In a matter of just a few years they really, really prospered…, but it didn’t last long. In 1923 there was a major, major earthquake and fire in the City of Tokyo. In that earthquake and fire, this very generous man perished. My father had a whole bunch of flat cars loaded with timber from Everett to Aberdeen. He had to send it out, but the banks wouldn’t honor the letter of credit because they were not certain that the man was alive or whether he survived the earthquake and fire. It turns out he did perish in the fire. So my father, with all the flat cars loaded with timber, couldn’t send it to Japan because there was no one to receive it. It was already there on the track on the flat car, so he had to liquidate everything that he bought. He had to liquidate locally. In the process he lost a lot of money. If he kept it, then the demurrage the flat cars would be very expensive. So he almost went bankrupt. The short time that that operation went on, it was just amazing how well he did, but good things don’t last forever.
And at this point in the oral history, Jerry starts talking about his father getting involved in the oyster seed import from Japan. This will with be covered in his presentation with Rod Magden on August 26. Except, perhaps, this one little bit:
…There was this man by name of Harry Allen who operated a farm in Burley Lagoon. Harry was involved in logging. One day my father went to sell the seed (oyster seed) and visited Harry. In the course of the conversation, Harry said, “You know, I lost a whole lot of money because this Japanese fellow that took my money.” ….My father said, you know, he didn’t have the courage to tell Harry that he was that Japanese.
“My mother’s name is Masako. My mother has quite a story to tell you know. My mother was a very self-sacrificing person. In order to encourage my father and not burden him with the support of the family, she wanted him to go and concentrate on whatever he was doing in business. …..As soon as he left, my mother quit and she decided for herself that she would sell some baby clothes. She would sew some baby clothes and she did some sewing and took samples over to the old Bon Marche. Of course her ability to speak English was minimal. She said she used to go talk to the manager of the department perspiring and she would have a bad time. But because the people there were very sympathetic and helped her and after seven trips or something like that, she finally got an order. ….After I was put to bed, then it was her time to do the work. She spent a whole week with minimal amount of sleep but she did finish the order that she received - that first order. She was so proud. She took it over. She said the manager was very kind. He knew that she didn’t have any money so when she made the delivery, he wrote a note to the cashier to pay her. So my mother was able to buy the supplies for the next batch of orders. She did that for a number of years. …..For that time she made about $3,000 a month. 1920s - mid ’20s I think.
Jerry then talks about going to Japan for the years between 1932 - 1936 when he was 9 to 13 years old. And then, he talks a bit about being placed in one of the internment camps and his difficulty with signing the “Loyalty Oath”.
“What do you do? I didn’t want to go fight my friends that I grew up with. But I didn’t want to do anything against the United States. There was a question(iare) sent out to all of us that we had to answer. I left some of the questions blank and some I said no and put my explanation in as to why I feel the way I do. Recently I looked up some of the letters I had written. My letters said “that I cannot say yes, I will take up arms to defend the country. I said the country was wrong in removing all of us and putting us in camp. I said when the government sees fit to remove us from the camp and put us back to where we were, then I would do my part. Until that happens, I cannot do it.” There was a lieutenant colonel from the Presidio of San Francisco that came up to interview a lot of us, especially those who said they could not do it. He said “I don’t blame you for being angry. Any red-blooded American would be angry, but I want you to change your answer. After the War the US and Japan may be the best of allies so I want you to think about all these things and I will come visit with you and talk to you again”. I said “Thank you, I shall do that”. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d better - rather than rot in camp, I’d better go to school. So I made application to leave the camp and obviously the Army didn’t think I was a risk. So they let me out and I got accepted at school. Illinois Tech in Chicago.
I had a little bit of time so I worked a bit. I was accepted by Illinois Tech so I was ready to go. Then the War ended. Then there was no more free room and board. Then we had to worry about making a living. That’s when we went back to oystering. The good fortune that we had was that in 1941, the year the War started, that summer there was a tremendous set of oysters - big spawning out in Hood Canal. The oysters from the spawning covered the whole of the canal and there were oysters all over the place. When we came back we went and bought some of the oysters from the people that owned the beaches and that got us back into the business. Then little by little like here - I worked Hood Canal first but when Jack Caston came to me, I said “I would love that”. I had lots of help. Lots of nice people helping me.
Let’s end our part of Jerry’s story here, but hopefully this will enable you to truly enjoy his presentation and be able to fully participate in the Q and A part of the event.