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Detail from a 1938 photo of students and parents at the Japanese school in Costa Mesa. L-to-R: B. Omori, M. Inokuchi, S. Kanno, Kaz Kuirhara, S. Kurihara, K. Shigaki, Unknown.

Japanese Costa Mesans, 1920-1942

You may have heard of the postwar Japanese-Costa Mesans like the Sakiokas and the Iwamotos. But how much do you know about the Japanese families who lived here before World War II – the Hiratas, Yamamis, Omoris, Ikedas, and Kuriharas?

Sadly, we at the historical society know very little ourselves. We do know that Japanese families have lived in Costa Mesa since before it was Costa Mesa. The 1920 census documents about a dozen Japanese households living in every part of the present day civic boundaries — from Paularino to Fairview Farms, from Newport Heights to Newport Mesa. By World War II, the number of households had jumped to over 50, with a total population in the hundreds.

Prior to WWII most Japanese in Costa Mesa made a living as “truck” farmers, growing a variety of vegetables for sale at market. According to a 2003 oral history with Ralph Leon, who worked on the Inokuchi and Omori farms in the 1930s, they grew “a little bit of everything”: “lima beans, corn, peas, and tomatoes.”

Many Japanese farmers were located on the West Side of present-day Costa Mesa. A pair of their neighbors there took a keen interest in their plight. This was none other than legendary firebrand and philanthropist Fanny Bixby Spencer and her husband Carl.

A letter quoted in Clarence Nishizu’s 1982 oral history paints a picture of this colorful woman. “I have three lines of work: bringing up my foster children, helping my neighbors (mostly Japanese farmers), and banging my head against the stone wall of militarism and conservatism that hems me in.”

The couple, who bore no children of their own, fostered children of Russian, Persian, and Japanese descent. This included Kay Okamoto and Setsuko Hirata. The bonds between the Spencers and the Japanese families in the area were deep and long-lasting. Yuri and Roy Hirata, for example, were present at Carl Spencer’s bedside when he died in 1950.

But that was later. When Fanny died in 1930, she left property to several local Japanese families with whom she had bonded, including the Kuriharas, Hiratas, and the Ikedas. In 1931, a Japanese school opened on the land willed to Tosh Ikeda. The Costa Mesa Nihingo Gakuen (Japanese Language School) sat in the city’s far southwest side, close to where Whittier School is today, around 18th Street and Whittier. In 1940 the school had 45 students.

The Kuriharas, whose farm was located at 18th and Pomona, helped found the school along with the Hashimotos and Ezakis from the East Side, the Minatos from the West Side, and Shuji Kanno of Talbert. 

Kanno’s sons, James and George, were students there. Jim would later become Fountain Valley’s first Japanese-American mayor, and among the first Japanese-American mayors in all of North America.

The children went to local grammar schools for their primary education. Japanese school seems to have been envisioned, at least in part, to help transmit Japanese culture to the Americanized children. It didn’t always work out according to plan.

“They complained,” Ms. Kanno remembered in a later oral history. “They could read Japanese sentences, but very slowly, so when they got to the middle of a book, they would have forgotten the first part.”

Japanese School was held on Saturdays. For a time, Reverend Kowta of Wintersburg served as the primary teacher.

At the start of World War II, Shuji Kanno was school president and Mr. Kurihara was treasurer. According to oral histories on the era, their connection to a Japanese language school made them targets of wartime paranoia, and they were among the first to be rounded up by the FBI. For a time, they were jailed separately from their families. Later, other Japanese Costa Mesans were sent to Poston on the Arizona border.

We know little about what happened to the “evacuees” after the war ended. Yuri Hirata became a pharmacist in Costa Mesa. Kyoko Numata was a student of Hank Panian’s at OCC. But we want to know more. 

So far we’ve only scratched the surface. Do you have more information on Japanese families who lived in Costa Mesa before WWII? If so, please let us know!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Bonnie Baker Lippincott

    My mom worked with Yuri at the pharmacy. She lived close to us when I was young and lived on Holly lane across from a Harbor High. The last time I saw her was at my mother’s 75th Birthday party in 2001. She was a great friend of my mother’s.

  2. Mary Urashima

    I have more details on the donation of land by Fanny Bixby Spencer to Tosh Ikeda for the Japanese Language School in Costa Mesa, supported by the Wintersburg Japanese MIssioin (Historic Wintersburg, Huntington Beach) on this blog feature,

    Shuji Kanno, who helped the Costa Mesa school get its start was an elder with the Wintersburg Japanese Mission. The Costa Mesa Japanese Language School was one of four supported by the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, including schools in Garden Grove (where the Costco is today), Talbert (near Talbert Avenue and Bushard Street in Fountain Valley), and Laguna Beach. The only remaining Japanese Language School building is Cottage #34 at Crystal Cove State Park. It would be great if Costa Mesans added a historical data marker to the Costa Mesa school location, so that history won’t get lost over time.

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