"We learn from senryu that life is brief, our faults many, and the ways we deceive ourselves innumerable. Senryu teaches us to be patient, to smile, to know the wisdom of humility, and to be generous…in spirit."—Koyo (Susumu) Sato
The senryu poems of Miyoko Sato and Yukiko Abo open a window to the lives of Japanese laborers in the western Washington oyster industry. Both women were born in Washington in the first quarter of the 20th century and both spent most of their lives working on Oyster Bay, in Totten Inlet on Puget Sound, as members of a community of Japanese and Japanese Americans who labored for commercial growers, planting seed oysters imported from Japan, and harvesting and culling them. Senryu, their graceful art, is a Japanese poetic tradition. Related to haiku in form, its topics concern everyday life and often sparkle with wit and humor.
Sliding from their box,
Seed oysters gleam in the sun
Of a foreign land
Japanese workers first came to Oyster Bay in the early 20th century. In 1900 there were at least three Japanese laborers—single men in their late 20s to mid 30s—working side-by-side with a dozen or more Chinese in a community of English, Irish, Canadians, Germans, Swedes, and Americans. By that time, few Indians worked in the tidelands on Oyster Bay: the Slocum and Simmons families were still in the business, and the Tobins, who had beds in Oyster Bay, had long since taken a homestead on Mud Bay.
Census records from 1910 list nearly 20 individuals "working at oystering" who were born in Japan. They had immigrated between 1900 and 1907, a few years after the many Chinese oyster workers in the Kamilche/Oyster Bay area. Several of the Japanese were members of small families in which both spouses or other relatives also worked the oyster beds. In Shelton two young Japanese men were servants and oyster openers at the "oyster house" in the downtown district.
Some of the oyster workers in the early 1900s were part-timers. E. N. Steele notes, "Two young Japanese men, by name of J. Emy Tsukimato and Joe Miyagi," graduated from public schools in Olympia and earned their way by acting as "house boys," opening oysters for J. J. Brenner, or working on the oyster beds during summer vacations.
Can't say "no"
So I am overworked
There is very little in the literature of the oyster industry about these essential Japanese laborers and their contributions. T. R. Ingham's history notes that Tadayasu (Tada) Abo was among those who showed him how to use an oyster fork. He was impressed if somewhat condescending: "Many people little realize how hard the 'blue-collar men' work, and how much they understand what they are doing, with good suggestions helpful to management."
According to historical sources, oyster growers established families in float houses moored to "good producing beds." The families were usually Japanese, and the float houses were linked to a top float and a sink float. The high-sided sink float held harvested oysters below water level when the tide came in. The float house itself had a flat bottom so that it could settle on the tideflats when the tide went out. It was equipped with sleeping quarters, food, and cooking equipment. The cabin-like living quarters were built on "six logs with a diameter of six or seven feet" bound together and chained to pillars sunk into the mud flats. A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America notes that through the late 1910s and 1920s there were "six Japanese families on Mud Bay and thirteen or fourteen at Oyster Bay." Japanese families continued to work and live on Oyster Bay through the 1930s.
How many families are supported
By this Mountain of shells
Periodically, articles appeared in the Mason County Journal that mentioned this hearty community of immigrants. These notes were often somber. In October 1917 the Journal, in its "Oyster Bay Odd Bits of News" column, reported that "the Japanese of the community are plunged in gloom which was cast upon them by the death of three of their number recently." John Hyamo drowned in an attempt to save his small son. The death records show that, "Chiyonia Lou Hayami" from Japan was 45 years old when he was declared dead of "accidental drowning." The boy was 4 years old. Years later, Tadayasu Abo remembered that the Hayami boy "floated under the house," and could not be retrieved before he died. Another version of the story says that "John Hyama" and his son were washed away by the "strong current from outgoing tide." Such tragedies or near tragedies were not uncommon. And they were long remembered.
A storm of snow
I wait for him to come home,
While the kettle boils
In 1909, a month-old boy, Asuo Matsumoto, died of pneumonia and bronchitis. In 1912, a month-old girl, Tsuyu Oyama, died of gastroenteritis. Intestinal hemorrhage was listed as the cause of death in the case of two-day-old "M. Tsurutomi" in 1914. In 1917, a nearly eight-month-old baby of the Yoshihari family died of gastroenteritis. Baby Ikiyi Sabata was stillborn in November 1917. Minoru Osako, a two-month-old boy, died of "acute indigestion."
