Documenting the untold stories of Nikkei (Japanese American) Chicago シカゴにおける日系人に関する記事のサイト
BY RYAN MASAAKI YOKOTA
At modern-day 821 North La Salle Street, in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, few people today could possibly imagine that here at this site was one of the main Japanese American chick sexing schools outside of the west coast. Indeed, at the site of the upscale apartment building that now marks this space, one can find few traces of a business that used to permeate the very fabric of this neighborhood with the smell of burnt chicks.
“They disposed of the used chicks in an incinerator in the back of the building,” said Jimmy Doi, who in the early 1950s attended the National Chick Sexing Association School that used to occupy this space. “And on occasion, there were complaints of the odor from the neighbors.”
The National Chick Sexing Association and School was founded in the immediate postwar period by George and Ann Sugano, and was run with assistance from George’s brothers, Mark, Steve, Leo, Frank, and Tomio. Patti Sugano, daughter of George and Ann Sugano, remembers well that the smell of the school incinerators could often bring unwanted attention.
As Patti related, “I remember my mother telling me that somebody called the police, because they thought they were burning bodies in the building, because the way the chick sexing goes is that the females lay the eggs and are more valuable, so the young chicks that were males would just have to die and go in the furnace.”
A Japanese American Ethnic Enterprise
Chick sexing entails the differentiation of male versus female chicks in the immediate days after being hatched, in order to cull the male chicks and preserve the female chicks. Since female chicks were desired because they could lay eggs, chick sexing could help to guarantee for egg producers that their feed would only be used for egg-laying hens instead of being wasted on non-egg-producing cockerels.
Specific methods of chick sexing had been developed in Japan as a specialized skill, and were introduced to the U.S. through the work of Japan-trained chick sexers, who helped popularize the trade.
Aside from the National Chick Sexing Association and School, there was another short-lived Japanese American operated chick sexing school named Speed-o-Sex, which was based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and had a 1200 N. Clark Street office in Chicago managed by Jiro Yamaguchi. Existing records suggest that this branch office was short-lived, and most likely closed by 1948.
Further south of Chicago, in central Illinois, Joseph Igarashi was the western branch manager of the American Chick Sexing Association (“Amchick”) in Nokomis, Illinois, which practiced a slightly different vent sexing method than the Chicago school. Pioneering chick sexer John Nitta had founded the organization in 1937 with its home offices in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.
Due to their homeland connections, Japanese Americans were able to enter into and gain a virtual monopoly in the U.S. chick sexing industry, accessing an occupation that provided much needed, lucrative seasonal employment opportunities despite job discrimination and glass ceilings at large.
“I think it was more of a Japanese profession because of the skill of it, and though it was more of a dirty job, they would teach Japanese nationals how to do the chick sexing,” noted Patti. “Most if not all of the work was done in rural areas, in places like Indiana, Nebraska, and Kansas. I remember my parents being gone for most of the week, because they would go to Indiana whenever the chicks would be hatched.”
Roy Akune, who had been trained at the school in Chicago, and who had worked over a decade as a chick sexer, explained the difficulties of this occupation.
“You had to work long hours, sometimes up to twenty-four hours without sleep, because you had to finish. You had a contract with a chicken hatchery, so you had to go around and after you finished at one place, you’d stop to rest and order a sandwich, and you’d be eating while you’re driving, and go to the next destination.”
Tight deadlines were integral to the work, in part because it became more difficult to assess a chick’s sex as they got older.
As Roy noted, “Once they get older, then it’s harder to determine their sex. You had to look at a chick within twelve hours and if you go over that, then it’s very hard, because the color would change and you’d make more mistakes.”
“The female organs were shinier, like how a moon shines. The male organs had a dull color. You had to learn that, so it would take a long time to be a professional chick sexer.”
Schooling in Chicago
At the end of World War II, many Japanese Americans resettled in places like Chicago, as they tried to rebuild their lives after roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans had been incarcerated in Japanese American Concentration Camps during the war. And for some young men and women, returning from the camps or active military service, an eagerness to rebuild their lives brought them to the lucrative trade of “chick sexing,” an occupation that was emblazoned in full page ads in Japanese American magazines and guidebooks, and which could be paid for with G.I. Bill funds.
