By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
HUNTINGTON BEACH — Two efforts to publicize little-known aspects of Japanese American history came together when “Lil Tokyo Reporter” was screened in Orange County.
The Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force arranged for the film — which is based on the life of Kashu Mainichi founder and civil rights leader Sei Fujii — to be shown Nov. 17 and 18 at the Charter Centre Cinemas in Huntington Beach. A benefit reception for the task force, co-hosted by the City of Huntington Beach, was held that weekend at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort.
The film, which stars Chris Tashima and was directed by Jeffrey Gee Chin, had its premiere in September at the Laemmle Theater in Pasadena. Set in the 1930s, it depicts a battle between Fujii and gangsters who are cheating Issei farmers out of their hard-earned money. Chin said that both the filmmakers and the task force are trying to tell stories of immigrants pursuing the American dream.
Wintersburg was once home to a thriving Japanese American community. The task force seeks to preserve buildings located on property that was owned by a Japanese family more than a century ago. The sites of interest include the Furuta barn (1904-1909), Furuta family home (1912), Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission (1910), and Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church (1934).
The task force and the filmmakers met for the first time in June, according to task force chair Mary Urashima. “It was the National Conference for Asian Pacific Islander Historic Preservation Forum and it happened to be in Los Angeles. I was asked by one of the organizers to come and speak about Wintersburg. It happened that Chris Tashima, Jeffrey and some of the people associated with the film were at my table …
“I had been doing a lot of research and had come across the name Sei Fujii in some of the oral histories for Wintersburg … I asked, ‘What would you think about doing some screenings in Huntington Beach?’ and kind of explained the connection, the history. Sei Fujii was known to come down here and meet with our farmers …
“There’s a shared history between … Sei Fujii and the issues that were faced by our farmers. Our farmers started arriving in 1900 … They would take the Red Line, which was the Pacific Electric Railway, into Little Tokyo on weekends to go shopping or have a day off because they worked a lot of long, hard hours … They were the ones in the film that were being taken advantage of.”
Urashima, who started her professional life as a journalist, has been monitoring the status of the Wintersburg site for years. The current owner of the property wants to change the zoning from residential to industrial/commercial, and the proposal would mean demolishing the historic buildings. As she tried to organize local historians and other concerned individuals, she did further research.
“I found that the history of the Japanese community in Wintersburg and Huntington Beach was not in our official histories,” Urashima recalled. “It was not written about. There was a little mention of Wintersburg, but it had not been explored in any comprehensive manner and it was a rather significant community. Wintersburg became the heart of the Japanese community in Orange County …
“There were activities that were held at the Furuta farm, and then across the street was the Japanese market, and then a couple hundred feet away was the rail line, so the trains would come in and they would load the produce, so everybody came here. The mission … was not only a place to worship; there were the language schools associated with the mission. And there were other activities … dances and activities for the youths, so there’s a real social aspect to it. Then the celebrations in the Japanese community, the mission was a big part of that during different times of the year.”
One example of the community’s can-do spirit was the formation of the Smeltzer Flying Company. (Smeltzer, like Wintersburg, was part of present-day Huntington Beach). Koha Takeishi, a young aviator, worked in the celery fields during his summer and winter breaks from college, and the farmers pooled their resources to buy him his own airplane. He successfully flew from the Dominguez airfield to Wintersburg in 1913.
Charles Furuta, who came to the U.S. in 1900, was known for his goldfish farm as well as his flower business. “He was a landowner, which was very rare,” Urashima noted. “He bought the land before 1913.” That year, the Alien Land Law barred Japanese and other immigrants ineligible for U.S. citizenship from owning land. Fujii, who was also an immigrant, fought to overturn that law.
As president of the Smeltzer Japanese Association, Furuta was among the first Issei community leaders to be picked up by the FBI after Pearl Harbor. He was held at a detention center in Tujunga and later sent to the Poston camp in Arizona.
Many Wintersburg residents returned after the war, Urashima said. “They had lived here for decades. Their children were born here. This was their home … The fact that these buildings survived that time period is testimony to the people in Wintersburg … (The Japanese Americans) lived and worked right alongside white European immigrants, Filipinos, Mexicans, and when they left, other people watched over their property.”
The remaining buildings were in use until about 2002 and are now boarded up. “Our hope is to restore them,” Urashima explained. “Our ideal would be preservation on-site, because that’s where the history is … If the decisions go against us, then the next best thing would be relocating the buildings to other property, hopefully in Huntington Beach, where it could be a heritage site, where we can share the stories of the Japanese community in Orange County and what they went through, for future generations to learn about.”
Public comments on the draft environmental impact report were accepted until Nov. 19, and the city is expected to respond to the comments in January. The California Office of Historic Preservation, California Preservation Foundation, and Preserving California’s Japantowns are among the organizations that have sent letters. The California Native American Heritage Commission is also involved because the area was once home to the Tongva Nation and an archaeological survey may be called for.