A special 1905 edition of the Mason County Journal notes that Japanese and Chinese are "employed in gathering and culling" in the big business of oyster growing. Mason County was producing and shipping "an average of 20,000 sacks of oysters a year." The return, the article reports, was almost $75,000. The grower's gross return was $3.25 per sack, of which the laborers received $1 to $1.25 for gathering and culling. This would have included the Japanese workers living in an oyster opening and shipping house at Kamilche Point when it burned to the ground after some locals "camped" in vacant rooms had set off fire crackers on July 4, 1915.
At the beach for his return
Sad sound of foghorns!
Eventually, the Japanese workers replaced the Chinese who, in turn, had displaced most of the Indian oyster bed workers. However, in February 1904 the Journal noted that many Japanese oyster workers returned to Japan with the outbreak of the Japanese–Russian war. Other records of the community appear occasionally. Mosa Yoshahara is among the youngsters pictured in a 1920 class photo from the Oyster Bay school. In 1929 the Journal noted that "the Japanese colony of employees" was well represented at the funeral services in Olympia of well-known grower Joseph Waldrip.
The Yoshihara family, cousins of the Abo family, were sometimes the subject of Mason County news. Originally working for J. J. Brenner on Mud Bay in the 1920s, along with the Abos, the Yoshiharas acquired their own beds in Oakland Bay near Shelton and incorporated as the West Coast Oyster Company in 1935. The Mason County Journal called them "energetic and progressive Japanese who have been quite successful in their business under many handicaps."
Even on a snowy night
He goes to work with his lantern
A memoir by local resident Georgia Ann Burgh notes that there were several families living on float houses on Oyster Bay through the 1930s. "Mr. and Mrs. Motamatu lived in two small float houses anchored to the shore…accessed by a long wooden plank." The Hisata family lived on a "floating barge with a small rectangle house built on top...opposite Burns Point." People living on the shore heard the sound of children laughing or sometimes a flute. Families maintained small gardens on the decks of their floating homes, and in the summer they pulled their houses up on shore and leveled them, and planted large, lush vegetable gardens above the beach.
During harvest season, people worked long hours, sometimes through the night and in rough weather with high winds and waves. Oil lanterns provided the only markers for workers on the dark low tides of winter. "If the tide was right in the middle of the night, dark figures could be seen in the soft circlet of light cast by their lanterns…raking with slow strokes using their long handled oyster rakes," wrote Burgh. "They were visions of dependability, ingenuity, and industry."
Tadayasu Abo said that in the "busiest season before Thanksgiving and Christmas" he "worked as long as one week without taking off his boots." The weather could be nasty; the waves and currents rough. Pay was "enough for food," Yukiko Abo remembered. "Not very much," another former opener said. When her husband Kay broke his leg, Irene Nagai, who did not drive, walked a mile and a half each way to catch a ride to and from work. The pay may have been meager, but it was essential.
There were few amenities and no benefits. Until the mid 1970s, women's pay was lower than men's. Women, mostly openers and cullers, were paid by piece work and men were paid by the hour. There was no health care although accidents on the job were covered through Washington's Department of Labor and Industries. There was no extra pay for Saturday work. There was company housing, but workers paid rent and were reluctant to ask for needed repairs on the old rotting houses.
The Imperial Government of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Life on Oyster Bay changed for everyone that day. First there were rumors, then fear. The Mason County Journal announced on February 6, 1942: "Enemy Aliens Get To Monday to Re-Register."
Oyster Bay was in trouble even before the war. Sulfite from the Shelton pulp mills that opened in 1927 had begun to take its toll on the waters that fed the tiny Olympia oyster, the mainstay of production on the bay. Growers filed a damage suit against Rainier Pulp and Paper in 1930, but not until the mid 1940s did the Washington State Fisheries Department launch a survey to study the effects of pollution and the decline of the native oysters.
With the commencement of World War II, the oyster beds also suffered from the absence of workers. A newspaper article in April 1942 noted, "The problem of the oyster industry is complicated by the lack of men to work the beds because of the Japanese evacuation." Growers were concerned. "There is some difference of opinion as to what harm may be done the oyster beds by letting them lie idle because white help will not work the beds," the paper reported. It had been the Japanese laborers who moved seed oysters to fattening grounds, laid shell on beds to catch seed oysters, or spat, and repaired "dikes, boats, scows, and floats." In short, the Japanese did almost all of the work.