With a primarily Nisei student base paying around $300 for tuition and the cost of chicks for their final examinations, many Japanese Americans found in chick sexing a livelihood which supported not only themselves, but also their families.
Roy Akune attended the National Chick Sexing Association in 1953 after being told about it by Mark Sugano. According to him it would take about three years to be a good chick sexer, including time spent being under an apprenticeship, before being able to work on one’s own. During the day Roy worked at a dry cleaner called Sun Cleaners, and attended chick sexing classes at night.
“In those days chick sexers used to make good money. When I used to work, everyone used to make at least $1 to $1.50 an hour, and if you were an expert chick sexer you made $10-$11 an hour,” noted Roy.
At the beginning Roy would make as much as $6-$7 an hour. The chick sexing associations would take a commission of 15% upon starting in the profession, and would later reduce it to 10%, to cover the costs of finding contracts for new workers. Seasoned veterans could amass earnings as high as $3,000 for a season of work, which was quite a sum by 1950s standards.
“It was one of the top wages in those days. Even a carpenter used to make maybe $2.50 an hour,” Roy continued. “But if you were good at it, you’d have to do it guaranteed, at better than 98% correct. Usually you need to be at least 97% correct but if you go under that, you have to pay a penalty. If you make too many mistakes, whatever mistakes you make you have to pay back to the hatcheries.”
Often requiring some three to four months of night classes to get their speed and accuracy up to the right level, practically no non-Japanese learned this skill.
As Roy related, “Maybe the hakujin (Caucasians) didn’t have any patience. Maybe the Japanese had more patience. You had to have a lot of patience. Sometimes you’d have 10,000 chicks behind you, so you had to go through 1,100 to 1,200 an hour. You had to go pretty fast.”
“The fastest I ever did was 1,400 to 1,500 an hour. Certain chickens were easier than others. Some breeds were harder. Cornish hens were very easy to kill. You had to squeeze its stomach, to take their poop out, before checking their sex organs. Some breeds were weak and passed out.”
Though only a few Japanese American women practiced chick sexing, Patti Sugano’s mother, and also her aunt Ayako worked as chick sexers. Her mother worked in this profession through the mid-1960s, which is around the time that the chick sexing school in Chicago closed.
Patti remembered the sorting process that her mother would be involved in, stating that “I remember my mother throwing a chick to one side or throwing the chick to the other side into a cardboard box which was for the girls, while males would sometimes go into a big steel drum, where they would suffocate.”
“I also remember her bringing chicks home and she would have to drive them over to Lester Fisher (a Lincoln Park Zoo veterinarian), because the snakes ate live chicks. That’s just kind of the way it went.”
A Life on the Road
Following their training, Japanese American chick sexers would then have to contend with many grueling hours on the road and much time spent away from home.
“Of the dozen or so who started, only about three kept sexing,” Jimmy Doi noted. “Most of the others quit after the first year.”
As Johnny Asamoto, Jimmy Doi’s brother-in-law and a fellow chick sexer stated, “During this time the industry consisted of many small hatcheries which all had to be serviced. Therefore the travel involved was great and we bought a new car every two years. Because the season was from January to June, it invariably involved some difficult drives in the snow to get to the next hatchery where the next batch of chicks was due.”
“So they would get a phone call saying when they were going to be hatched, because it could be all hours of the day, and they would always wear regular clothes with a white uniform,” noted Patti Sugano.
“My mother would be driving in the middle of the night in Indiana, and she would stay in somebody’s home or a hotel, and the hatcheries really liked my mother, because she was a really hard worker.”
But I remember she’d say to me that she’d have to get to a hatchery really fast so she’d be driving about 80 miles an hour down a lane and all the policemen knew her, and they would say ‘Don’t stop that car because she’s getting to the hatchery to do the chick sexing.’ It was a different time, you know.”
Despite the demand for the skills of the chick sexers, post-World War II discrimination against Japanese Americans continued to linger, with many chick sexers having to endure racism, both subtle and blatant.
As Patti Sugano related, “I do remember my mother telling me that one time she was going through a toll booth and there was a person in the toll booth, who asked my mother what nationality she was. And when she said ‘Japanese,’ they refused to let her go through the toll booth, and told her to find another way.”
