The humble work truck or van may not seem as glamorous as a sports coupe or luxury sedan but as utility vehicles, they have served Japanese Americans in Los Angeles for over 100 years. Established by Fred J. Fujioka in the mid-1910s, the Japanese Auto Club of Southern California had over 850 members of Japanese descent listed in their member guide. Many members had registered their trucks, presumably used for delivering goods throughout the Southland.
Farmers, gardeners, shop owners, and other working class Nikkei couldn’t ply their trades without access to work vehicles. As prosaic as they looked, the ways in which owners adapted them to their needs made them as unique as any custom car. This was especially true for gardeners, once the economic lifeblood of the Southern California’s Japanese American community, for whom the pickup truck became an iconic sight for several generations.
As part of our forthcoming exhibition on Nikkei car culture in Southern California, we are looking for images of local Japanese Americans with their work trucks, vans, and cars. Many people may have posed in front of their family cars but we know there are also photos of people with their utility vehicles too. We want to make sure these—and the people behind them—are properly represented in our exhibition.
Right now, we prefer to look at digital scans (if possible). Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org by July 31, 2023.
Photo: Buntaro Tabuchi from Amache with his gardening tools and truck, loading up for the day’s work in Los Angeles, June 25, 1945, Online Archive of California. Photo by Charles E. Mace.
Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach, has recently authored a new story about Nikkei car culture for JANM’s Discover Nikkei website. Here’s an excerpt:
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.
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.
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.”
You can read the whole article here on Discover Nikkei. Dr. Wang wants to explore this subject further so be sure to reach out to him if you have stories of Nikkei car clubs to share or suggestions for his research.
Discover Nikkei articles explore everything from family stories to food, language to art, education to…cars. Take a look around—there’s something interesting for everyone.