The Huntington Beach Planning Commission will hold a public hearing. “(Wintersburg) is recognized in the city’s general plan as a local landmark … How would they mitigate demolition of a landmark? … So whether the analysis of the whole site is adequate and complete, if the mitigation they’re proposing is adequate … there’s a lot of different things that they will look at,” Urashima said.
Norman Furuta, who is now associate counsel at the U.S. Department of the Navy in San Francisco, grew up in Wintersburg. His two brothers are still in Orange County and their mother lives in Garden Grove. “My father was born and raised there and his five sisters as well, so all of my aunts, my dad and I share the same experience of growing up on the farm there in Huntington Beach and going to the same schools,” he said. “We all went to Oceanview (Grammar) School and Huntington Beach High School …
“While the farm was still there, family members would come from near and far just to pay visits and reminisce, but when the farm passed out of our hands, we would have occasional reunions — of course, not on the farm. We’d occasionally get together — not often enough.”
He observed that Wintersburg is not widely known even within the Nikkei community. “I’m sure most people aren’t even aware … Nowadays, Huntington Beach is such a large city and you would never know anything about that particular community unless you happened to live there or knew someone that lived in the area.”
Furuta said of “Lil Tokyo Reporter,” “I knew nothing about Sei Fujii, so it was a very interesting film. I learned quite a bit. People were wondering how people acquired enough funds to purchase land like that at the turn of the century. I think the film shed a little light, at least I began connecting some dots upon seeing the film, because my grandfather … was one of the farmboys that the film probably depicted, but he never drank and he stayed away from gambling, so he was probably able to save all the money that he earned when he first came over, enough to buy the farm.”
Gloria Alvarez, a member of the task force, comes from a Mexican American family that settled in Huntington Beach in 1919. “I grew up two blocks away from the Wintersburg property, so I went all through grade school with the Furuta kids, all through high school with Norman Furuta and Dennis Masuda, whose uncle (Kazuo) was killed in World War II,” she said.
Alvarez likened the Furuta property to the Kennedy Compound. “It was like a whole community there, homes, church, mission, the barn … The family, they were like the elite of the community. It was a beautiful, large piece of property, extremely well maintained, beautifully manicured, the center of the community.”
Remembering Furuta as student body president in the eighth grade and Masuda as senior class president and later a high school teacher, she said, “These families, they carried on that legacy of contributing to the community as a whole … They carried the legacy, upheld service to the community, which is what ‘Lil Tokyo Reporter’ is all about, this whole value system.”
Alvarez, who is also on the city’s Historic Resources Board, said the venue of the screening was significant. “That entire little corner, that commercial development of business buildings is standing on the land of Oceanview Grammar School … Right where the theater is standing is where our baseball signs were.”
Decribing the Japanese American farmers as “pillars of the community … heroes for me growing up in the ’50s and ’60s,” she expressed her desire to “share with others the beauty and history and contributions that this community made to the growth and development of Orange County.” Anyone looking at the buildings as they are today would have “no clue” of that history, she added.
Many Nikkei with ties to Wintersburg have made their mark, Urashima said.
The Masuda family had a farm in Talbert (present-day Fountain Valley) and attended the mission and language school. Kazuo Masuda served in the Army during World War II, along with three of his brothers, and was killed in action in Italy. When the family was released from camp, Kazuo’s sister Mary came back to Orange County first to check on the farm, which had been watched over by neighbors.
She was confronted by the Native Sons of the Golden West, a group that supported the internment and was against Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast. To promote tolerance, the War Relocation Authority and the War Department arranged for Gen. Joseph Stillwell to personally present Kazuo Masuda’s Distinguished Service Cross to the family. Ronald Reagan, then a young Army captain, gave a speech honoring Masuda, and this is believed to have been a factor in his decision to sign the redress bill more than 40 years later.
The Kanno family also farmed in the area and attended the church. James Kanno was instrumental in the incorporation of Talbert into Fountain Valley and became the new city’s first mayor in 1957. He is credited with being the first Japanese American mayor in the continental U.S.
Another congregant, Stephen Tamura, was the first Japanese American lawyer in Orange County, first Japanese American appellate court judge, and first Japanese American justice on the California Supreme Court. In an oral history interview, Rev. Kenji Kikuchi referred to Tamura as one of his “Sunday school boys.”
Henry Akiyama, who was Charles Furuta’s brother-in-law, went on to create the largest goldfish hatchery in the western U.S., on the site where the Westminster Mall is today.
“The people … that are connected with this site went on to national significance,” Urashima said. “They really accomplished something. They overcame.”
For more information, visit www.HistoricWintersburg.blogspot.com or the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force page on Facebook. To make a donation, go to www.huntingtonbeach.ca.gov/i_want_to/give/donation-wintersburg.cfm.
(Note: The print version of this article, published on Dec. 8, gave Norman Furuta’s last name as Masuda. Our apologies to the Furuta and Masuda families.)