“So she said the next time she went through a toll booth and somebody asked her what nationality she was, she said she was ‘Chinese,’ and they said ‘Oh, okay,’ and they let her through. She said to me ‘Oh, I didn’t have time to go find another route.’ So I think she may have experienced some discrimination, but my thought now is that they needed her more than she needed them. Without the chick sexers there would have been a problem.”
“It wasn’t like they were moving in taking over jobs or anything like that. They were doing something that these hatcheries needed, so that may or may not have helped.”
Despite the ethnic nature of the chick sexing industry, the long hours in distant states equated to labor practices that were difficult and arduous. Scholar Azuma Eiichiro noted that this could sometimes lead to labor unrest and union organizing, writing that “As ‘the result of many separate requests,’ a Chicago group was first granted ‘a much coveted charter’ from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMCBW) in September 1958. Led by Eddie Fukiage, the union pushed beyond the Midwestern States, asking their fellow Nisei sexers to organize local chapters in California, the Rocky Mountain region, New York, and Georgia.”
Support for the unionization efforts was not always forthcoming, particularly with the association owners, and though many did join the union, such efforts eventually came to naught. As noted by John Nitta, operator of Amchick, “The meat cutters union in Chicago tried to unionize Amchick and failed.” According to Eiko Koto, whose husband operated an association in Georgia, “the question for the government and the IRS was whether the sexers were independent contractors or employees.”
A Seasonal Trade Leading to Other Occupations
For those who stayed in the industry, travel to faraway places like Nebraska or Iowa for the chick sexing season would be offset by quiet time at home in Chicago or the pursuit of other occupations. Michael Doi, a chick sexer who had also trained in Chicago, continued to work at his regular job at the Paymaster Corporation, a company which developed and sold check writing machines. Johnny Asamoto worked in the produce industry outside of the chick-sexing season, and the dual incomes he earned helped to support the raising of his son and daughter.
As Bob Hontani, another chick sexer who had attended school in Chicago noted, “This seasonal work left much time for other business, so after the 1953 season was over, another sexer Jim Sakamoto and I bought a bar in Chicago which we named Club Jimbob, combining our names. We started with a two piece Hawaiian guitar band and later changed to a piano player. I bought out Jim in 1955 and kept it until the end of 1958. Two caretakers tended the bar while we were gone sexing chicks.”
Roy Akune continued to work for the McClurg wholesale company outside of the chick sexing season. For him, the decision to quit the profession came as he got older and it got harder to see. Eventually he was able to use his savings to purchase a dry cleaner in Chicago, which then became his main profession.
Over time, the gradual consolidation of the hatchery industry in the U.S. contributed to the decline of the small hatcheries that had most needed Japanese American chick sexing laborers. This factor, along with the development of new techniques for sexing chicks, helped contribute to the slow decline of Japanese American involvement in the industry.
Though growing professionalization in the Japanese American community has meant that few today remember this remarkable occupation, the legacy of chick sexing continues to resonate for those families that were able to advance, in part, due to the particularity of this unique, underappreciated, and oft-forgotten, Japanese American ethnic enterprise.
Many thanks go to Patti Sugano and Roy Akune for agreeing to be interviewed in the development of this story. Additional thanks go to Andrea Sugano for helping me to contact these two interviewees.
Interview quotes from Johnny Asamoto, Jimmy Doi, Michael Doi, Bob Hontani, and Eiko Koto are excerpted from interviews from the now defunct poultrysorters.org website that was run by Joyce Hirohata and the late Dr. Tommy Nakayama. Many thanks go out to Joyce Hirohata for granting me permission to use excerpts from the website interviews in developing this article.
Adams, A.D. “A Nisei Makes Chick Sexing an International Profession.” Far East Photo Review, 1948. Content originally posted in the now-defunct poultrysorters.org website.
Azuma, Eiichiro. “Race, Citizenship, and the ‘Science of Chick Sexing’: The Politics of Racial Identity Among Japanese Americans.” Pacific Historical Review 78, no. 2 (2009): 242-275.
Lunn, John. “Chick Sexing.” Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society 36, no. 2 (1948): 280-287.
Nitta, John. “Interview.” Terminal Island Life History Project. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2001.
This story was published online at the Discover Nikkei website on September 28th and 29th, 2016. DiscoverNikkei.org is a project of the Japanese American National Museum. The website links are at: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2016/9/28/chick-sexers-1/ and http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2016/9/29/chick-sexers-2/