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South Bay Issei Pioneers

(Updated 04/07/2016, Originally published 10/12/2015)

Currently, the Chula Vista Elementary School District is in the process of naming their 46th school in the South Bay. Community members are gathering support to have the school named after a prominent Japanese-American of the South Bay, Saburo Muraoka. He is one of the 5 people featured on “The Made Chula Vista History” on the City of Chula Vista website.

Chula Vista has two commemorations of the Issei in the South Bay: a plaque on the corner of Palomar and Broadway and a small street off of Brandywine named Shinohara. The naming of a Chula Vista school after Saburo Muraoka would bring pride to our City’s multi-cultural heritage.

South Bay Issei Pioneers

Broadway’s Commemoration

Zipping down Broadway, it might be easy to miss locations where individuals have decided to care for and commemorate their environment.

I drove down Broadway many times before stopping to smell the roses, or in this case, fold my hands together and appreciate three polished stones underneath the Palomar Trolley Center sign.

The plaque says:

Initially arriving in 1885, these immigrants from Japan, through their intellect, diligence, and tenacity made numerous major contributions to the agricultural development of this area. These accomplishments were achieved at the same time as the Issei were fighting discrimination, unfair land laws, and ultimately, the mass removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Cost of the United States during World War II. This site marks the final location of the Chula Vista Gakuen or Japanese School, which was originally dedicated on October 6, 1925. The school helped nisei children to better understand and honor their heritage.

(September 1996, Japanese American Citizens League, San Diego Chapter & the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego)

South Bay Issei Pioneers

Japanese American History In The South Bay

The Japanese-American history of the South Bay dates back to the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) and San Diego’s boom years when primarily young, unmarried Japanese men under twenty-five found employment in California as agricultural workers or building railroads.

Donald H. Estes has written the most definitive book about the Japanese-Americans in the South Bay, titled South Bay Monogatari: Tales of the South Bay Nikkei Community. Steve Schoenherr additionally has a growing body of information about the Japanese, including about Japanese-Americans in the Tijuana River Valley.

Japanese Classifications

First, a few definitions:

Issei: The first generation of Japanese immigrants in the United States.

Nikkei: Any person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Includes both persons who are native to the United States and Japan.

Nisei: First generation Americans of Japanese ancestry born in the United States.


During the 1880’s the Japanese worked in the citrus groves of Chula Vista and also in the salt fields. By 1907, Japanese run labor camps came into existence. The Kiyohara Camp was located at Broadway and J Street in Chula Vista.

Very quickly, the Japanese became successful farmers. Mitsusaburo Yamamoto, for example, arrived in Chula Vista in 1907 and he is believed to be one of the area’s first celery growers. By 1910 the California State Board of Control reported that there were 29 Issei farmers. As the men stayed, they married picture brides who then came over to the U.S. to join them.

These kinds of arranged marriages happened not only due to cultural influences, but also because U.S. racial laws at the time made it impossible for a man of Japanese descent to marry outside his own race.

And indeed, many laws hindered the Japanese from being successful. Issei, along with all other Asian immigrants, were prevented by federal law from becoming citizens of the United States through the established naturalization process. In 1913 the Alien Law also deprived the Japanese of any substantial property rights. By 1920 Proposition Number One additionally forbade even the leasing or sharecropping of agricultural land by the Issei.

Nevertheless, by the 1940’s Chula Vista had a large concentration of Japanese who worked in agriculture. Then, after Pearl Harbor, about 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were removed from San Diego County and sent to internment camps. About 594 lived in the South Bay. Once the war ended in 1945, only about 300 returned.

Pioneers Of South Bay Agriculture

Despite discrimination, the Japanese are credited with some of the greatest agricultural innovations in the South Bay both before and after WWII.

In particular, Fukutaro Muraoka who emigrated in 1884 to the U.S., came to Chula Vista and saw that he could grow celery in the winter. Working with another early Issei farmer, Mitsusaburo Yamamoto, they began to cultivate the crop and within five years Chula Vista was known as the “Celery Capital” of the United States.

Muraoka then began to cultivate cucumbers in a unique way. He plowed the fields to create ridges, which mimicked slopes. He then planted cucumbers and placed small white paper tents above each plant. These two techniques significantly accelerated the growth rate of cucumbers.

In the 1930s Nikkei farmers in Chula Vista began to secure their tomatoes with six foot stakes to increase the size of their produce also.

By the 1970’s South Bay farmer Toshiaki Hasegawa planted two long rows of pole tomatoes in the back of his home located at 2975 San Ysidro Boulevard. He then irrigated one of the rows with a drip line. The technique was so successful–his tomatoes being bigger and more plentiful–that Hasegawa expanded his drip system to a 25-acre plot in the Tijuana River Valley east of Diary Mart Road. Estes writes that the technology was so important that by 1992 more than 1.7 million acres in the United States had adopted Hasegawa’s drip irrigation.

The Gakuen

The Palomar Trolley Center used to be a Gakuen or Japanese language school for children. First built in 1925 and located on the intersection of H Street and Coronado Bay Boulevard (just east of Rohr Industries), they had 54 students at the beginning. The school operated from 1926 to 1950. Then, the building had to be moved due to the construction of Interstate 5. The State of California gave the school $12,500 with which they bought a new site on the corner of Palomar Street and National Avenue. (Broadway was known as National Avenue until 1996.)

From 1951 until 1994 the building was in the hands of Japanese American organizations, but it no longer was a fully functioning Gakuen. When the City of Chula Vista Redevelopment Agency wanted to create the Palomar Trolley Shopping Center, the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) accepted a cash settlement. The Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego then dedicated a monument to the site. The committee who came together to create this commemoration consisted of Ben Segawa, Roy Muraoka, Robert Ito, Ken Nakamaki and author Don Estes.

South Bay Issei Pioneers

For much more information about the contributions of Japanese-Americans, see also: the Japan Society of San Diego & Tijuana, the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, the San Diego Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Arcadia book Japanese Americans in San Diego.

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One Response to South Bay Issei Pioneers

  1. Gil October 13, 2015 at 12:44 AM #

    Very interesting. I wonder why I didn’t know about how involved the Japanese were in the USA, but knew about the Chinese involvement.

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