Discover Nikkei

Taking Tacoma's Japantown Online

“I live on the edge of Tacoma’s historic Nihonmachi and as I crossed it on my way to downtown, I often wondered what stories lay dormant in the vacant, grassy lots. Today, between the empty slope and the massive convention center, who could know there was once a thriving Japan Town there?” 

—Tony Gomez, Education Director, Broadway Center of Tacoma

How can you show people entire neighborhoods that have vanished? In our smartphone day and age, as they say, there’s an app for that.  

Poster for Japanese American Day of Remembrance 2017 at the Washington State History Museum, design by Osamu Arakawa

In February 2017, to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, Tony Gomez asked Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan and I to lead a walking tour of Tacoma’s Japantown. During the February tour we expected 25 people; close to a hundred people showed up. Although many people seemed to enjoy the tour, friends told us later that they had problems hearing us, even as loudly as we’d tried to project. Moreover, between the two of us we only had two iPads to show the historic photos we’d collected. People took turns walking by at our tablets, but it was an audiovisual blip we hadn’t expected. But we knew we wanted to conduct the tour again, this time for a Tacoma Day of Remembrance in May 2017.

Enter my husband, Josh Parmenter, who’s a software developer in his day job. “I’ll make you an app,” he said. I gave him the tour materials: images, annotated links to essays and blog posts that Michael and I had written, as well as the Japanese Language School project developed by the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT). I wrote a historical overview of the neighborhood for the state online encyclopedia, HistoryLink. We have historic photos courtesy of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, and the image archive at the Tacoma Public Library. Many of the essays have appeared here in Discover Nikkei. Together we drove the route that Michael had chosen, took “present-day” pictures of the sites, and entered GPS points onto a Google Maps idea. I also gave him the tour route that Michael had designed. With just a couple of weeks of “after hours” hard work, Josh built an app, and even hand-drew the sakura app icon that appears on your phone screen. 

* * * * *

In May Michael and I led the tour again. This time we asked people to download the app. Not everyone was able to do so, but a few people did—enough to make it easy for more people to see the photos. Tour participants seemed to appreciate having the pictures conveniently on their own phones, and they seemed to like having something they could take from the day after the tour was over. After this Day of Remembrance, I even got messages from friends who couldn’t attend the tour, but downloaded our app and took it on their own. “I never knew about this history,” our daycare owner wrote me. She’d lived in Tacoma for several decades, but was able to take the tour with her youngest daughter.

* * * * *

Tacoma Japantown, circa 1920s

There are a couple of “side effects” of the app that I hadn’t expected.

First, I hadn’t really thought about the story that the tour tells. There are many larger stories within the route, and we’ve linked to those within the app. However, the larger route also has its own narrative. Michael chose the tour route through Tacoma’s Japantown, beginning with the big “W” sculpture that marks the University of Washington Tacoma and ending with the former “Crystal Palace,” just a block from the Broadway Center.

We begin at UWT, then move to the Whitney Memorial and the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, the two remaining physical structures that we have of Tacoma’s Japantown. (In May, the Buddhist Temple was kind enough to open its doors to tour participants, and we saw the Temple’s hallway of historic photos, many leading back to the early part of the 20th century, before World War II.) From the Temple, we walk up the steep hill one block over, near the former site of the Japanese Language School. The building is no longer there, although a memorial sculpture for the school now stands several blocks downhill, near the University of Washington and the Tacoma Art Museum.

Tacoma Buddhist Temple Bon Odori

We walk past vacant lots and concrete steps that used to lead up to wood-frame houses where Japanese Americans lived.

We walk by the site of the Lorenz Hotel, where the Tacoma Buddhist Temple rented a meeting hall and where Shuichi Fukui, Japanese American World War I veteran and journalist, operated a street-level grocery store after the war.

We walk by the Tacoma Convention Center and the boutique hotel Murano, and show participants the Nihonmachi they would have seen from that same corner over seventy years ago.

We end in an alley, “Court C,” near the Theater District. I believe that Michael chose this route so that we could end near the Broadway Center, which is where participants in the February tour needed to land. But we end at the site of the former “Crystal Palace,” a beautiful building that used to hold many produce stands operated by Japanese Americans. Now it is anything but crystal or palatial.  It looks like a huge gouge in a concrete hillside. The Crystal Palace was designed by the architect Frederick Heath, who designed Tacoma’s architecturally famous Stadium High School. The Crystal Palace has features that resemble Seattle’s more renowned Pike Place Market: pendant lights hanging down, arched windows, stately rows of columns.

As Michael writes, the Crystal Palace represents one of the most painful holes in downtown Tacoma. We still don’t have a grocery store in that neighborhood. As I’ve mentioned before, the regionally famous Asian supermarket Uwajimaya began in Tacoma. The best grocery stores can be important community hubs, places where people cross paths regularly, catch up on the latest news. Knowing that we had a beautiful one, full of fresh local produce and flowers, locally raised meats, makes it even more difficult.

Second, I hadn’t really expected technology to bring Japantown into my everyday life. The walking tour moves, as Josh reminded me, from the remains to an absence of remains: from the two remaining buildings of Tacoma’s Japantown to vacant lots, and parking lots. We begin with precious historic buildings that we have somehow managed to preserve, as a city, to what we have destroyed. We move from what is there to what is not there, which mimics the larger disappearance of Tacoma’s Japanese American community in 1942. The contrast is stark.

Tacoma Japantown Walking Tour

And yet the app, though a small thing, continues to comfort me. Josh designed “push notifications” on the phone: short messages that tell you when you have arrived at a stop on the tour. (It is possible to set the app and turn them off, if they bother you.) Push notifications are especially useful for our tour, because nothing else is available to mark the signs or boundaries of Tacoma’s Japantown. That’s something that I hope to change eventually. Knowing that Tacoma has a vibrant Japanese American history gives me—and my Yonsei daughters—a sense of historical and cultural roots. But these little messages, saying “You’ve arrived”? They remind me. I now know more stories connected to this place. And every time I walk through downtown Tacoma, there is a chorus of voices:

You’ve arrived, we’ve arrived. We have been here, we are here, we are here. 


The Tacoma Japantown walking tour is available for iPhone and Android, and it is free. It is curated by historian Michael Sullivan and writer Tamiko Nimura, and designed by Josh Parmenter.


© 2017 Tamiko Nimura

Day of Remembrance Japantowns mobile apps Tacoma tours United States walking tours Washington
About the Author

Tamiko Nimura is an Asian American writer living in Tacoma, Washington. Her training in literature and American ethnic studies (MA, PhD, University of Washington) prepared her to research, document, and tell the stories of people of color. She has been writing for Discover Nikkei since 2008.

Tamiko just published her first book, Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice (Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2020). Her second book is a co-written graphic novel, titled We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration (Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Asian Museum). She is working on a memoir called PILGRIMAGE.

Updated November 2020

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