From Internment Camps to Souped-Up Chevys: The Rise of Nikkei Car Clubs

7 min
Unknown trio with their souped-up car, Southern California 1957. (Courtesy of Oliver Wang)

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Southern California's love affair with -- and growing dependency on -- the automobile spurred the rise of car culture around the state and beyond. Teenagers formed car clubs to customize, restore and "soup up" their rides. Cal State Long Beach sociology professor Oliver Wang is unearthing the stories behind some unique L.A.-based car clubs that formed in the 1950s and 1960s: Japanese-American, or nikkei, car clubs. Some of these teens had family in internment camps during World War II. And some of them had been interned themselves. Wang is a writer, scholar, DJ and commentator for NPR, and he talked to The California Report's Sasha Khokha about his new oral history project.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

SASHA KHOKHA: So this project started with your father-in-law, Don Mizota, sharing his memories about car clubs when he was a teen.

OLIVER WANG: I had always heard about car clubs in the Japanese-American community, and  this project partly arose out of my general interest in the history of Asian-Americans in car culture. It's a very, very long history; it spans many different communities. But my wife said, "You know, my dad was in a car club when he was in high school," and I thought,  "Oh, really? Let me talk to him about it."

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KHOKHA: Don Mizota's car club was"Kame," which means "turtle." There was even one called "Gohan," which means "rice ball."

WANG:  It was an opportunity for these teenagers to have a creative outlet. And so a lot of them came up with very fanciful names. Other people who I interviewed included a crew out of the Gardena/Torrance area called the Apostles, because they all met in a Baptist Church. There was another club from the same area called the Shoguns, which had this very bloody and  violent-looking logo.

KHOKHA: So there were dozens of these nikkei car clubs in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s. But I love that in the case of your father-in-law, he was basically souping up his family's farm pickup [truck].

Mizota family 1955 Ford half-ton truck with emblems removed and customized with a 1956 grill. (Courtesy of Don Mizota)

WANG: Yes. And partly it's because a lot of these kids came from working-class families. My father-in-law came from a flower farming family, so the car that he had access to was the family pickup. He was able to do a little bit of customization on it, which was very simple but it set it apart from your standard stock pickup truck.

KHOKHA: My father-in-law is the same age as your father-in-law and he was also interned in Jerome, Arkansas.  What does car culture have to do with finding that sense of belonging after basically being told you're not American?

WANG: To have a car, especially in the 1950s, was engaging in a very deeply American form of culture because cars symbolized American freedom. To form these clubs was a really important way in which Japanese-American youth were able to form community. So I think the car clubs do very much tap into this larger backdrop of what it means to be an American and trying to reconcile the experiences during the war with trying to rebuild their lives coming out from it.

KHOKHA:  You also interviewed a guy named Howard Igasaki. He was born in L.A. and was a young child in an internment camp in Colorado.

Patch from the Gardena car club, the Apostles. Courtesy of Shig Kawashiri. (Oliver Wang)

WANG: Howard was a member of the Apostles, out of Gardena High School. They were called the Apostles because everyone in the group had initially met in a local Baptist church down there. They had really one of the best logos I've seen. It was an engine block with a halo over it.

KHOKHA: So you're looking for Japanese-Americans who were teenagers in car clubs in the '50s and '60s to collect these stories. What do you plan to do with them?

WANG:  I just think it's important to document this. Unfortunately, these are people who are dying. There [are] many stories that have already been lost and many more that will be lost in the years to come. It's challenging just trying to find people who are still around who have a decent recollection of something that happened 50 or 60 years ago and are willing to talk about it.

Plaque from the Squires Car Club of Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Don Yamamoto. Photo: Oliver Wang) 
Plaque from the Squires Car Club of Boyle Heights. Courtesy of Don Yamamoto. (Oliver Wang)

If you or someone in your family was part of one of these nikkei car clubs, let us know. We'll pass your information along to Oliver Wang.

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