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Nikkei Car Clubs

Don Mizota was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and as a toddler, he and his family spent the wartime years interned in Jerome, AR, then Amache, Colorado. Upon their release, the Mizota family returned to Southern California, settling in the San Fernando Valley, near Hansen Dam. They lived close to Basilone Homes, then a housing project for veterans, but by the late 1940s, the barracks had been torn down and replaced by the short-lived Hansen Dam Race Track. It was there that Don first fell in love with cars. He recalls walking to the race track and “standing by the fence and [I] saw these guys just whizzing by with their big V8s, loud exhaust pipes, and it just got me really interested in cars.”

Map of the old Hansen Race Track

Like many Nikkei who had resettled in Southern California after the war, Don’s parents were farmers—they grew flowers—and his friends, most of them Sanseis also born in/around internment, also came from farming families. As such, they didn’t just grow up admiring cars from afar. As Don put it, “we were all familiar with farm equipment, [we] maintained farm equipment, so [we] were used to working around mechanics and things like that. I was comfortable with doing that and I enjoyed working with tractors and various farm machines.”

When he was old enough to drive, Don would borrow the family pickup truck, a 1955 Ford half-ton, and took it upon himself to make some simple modifications, including “shaving” the body, which meant removing all ornamentation to give the truck a sleeker, customized look. When I asked if had his parents’ permission to do this, he replied, “I don’t know. I never asked them!”

As students at San Fernando Valley High School in the mid-1950s, Don and his friends decided to form a car enthusiast club, Kame, i.e. “turtle,” a joke about how slow all their vehicles were. The Kame Club members would go to car races together when they weren’t driving as a group to YBA (Young Buddhist Association) dances in different parts of Southern California. Friday nights were reserved for building a “rail car,” a simple drag racer that the club slowly assembled on one of the member’s front lawns.

The club patch for The Apostles, out of Gardena (Photo by Oliver Wang)

The Kame car club was one of thousands of similar clubs started all around the country in the post-WWII era, mostly by teenage men like Don and his buddies. In the Southern California region alone, there were likely dozens of car clubs founded specifically by Nikkei teens. Don’s future brother-in-law, Don Yamamoto, for example, had been part of a car club out of Boyle Heights called The Squires. Over the course of my preliminary research, I heard about other Nikkei car clubs such as the Apostles, the Shogans and even found another, presumably Nikkei club out of West L.A. also named Kame. The car club phenomenon was hyper-present throughout the 1950s and ‘60s yet especially within the Nikkei community, it has scarcely been documented. My current project is attempting to collect these stories while there is still time.

The car plaque for the Squires, a Nikkei club out of Boyle Heights
(Photo by Oliver Wang)
The plaque for The Shogans, another Gardena/Torrance area club (Photo by Oliver Wang)


* * * * *

The history of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles car culture dates back at least as early as the 1910s when Fred Fujioka teamed up with George Kawamoto to found F&K Garage in Little Tokyo. By the late 1930s, a prominent number of Niseis became involved in the local hot rod racing scene, most famously Glendale’s Okamura brothers, lead by champion racer Yam “Oka”. Executive Order 9066 forced most of these drivers into the camps though, in some cases, non-Nikkei friends kept cars and motors safe for them during the course of internment. Racers like Yam Oka picked up where they off and resumed racing after resettlement.

The Nikkei car clubs that arose in the 1950s belonged to what might be described as a “lost” generation of Nisei and Sansei youth born in/around internment. I call them “lost" because most of the existing scholarship tends to either focus on Niseis of their parents’ generation or Sanseis born during the post-war baby boom. The Nikkei youth of the 1950s fall in between these eras: they were children in the camps and during resettlement and entered teen-hood during the 1950s.

Members of the Mikado Car Club show off their cars in the parking lot of the Evergreen Hostel on Evergreen Avenue, C. 1960. (Gift of Richard Sugi, Japanese American National Museum, 2002.68.1.)

Within the Nikkei community, the obvious antecedent to the car clubs were Nisei social clubs, many of which date back to the 1920s. UCLA’s Valerie Matsumoto has done exceptional work in documenting these clubs, especially in her book City Girls, and she notes that these social clubs quickly reformed post-internment by providing a source of “camaraderie and recreation…amid the disruptions of resettlement and the exigencies of finding work.” As such, forming a social club wouldn’t have been unusual for Nikkei teens in the 1950s except now, they were adding cars to the mix.

Fred Sakurai and Fred Ishihara enjoying the day after attending Japanese school in Sun Valley, California circa 1950's. (Photo coutesy of Bill Watanabe)

The general car club phenomenon in the U.S. dates back to the 1920s but it was the postwar era where things revved up. Not only was the American car industry entering into a golden age of production but this was also the birth of modern American consumerism which compelled many families to purchase new cars and that, in turn, created a robust used car market that helped working and middle class teenagers buy their first cars. As John DeWitt writes in his study of car culture of the ‘50s, Cool Cars, High Art, “No longer were kids forced to drive old jalopies or the family sedan; they could pick and choose from a wide variety of fairly new used cars that were available for as little as a few hundred dollars. It was important…that these cars were their cars. They were free to do with them as they wished.”

Concurrent with all of this was the rise of the modern American teenager. The emergence of teen-dom powerfully aligned with the rise of car culture as the two became indelibly linked over the course of the ‘50s. In his dissertation work, Matthew Ides writes about how owning their own automobiles imbued youth with a new form of cultural authority specific to their generation, one in which cars allowed them to “experience the freedoms of the adult world without succumbing to its domestic responsibilities.”

Moreover, car culture was particularly American formation. Again, to quote DeWitt: “The car represented America’s victory in the war and the essence of the good life. It also began to symbolize more than any other consumer product the new confidence Americans had in themselves, “kings of the road.” As I’ve stressed, these Nikkei car clubs were formed by the first generation of youth to come of age after internment, a time in which the American identities and allegiances of the older generation were called into question. The car clubs may not have been a deliberate attempt at negotiating a postwar American identity but obviously, the legacies of internment and resettlement looms largely in this background.

(Photo courtesy of the Kuromi family and Oliver Wang)

In any case, car clubs became commonplace across Southern California in the postwar era, in all the major communities: white, Latino, Black, Asian, etc. Within the Nikkei scene, it’s likely that clubs followed the postwar resettlement pattern patterns for Japanese American families who ended up in areas such as the San Fernando Valley, Boyle Heights, Gardena/Torrance, Seinan, Sawtelle, etc. I say “likely” because I am still seeking other potential people to talk to who were either in or knew about car clubs throughout the region. As I suggested earlier, the Nikkei car club phenomenon was well known by people of that generation but almost none of this history has been explored or documented with any depth. I am seeking other people who talk to about this history and if readers have any suggestions on who I can reach out to, please don’t hesitate to share them. I would eventually like to organize these interviews into an oral history project about the Nikkei car clubs.


Dr. Oliver Wang is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach and can be reached at oliver.wang@csulb.edu. Special thanks to Don Mizota for sharing his story.

 

© 2018 Oliver Wang

car clubs nisei post-war southern california