An Interview with Larry Oda
July 6, 2022
Edited by Dr. Phuong Nguyen
Larry Oda was born in 1945 in the Crystal City concentration camp in south Texas that was administered by the Justice Department. He is a third-generation Japanese American (Sansei) who grew up on the Monterey Peninsula and became national president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) during the 1990s. He continues to be active in the local community, whether as a board member at Coalition for Asian Justice, or preparing for the premiere of Enduring Democracy, a documentary about fair-minded locals who welcomed local Japanese Americans back to Monterey after being incarcerated during World War II. I spoke to him by phone on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Here is an excerpt from our one-hour conversation.
Tell us a little about your family coming to America.
My paternal grandfather came in 1906 to work in the fishing industry. At that time the Japanese had really taken hold of fishing in Monterey Bay and there was a fishing colony started on what is now Cannery Row before the Monterey Plaza hotel was built. By 1910 probably 80% of the boats fishing on Monterey Bay were Japanese boats. My grandfather was a fishmonger, processing fish and selling it. He worked on Cannery Row and eventually bought his own cannery with some partners in 1926, sold it in the early 1930s, and went back to Japan and started a shipping company. My father came in 1917 after he had gotten his high school education. He also worked in fish processing, but he worked on Fisherman’s Wharf, and eventually, when the abalone fishery took off, he became the head of the processing co-op for abalone.
My mother’s father came to the US in 1894. And he said he was going to the Chicago exposition. He made it to Sacramento and ended up in Watsonville farming lettuce and strawberries. He went back to Japan in about 1924 and left my mom in America. Mom took care of her younger sister. She went to SF for a while and then came down to Monterey. And, they had made friends and worked in a restaurant in the 1930s.
What was the Japanese community like at that time?
There were some businesses in Monterey. One of them was Pacific Rice Mills. There was also Pacific Trading Company, which became part of the Japan Foods Corporation, JFC, which is still in existence today. But my grandfather came to work, worked for them to develop the cannery and went back to Japan. Like my paternal grandfather, most Japanese did something related to the fishing industry. Early on, there were fishermen. And the fishermen would support the family, and later on, as things grew, the women would also go to work, either processing fish or processing abalone for sale and in the canneries canning fish. The community was pretty tight-knit. They stuck to themselves just like the Sicilians did, but one of the things that brought the communities together was sports, baseball, and the Sicilians and the Japanese liked to play baseball. But pretty much the communities would stick together, have their church services and social gatherings together.
Where did Japanese live at that time?
There were two places where they settled. One was the area around Jacks Park and downtown Monterey. And then the other spot was in New Monterey over the 600, 700, and 800 blocks of Foam Street, off Wave Street (near Cannery Row). The downtown area is where the JACL hall is located.
When did that establishment first open?
The JACL hall was built in 1926. In about 1925, there was a member of the royal family. He was prince Asaka from Japan. He was traveling from Paris back home to Japan and this abalone and fishing area of Monterey was very famous in Japan because a lot of the fisherman came here, so it was well known to the royal family, so [when] he was on his way to Japan he stopped and of course the community went out to greet him. They had a picnic and my story is that either he really enjoyed the hospitality and the community or he didn’t really like the rustic atmosphere of eating outdoors and having to go to the bathroom in the bushes, so he donated $100 to build a community center. And from there, everyone else in the community donated and that’s how the JACL hall was built. They would have church services in the JACL hall until 1963, [when] they built the church out in Seaside (on Noche Buena). I used to go to service at the JACL hall and it was used for a number of things, movies and performances, plays, ec.
During COVID we shut down. We put in a new floor, we painted inside, and now it’s back up and running on the weekends as we can, so come on down.
So how was the Japanese American community treated by the community at large? We know academically about the racism, the anti-Japanese sentiment, the LA Times, Gov Earl Warren. We also know there were at least a handful of people who welcomed the Japanese, who took out an ad in the Herald, people like John Steinbeck.
Yeah, they had passed around a petition, and that’s what our documentary ENDURING DEMOCRACY is about. That petition was started as a reaction to the growers association in Salinas, who discouraged the Japanese from returning. You know that’s all economics. Over half the crops were grown by Japanese farmers. Just like I said, in the fishing industry 80% of the businesses on fisherman’s wharf were Japanese businesses, and 80% of the boats on the bay were Japanese. They were an economic force back then, and all of that was erased during World War II. So the growers association didn’t want that competition. So they passed around this petition, this anti-Japanese effort, and the more liberal side of Monterey, people like John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, the poet laureate of the United States, took offense at these people who were saying that ‘We don’t want these people back,’ and they said, ‘They’re Americans just like us, they have a right wherever they want,’ so anyway, there were of course that kind of racism still exists today, we look different, so if there’s anything wrong—the Chinese virus—let’s blame them, it’s not our fault.
When did you get involved in the community?
I got involved with JACL in the 90s, this was after the redress process, and it’s just a community organization looking after people. They had health fairs, and baseball camps, basketball camps, the kind of stuff that supported primarily the Japanese community. They asked me to come, the board, so I did, and you know we had pancake breakfasts, rummage sales, all kinds of activities, all kinds of fun, as you got involved. We put a bid to host the national convention so all the chapters from around the country could come. The national convention went over well. In order to do that, I had to attend the national board meetings.
As VP, I didn’t like what the President was doing, so I ran against him in the next election, and that got me on being heavily involved with JACL.
What’s your message for the younger generation?
Some have been sheltered. They haven’t had to worry about the things we’ve had, so you know we need to concentrate on preserving the cultural heritage, and I don’t know, maybe I have a blind eye to the racial discrimination. I do know about it and it’s all part of the model minority myth. I think you keep your head down, don’t make waves, and you’ll be recognized because of the work that you do, but that’s not the way it’s done because people just take advantage of you. So for our young guys trying to find folks who can be CEOs, what’s his take? One of the things is that you can’t just sit back and wait to be noticed. You have to be out front. Just like everyone else. Toot your own horn. Hey listen, I’m a leader. I can do this.