Interview with Dr Matthew M. Booker and Dr Kjell Ericson – The Seed Oyster Inspectors: Labour and Power in Trans-Pacific Tidelands, 1945-1970s

This past May, Dr Matthew M. Booker and Dr Kjell Ericson presented on how movements of oysters enable us to trace trans-Pacific patterns and practices of labour, migration, and environmental change. This paper forms part of their current project on the remarkable story of the trans-oceanic trade in live “seed” oysters between Northeastern Japan and the North American Pacific Northwest. These tiny shellfish were collected and modified by Japanese fishing cooperatives, shipped across the ocean, and planted in tidal habitats from California to British Columbia. The trade endured through five decades of enormous legal, economic and political change, except for a brief but transformational period during World War II. Booker and Ericson investigate why the trade began, why it persisted for so long, and its many consequences for Pacific shores. The recording of the lecture is available on our YouTube channel.

Dr Matthew Morse Booker is Vice President for Scholarly Programs at the National Humanities Center and Professor of Environmental History at North Carolina State University. He publishes in agricultural, environmental and food history.

Dr Kjell Ericson is a Program-Specific Senior Lecturer at Kyoto University’s Center for the Promotion of Interdisciplinary Education and Research and teaches history in the Kyoto-Heidelberg Joint Degree in Transcultural Studies (JDTS) Program. His research interests are in histories of environment, technology, and law, in and around the Japanese archipelago.

SEBESTIAN KROUPA: Your talk used the lens of oysters to examine Japan-US relations and the patterns of trans-Pacific environmental change and migration after WW2. Until the 1970s, “seed” oysters were collected in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture and exported to the state of Washington, where they were grown and canned before being sold across the US. You mapped the complex power dynamics among a wide array of figures, including fishers, growers, inspectors, scientists, traders, and consumers. Can you tell us more about the hierarchies of labour and expertise involved in the trade, including the place of Indigenous agency?

MATTHEW M. BOOKER & KJELL ERICSON: For most of the half-century between the 1920s and 1970s, baby Crassostrea gigas oysters collected in northeastern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture were exported in huge quantities each winter and spring. The primary destination of these so-called “seed oysters” was America’s Washington State, where they arrived, alive, to be grown, canned, sold, and eaten across the United States. In Washington, oysters known as magaki in Japan were recast as “Pacific” oysters. Our project argues that these largely overlooked trans-Pacific movements of “Pacific” oysters have had profound consequences in Miyagi, Washington, and beyond.

The trans-Pacific seed oyster trade began with migrant entrepreneurs from mainland Japan and Okinawa who transplanted seed oysters into the sandy tidal flats of early twentieth-century Washington State. These men were forced out of business when Washington State banned Asian immigrants from owning land after 1921. Excluded from growing oysters in Washington, some of them pivoted to become middlemen in a trans-Pacific trade in living seed oysters that lasted–with the crucial exception of the early 1940s wartime period–for half a century.  To be sure, the 1920s was not the first episode of coastal dispossession in Washington State. Tidelands ownership was part of a longer history of settler colonialism along the entire North American Pacific coast, from Mexico to Alaska. In Washington Territory (and, after 1889, in Washington State), treaties and laws dispossessed Indigenous coasts, leading to white settlement along oyster waterfronts. Oyster-growing white settlers celebrated their own expertise and labour, but it was Indigenous peoples and migrants from Asia who did much of the work. Today, Native Americans and some Japanese-Americans are still involved in the Pacific coast oyster industry. Their stories are increasingly being told in film, oral histories, and published work. In our talk, we focused on the ways that seed oysters linked post-1945 Washington State and Miyagi Prefecture in Northeastern Japan. Our story is part of a longer history of migration, transplantation, and exclusion. As we emphasise, this history has also revealed ongoing, site-specific issues of labour and power.

Boxes of seed oysters from Miyagi Prefecture arriving at Willapa Bay, Washington, c. 1936.
Courtesy of the Densho Digital Repository, the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

SK: Drawing perhaps on Greg Dening’s metaphor of “the beach”, central to your methodology is “the inspection table” as a liminal space of encounter and exchange that stands and mediates between agents, cultures, and technologies. What does this approach enable you to do, and why did you choose to focus on inspection?

MMB & KE: We focus on the inspection table because it allows us to see power relations anew. The table was a point of contact between Miyagi fisherpeople, Washington State biologists, Tokyo officials, and the American growers reliant on seed oyster shipments. It sat between the beach and the ship. It was where the seed oysters left the water and became a saleable commodity. It was the point when it was possible to intercept the pests that American growers feared and Washington State officials banned.

In this sense, we do borrow from Dening and other theorists of maritime and cultural interaction. We see the table as a contested shop floor, a work site. The table was a fraught place of power relations. The inspectors thought they should be in control, but they were never fully in control. If they condemned a box of oysters, or a full day’s pack of oysters, not only did villagers lose out, but so did the buyers who needed the seed. Finally, the inspection table is also a chronological device for us that marks a major shift in the oyster trade towards Washington State claims of authority. It became important after 1945 in ways it was not before.

SK: Your lecture reminded me of the famous Michel Callon paper on scallops, in which he beautifully plays with the agencies of non-human actors. In addition to oysters, your story features predatory snails which were considered a threat to the trade and to entire Pacific ecosystems, as well as feeding into racialised discourses around invasive species. How do you deal with non-human agency in your research? Can you tell us more about the roles played by biology and the environment in your project?

