By David Yamaguchi
The North American Post
Among the stories I remember an uncle telling me is that it was Japanese Americans who saved the Washington oyster industry from decline by importing the hardier Japanese oyster from Japan in the late 1920s.
What I did not realize is that the principals involved included the Yamashita family, formerly of Purdy, in southern Puget Sound north of Gig Harbor. Visiting their oyster farm with my parents as a boy, I remember an elderly lady, probably the Issei grandmother, deep frying oysters outside for us one weekend. Watching her cook, I remember telling her, “You have probably done this many times.”
I liked her reply. She had said, “No, this is the first time,” with a smile.
Now, along comes a 77-minute documentary of the family featuring its main Nisei protagonist, “Ebb and Flow, the Story of Jerry Yamashita, Oysterman.”
Presently scheduled only for a one-time showing in Seattle, it is the kind of tale that we should all know as Northwest Nikkei. According to its description on the web, the story runs from Tokyo to Purdy, through Tule Lake internment camp, and back to Purdy.
Further background on the oystering life comes from—where else—Kazuo Ito’s “Issei” (1973), where we learn, from the Yamashita grandmother and others, of its associated hardships. Young children could drown—and did—if they fell from the floating oyster houses where their Issei parents lived. The men could also drown, working on the tidal flats, if they lost their way in the fog during rising tides.
The main difficulty persists to the present. It is the three-year lead time between sowing of the oysters and harvesting them, throughout which starfish clamber to eat their fill.
Nonetheless, today the “Japanese oysters,” now termed Pacific oysters, continue to support the economy of Puget Sound and southwest Washington—the Willapa Bay region—long after the disappearance of other natural-resource based economic pillars. The great Columbia River salmon runs that once amply supported Westport and Ilwaco are gone. So too are the great trees that once shaded the streams and kept salmon spawning habitats cool.
Yet even today the industry faces a new threat: ocean acidification, which prevents young oysters from forming.
“Ebb and Flow” will be shown at the Varsity Theater (4329 University Way NE, Seattle) on Sunday, Oct. 9, at 1 p.m. A fundraiser for its producers, Leaping Frog Films, the event price is flexible (by donation). More information is available at the website of Far Away Entertainment, the company that has run the Varsity since early 2015.
As an added bonus, Mr. Yamashita is planning to be present at the screening. Imagine being in your nineties and attending a movie about your life! It doesn’t get any better than that.