Gentle voices come with the wind
From the opposite shore
Yukiko Abo was born in a float house on Mud Bay in 1919. Her mother Yuri was born in Hiroshima around 1900. Her father, Tomitaro Abo, was born around 1887 and immigrated to the United States in 1903. In 1920 the family worked on oyster beds alongside the Yamada family and the Yoshiharas. Yukiko's brother became ill with tuberculosis and Yuri took both children to Japan. Yukiko, an American citizen, attended the Mukaishima Koto Shogakko (upper division elementary) school in Mitsugai district of Hiroshima until 1932, then went to a girl's school (jogakko) in the same town until 1936. She studied sewing, arithmetic, reading, and geography, "similar to American schools."
Yukiko became what is known as Kibei, American-born educated in Japan, once she returned to the United States. Kibei were suspect when World War II began because of their ties to Japan. Tule Lake internees counted many Kibei among their population. In 1936, Tadayasu, who was born in a lumber camp in Selleck, Washington, in 1911, and was also Kibei, went back to Japan and married Yukiko. It was, Yukiko says, a marriage arranged by their families. The couple stayed in Japan for three months, then booked return passage from Kobe on the Hiye Maru.
Yukiko was 16 when she came back to Puget Sound with her new husband. The couple returned to work for the Olympia Oyster Company on Oyster Bay, where Tada had begun working in 1934.
In 1940, Tadayasu Abo registered for the draft. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the federal government moved quickly to contain "enemy aliens." He was officially classified 4C, an "enemy alien" ineligible for military service. In February 1942, Executive Order 9066 required the evacuation from the West Coast of "all persons of Japanese Ancestry." Two months later, assembly centers had been set up as containment areas until camps could be constructed. Executive Order 9102 established the War Relocation Authority. The Abos boarded a train for Tule Lake with their two-year-old son Joe in June 1942. There they remained until February 1945.
Tule Lake became a camp of "disloyals." In 1943 a loyalty oath had been given to internees in all the camps, and those who did not sign became the majority population at Tule. Yukiko wrote, "I thought that…I would be forced to relocate during time of war to unfriendly communities. I didn't want to be separated from my husband and son. Mr. K___ (another internee) said if I didn't refuse to answer or didn't give negative answers I would be separated from my brother who was sick. I couldn't think of relocating with my son and without my husband, especially after the experience of how Japanese could be treated by white persons who hated us because of the war." Yukiko had been kicked by a white woman while walking in town one day before the evacuation. On the other hand, "Short" Barrick, a non-Japanese friend, worked side by side with Tada on the mud flats and not only provided firewood and friendship but offered to keep all of the Abo belongings safe when the family was evacuated.
Camp life itself fueled fear. After Congress passed a constitutionally questionable "denaturalization" bill that allowed Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, organizations at camp, including Sokuji Kikoku Hoshi-Dan and Hokoku Seinen-Dan (a young men's association)—both pro-Japan groups advocating return to Japan—stepped up their efforts to recruit others. "I was always in fear of my [family being] harmed by…the Hoshi Dan and the Seinen Dan. I was always hearing how they beat people that were not deciding for renunciation."
There were threats. Some who had decided to renounce shunned others. Tada Abo was afraid there might be retaliations against his parents, now in Japan, if he said he would be willing to serve in the United States military. And he was certain that the family would be deported no matter what they did and face trouble in Japan if they signed loyalty oaths in the United States. Finally Yukiko followed her husband's decision and renounced citizenship. They and many others were young adults with small children, torn by family loyalties, fearful, and not yet proficient in English. Over 5,000 eventually came forward after the war to tell their stories. Yukiko and Tada sent letters in 1945 asking to have the applications for renunciation cancelled.
Wayne Collins, a San Francisco attorney, took up the case of the renunciants and filed two mass class equity lawsuits, including Tadayasu Abo v. Clark, No. 25294, in the San Francisco U.S. District Court on November 13, 1945. It became a 24-year struggle as the case moved through the courts, affidavits were collected from individual renunciants, and rulings made case by case.
After the war Tada and Yukiko, with their daughter Nancy (born in camp) and son Joe, lived briefly in Red Bluff, California, where Tada worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Then a letter came from Tamotsu "Tom" Nagai, the first family to return to Oyster Bay, asking them to come back to work for the Olympia Oyster Company. A meeting had been held regarding whether the Nikkei would be welcomed. The Abo, Marikawa, Yoshimura, Kanda, and Kajihara families returned. Others, including the Satos, followed.
The lawsuits were successful and affirmed that the whole renunciation process was filled with missteps. A final order restoring citizenship to the Abos was issued on February 7, 1957. That was the year Yukiko began to write poetry with other Nikkei oyster workers on Oyster Bay.