MMB & KE: The life cycle of Crassostrea gigas oystersmatters in our story, just as the life cycle of the scallop did for Callon’s. For example, the few weeks when oyster larvae were mobile were followed by a period of human-induced toko-age (“bed-raising”) or “hardening” (as American observers termed it) during which villagers in Miyagi Prefecture placed strands of seed oysters on raised frames so that the shellfish remained exposed to the air except around high tide. “Hardening” was an attempt to select seed oysters in advance by simulating the conditions that boxed-up living shellfish would experience during the trans-Pacific journey on a ship’s deck.

But we focus on more than one nonhuman agent. Another was the mollusk-eating drills that accompanied seed oysters from Northeastern Japan. In Washington, these drills favored so-called “native” oysters over the oysters they had traveled with. In North American Pacific tidelands densely packed with new prey, the “Japanese” drill became known as a serious pest where it had not been one in Northeastern Japan. Because drills don’t swim, a key issue was differences in the verticality of oyster farming in Miyagi and Washington. In Miyagi, both seed oyster raising and oyster farming took place above the seafloor, usually away from drills, with shellfish suspended from raised frames or floating rafts. In Washington, by contrast, oyster farming remained down on the tidal floor, with seed oysters living alongside drills and other predators. All the human actors we study sought to radically simplify ecosystems around seed oysters and their transplantation. No one could fully account for the wider living communities and complex materialities that accompanied oyster farming.

SK: You use the oyster trade as a filter for post-WW2 Japan-US relations. Yet you emphasise that yours is not just a Japanese-American story but one of complex patterns of migration and translation and of environmental and capitalist exploitation. The oysters were harvested, transplanted, and renamed. They travelled alongside agents that were seen as pests to be extirpated. Migratory actors from both sides of the Pacific were caught up in the complex dynamics of trade, politics, and science. What conception of the Pacific – or trans-Pacific – emerges out of your project?

MMB & KE: Ideas of the Pacific and trans-Pacific were and are multiple. Our understanding of the Pacific and trans-Pacific is terraqueous, at once oceanic and coastal. Trans-Pacific is not simply about movement, nor is it about moving from one landfall to another. The Pacific and the trans-Pacific are tidal, too. In one sense, the oysters we study were always living in the Pacific, wherever they went. But oysters have also been involved in wider processes of settlement, entwined with languages and legal systems of immigration and exclusion.

One example is the rebranding of “Japanese” oysters as “Pacific” oysters by Washington State oyster growers in the early 1930s. The “Pacific” name suggests a cosmopolitan animal–which, in a sense, it was–but the label also reflected specific demands to funnel seed oysters for fattening in North America. American oyster growers did not want growers in Japan to export fully-grown “Pacific” oysters to the States. This was a very limited idea of the Pacific!

The seed oyster trade led some to talk about Northeastern Japan and the Pacific Northwest as parallel environments. In wartime Washington State, discourses of trans-Pacific ecological similarity were connected to existing, racialised American discourses about oyster “independence” and the “Americanisation” of oysters that might reproduce in Washington State just as they did in Miyagi Prefecture. But “Pacific” oysters did not reproduce consistently in North American waters, contributing to post-war demands from Washington State oyster growers to restart the seed oyster trade. Meanwhile, war transformed Washington State tidelands via the forced removal and internment of people of Japanese descent who had worked and managed much of the state’s oyster growing.

We are left with a simple but vexing problem: Does the massive movement of “Pacific” seed oysters signify greater trans-Pacific connection?

Mr. Okazaki, working on oyster tidelands near Nemah, Washington, c. 1937.
Courtesy of the Densho Digital Repository, the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

SK: The trade lasted for about half a century, between the 1920s and the 1970s. What happened towards the end of that period and why did the trade come to a close? What consequences can we still observe today?

MMB & KE: We are just as interested in transformations and continuities as in endings. The Miyagi-Washington seed oyster trade ended by the late 1970s, but seed oysters moved in newly complex ways from the mid-1960s onward.  For example, seed oyster producers in Miyagi began to supply shellfish to oyster growers in France. As we mentioned in our talk, Washington State oyster growers and officials briefly tried to investigate alternative seed oyster sources in Taiwan and South Korea, recasting practices of shellfish growing elsewhere in East Asia in terms of conditions in Northeastern Japan with which they were more familiar.  The longer-term shift along the North American Pacific coast was toward acquiring seed oysters from specialised hatcheries. All the while, oyster growing further diversified within Japan, both away from Miyagi Prefecture’s Matsushima Bay and beyond the Washington State-focused seed oyster market. One result was that memories of the transregional seed oyster trade diverged and diminished in both Miyagi and Washington after the 1970s. Our goal is to shed light on an important (and constantly contested) trade hitherto largely absent from accounts of Pacific encounter and environmental history.

SK: Your project itself is the result of trans-Pacific interactions, with Kjell based in Kyoto and Matthew in North Carolina. How did your project come about and what are some of the perks and challenges of your trans-oceanic collabouration?

MMB & KE: We met some years ago at a party hosted by ocean historian Helen Rozwadowski and corresponded thereafter about our mutual interest in Japanese oysters. Kjell looks at the history of Japan’s cultured pearl industry, and Matthew had worked on the US side of the trans-Pacific seed trade at the Rachel Carson Center. But the global pandemic spurred our collabouration. The pandemic halted all travel but it also created time and erased distance due to video conferencing tools. We have met biweekly on Skype since April of 2020. We immediately saw the advantage of joining our source bases. We now have thousands of pages of transcribed, translated, and annotated primary sources from English- and Japanese-language archives. Our initial forays pale in comparison to the trans-Pacific story we are telling now.

There are also challenges to our collabouration. Thanks to Covid-era travel restrictions, we have not yet been able to visit our research sites as a team. Nevertheless, the wonderful surprise of our research is that on both sides of our Pacific, we find supposedly marginal regions at the center. Aquaculture put those regions into contact in new ways, even across the Pacific. We would never have discovered that without working together.