Oka Elementary School was opened in the fall of 1971 and has been part of the Huntington Beach community and Fountain Valley School District for 45 years. Below, is a bit of history about the gentleman our school was named after. Many of the schools in our district were named for prominent men who played a part of important history in and around this area of Orange County.
Isojiro Oka was born on January 6, 1884, in Fukuoka, Japan, which is on the island of Kyushu in the southern part of Japan. He and his brother were orphaned at a very early age and were raised by their grandmother. Even though he was plagued by poor vision and had only 8 years of formal schooling, he proved to be a good student and continued to educate himself all his life. In 1904, when he was 20, a marriage was arranged in typical Japanese fashion. He and Kaoru Ozeki (Ko o’du O ze’ ke) had a good marriage that lasted for over half a century, during which time they had 8 children. He had been asked to take over the Oka family pharmaceutical firm but refused because his vision was such a handicap. Instead, he tried farming for a livelihood.
In 1906, perhaps looking for a better life for himself and his wife, Mr. Oka left Japan, leaving Mrs. Oka with her family. He and a friend, Mr. Nagaishi (No go e’ she) went first to Mexico due to strict United States immigration laws that prevented his entry into America. He worked several jobs in Mexico, including railroading and doing housework for a doctor. Soon after, Mr. Oka and his friend left Mexico on a train bound for Canada. However, they got off in Huntington Beach and looked for work. Unable to speak English, Mr. Oka made himself understand by using sign language. For instance, to ask for eggs, he would drop a stone to the floor and cackle like a hen. To ask for stamps, he would put a small piece of paper on the back of his hand, slap it, and point west, toward Japan.
Mr. Oka found a job with Mr. Arthur Swift, who owned a dairy and a farm. Working as a seasonal laborer, he went to the Fresno area to work in the vineyards. Quickly tiring of the climate, Mr. Oka returned to Mr. Swift’s farm in Huntington Beach. Working very hard, Mr. Oka was able to send some money to support his wife and brother in Japan and still save some. By 1910, he had earned enough money to lease his first plot of land from Mr. Swift. He worked this small piece of land himself until 1917.
By 1915, after 8 years of separation, Mr. Oka was able to bring his wife to the United States to join him. By now he had successfully established himself in his new country and was anxious for his wife to share his new life. Within two years, Mr. Oka was ready to expand his farming operations. The Oka family now moved to Huntington Beach to a very large, undeveloped farm which they worked with two other families. This established a long-lasting friendship with the Tamura and Kawaguchi families, who are also prominent in the area’s history. Preparing the four or five hundred acres took much hard work, but they were rewarded with fine crops of cabbage, chili peppers, celery, tomatoes, sugar beets and other vegetables. At first they delivered their produce directly to the stores themselves. Eventually, however, a local trucking firm took over this distribution.
The Tamura and Kawaguchi families moved, leaving the Oka family to operate the entire farm until 1942. During these years of growing prosperity, Mr. Oka was very civic minded. He became involved with many Japanese cultural and education organizations. One of his most outstanding contributions was his effort in establishing the Talbert Language School. Many local Japanese-American children attended this school after their regular school day and on weekends to learn about Japanese language, history, and culture. Mr. Oka was quite active on the cabinet of the Parents’ Organization. Members of the community appreciated his quiet wisdom and often sought his good advice. They awarded him a trophy for his work for the Language School.
Even thought the depression years were hard on everyone, Mr. Oka was generous with what he had. Many times he donated his vegetables to the Huntington Beach schools his children attended. His daughter, Mrs. Estow (E’ to), smiles remembering being called from her class, in order to guide her father with boxes of vegetables to the school’s cafeteria. Suddenly, in the midst of this growing success and active civic participation, Pearl Harbor brought the United States actively into World War II.
It also brought great upheaval to the Japanese-American communities. The Federal Government, for security reasons, felt it necessary to relocate Japanese-American communities away from the coastline areas of California. Mr. Oka, along with many other Japanese-American community leaders were taken to jail and eventually sent to the Poston Relocation Camp in Parker, Arizona, where he was reunited with his family, including many of his 8 children. His two oldest children were in Japan, two other sons served in the United States army, and four children were with their parents in Poston. Throughout their stay in the camp, Mr. Oka was very broad-minded and not bitter. He counseled his children to wait and to look at all sides of the issue. He considered himself an American and remained loyal to his adopted country.
In 1945 the Oka family left the relocation center and Mr. and Mrs. Oka lived with their daughter, Mrs. Etow, in Ordway, Colorado. The sons returned to join their sons in Huntington Beach, remaining with them while they farmed several different local plots of land. In 1950, the family moved to a 20-acre farm in Santa Ana and the Huntington Beach property was leased to Mr. Allen Gisler. In 1961, the sons turned this property into a housing development, forming their own construction firm.
In the years following World War II, Mr. Oka retired from active farming, leaving it to his sons. However, he always maintained his own vegetable garden. He devoted himself to creative pursuits and interests. He was also honored for his contribution to the Japanese community. By this time, his vision was so poor that he needed to use a magnifying glass to read and write. This did not keep him from using what an instructor called “a natural talent” in writing Senriu (Sen du) poetry.
Senriu poetry, which is impossible to translate, is composed of 17 symbols on a specific topic. Mr. Oka was a member of the Tsubame Ginsha (Tsoo’ba ma Gin’ sho) Poetry Club in Los Angeles. Two leading Japanese-language newspapers often published his work. He was recognized for many of his contributions. In 1962 he was awarded a loving cup for one of his prize creations. Mr. Oka was a pioneer, farmer and civic leader of the Japanese-American community. As a tribute to his pioneering spirit, Mr. Oka was honored in 1962 in the Nisei (Ne’sa e) Week Festival held annually in Los Angeles.
Mr. Oka really embodied all the traits of a true pioneer. He showed his courage by leaving his home and family to come to a new and strange land. Resourcefulness and determination led him to success as a farmer. His concern for other was shown by his exceeding generosity. His concern for his community led him to become a civic and education leader. His appreciation of the beauty of life is revealed through his creative efforts. Yet for all of his involved life, he was a very quiet, gentle man.
It is fitting that such a man should be honored. We are proud to have our school named for Mr. Isojiro Oka. Our school was officially dedicated in his name on February, 2, 1972.