Happy to see you with your
Catch of smelt
Miyoko Sato, her husband Susumu Sato, and Irene Nagai were members of the group. Their teacher was Takeji Minegishi, who had immigrated at age 16 with his father. He studied and wrote senryu most of his life, first as a member of a group in Longview, where his father worked. He spent the war years in Japan, then returned to the bay in 1951, and in 1957, after becoming a citizen, brought his wife and children. His Oyster Bay students met monthly, in his home at first, writing on topics that were close to their experiences and sharing their poetry with one another. They published a monthly senryu journal, Hokubei Senryu.
Miyoko Mabel Sato was born Miyoko Sazaka in 1920. The birth took place in Bellevue where her parents had arranged for a midwife. Mitse and Fusaye (nee Fujiwara) Sazaka, both born in Japan, immigrated from Nagano-ken. Fusaye was born in 1890 and arrived in the United States in 1918 after completing eight years of school in Japan. Fusaye and Mitse worked for Grand Union Laundry in Seattle. When Miyoko was seven, her grandfather took her and her siblings to Japan. Miyoko attended elementary and girls' high school there.
As a young man, Susumu was a summer oyster employee of the Washington Oyster Company in South Bend where his father was an oyster laborer. He was in school the rest of the year. Also born in the United States, Susumu attended school in Japan for nine years. He returned to the United States in 1936, sailing from Yokohama on the Hiye Maru. In 1938, after 10 years of schooling in Japan, 17-year-old Miyoko returned to the United States with her brother. Their traveling companions from Japan included many U.S. citizens: students, farm laborers, missionaries, and even a hotel owner.
Unlike Yukiko Abo's, Miyoko's marriage was not arranged by their parents. A friend of Miyoko's brother's, Susumu, frequently came to their home to visit and help with chores. And he sang. A mutual attraction grew between Miyoko and Susumu, and the two began to exchange love letters. They were married in Seattle in August 1941 at the Buddhist Church on King Street and moved to Bay Center where they both worked for an oyster company. Within six months they received notice that they were to be evacuated to Tule Lake. The newlyweds left a houseful of gifts behind and boarded a train in Olympia. Miyoko, just 21, was pregnant with her daughter Dorothy, born in July 1942. Miyoko's family members in Seattle were interned at Minidoka.
After the war, Susumu worked for three years as a member of a section gang for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The young couple took notice when Miyoko's father in Seattle saw a piece in the newspaper: "Employees Wanted by Oyster Company." They arrived on Oyster Bay in 1948 and never left.
Gloves are good things
Rough hands may hide
Over six decades later, Miyoko's fingers are bent from years of tedious work culling oysters and scraping barnacles from their shells. She recalls the Hokubei Senryu with pleasure. When Miyoko took over as publisher in 1980, she used "steel pens, stencils, and mimeographs" and an "almost antique" printer to produce the monthly journal. Few people now subscribe. Many of those who participated in the Oyster Bay senryu circle have died.
You think you know your body
But not really
On a grey day in February 2010, a senryu reunion took place. Oyster Bay families gathered to share poetry, sushi, hot tea, and a large cake. "Oyster Bay Senryu and Friends" was emblazoned on it with thick, daffodil yellow frosting. After many years of vacancy and vandalism, the Minegishi house had been remodeled and was ready to be occupied. Sue Kikuchi, daughter of their former senryu master Takeji Minegishi, hosted the afternoon tea for the families, many of whom had not seen each other since they were young.
Abos from across the bay came, including Yukiko. Harry Sato represented the Sato family—Miyoko was not feeling up to it. Also in attendance were Aki Motomatsu, a long-time Oyster Bay resident and shellfish laborer, and others involved in the Mountain of Shell project, an ongoing effort to record and archive the history of Oyster Bay Japanese and Japanese American laborers. The "reunion" called to mind the senryu gatherings and parties held on these grounds so many years ago. People shared stories, studied photographs, and then, at the urging of Mary Abo, the poems came out and the readings began.
Without any applause
The curtain comes down
LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist, writer, and photographer. She is an emerita faculty member of The Evergreen State College, and a former Fulbright recipient. Her field experience includes work in Malaysia, Romania, Rajasthan, and the Pacific Northwest.
Sadly, Yukiko Abo died in the spring of 2011. The author wishes to thank the Abo, Sato, Motomatsu, Minegishi, and Kikuchi families for their collaboration and enthusiasm. Shirley Erhart at the Mason County Historic Society has provided invaluable assistance on this project for 10 years. Katsu Young helped with some translation.