Discover Nikkei

Getting to Know Seattle's Japantown: During and After the War

A Japanese-American family in an internment camp. This photo was kept by the North American Post Publishing editorial office, but it is unclear who the mother and children in the photo are. (Photo courtesy of North American Post Publishing)

Prewar Edition >>

A symbol of Seattle's minority culture

The International District is located south of downtown Seattle. Japantown remains in one corner of the district. At its peak before the war, around 8,500 Japanese immigrants lived and ran businesses there. However, after the start of the Pacific War, a presidential decree led to all Japanese residents being repatriated to internment camps. Following on from our previous article, which introduced Japantown before the war , here we trace the changes in Japantown from wartime to the postwar period, and up to the present day.

Internment of Japanese Americans and the Japanese Town that Remained

In December 2015, at a meeting of naturalized immigrants in Washington DC, former President Obama said, "The incarceration of Japanese immigrants in internment camps is one of the darkest moments in America's history." In the same month 75 years ago, former President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in more than 120,000 Japanese people, including American citizens, being deemed "enemy aliens" and deported to internment camps. Many of the residents of Seattle Japantown were sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in southern Idaho. They were forced to leave behind everything they had built up, including their businesses, land, property, furniture, and mementos, except for the bare minimum that could fit in a suitcase. Within a few days, Seattle's Japantown was completely emptied.

In front of Jacksonville shortly after Japanese stores closed due to forced removals. After the war, Jacksonville was returned to the Murakami family through the arrangement of a Jewish friend, and many Japanese families who had lost their homes stayed there temporarily. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, Seattle)

Meanwhile, Seattle continued to grow during the war. The Boeing Company, which was founded in Seattle in 1916, grew rapidly due to demand for military aircraft. The population of Seattle increased from approximately 370,000 to approximately 470,000 between 1940 and 1950, and the majority of this population increase was due to African-Americans employed as workers at the Boeing factory. In 1940, the African-American population of Seattle was approximately 3,800, about half the number of Japanese-Americans, but by 1950 it had rapidly increased to approximately 157,000.

To accommodate African-American workers, the city of Seattle built the public housing complex "Yesler Terrace" in 1941. It was built on the east side of Japantown, where many Japanese-Americans lived. Naturally, documents state that there was a lot of friction between the Japanese-Americans who returned to Japantown after the war and the African-American residents who had taken over their homes and stores during the war.

Civil Rights Movement, I-5, Kingdome

Jackson Street, which was lined with Japanese stores before the war, began to be lined with jazz clubs in the 1950s. Japanese families who had once returned to Japantown began to move to the suburbs, and Japanese residents and Japanese stores gradually disappeared from Japantown. When US-China relations improved during World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, Chinese immigrants increased again, and "Chinatown," centered around King Street, became thriving. In 1951, the mayor of Seattle at the time began using the word "international," and the "International District" came to be recognized as a place where Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and African residents, in other words, non-white residents, could gather.

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement, centered on African-American residents, became active in Seattle. Many young second-generation Japanese-Americans also began to identify as "Asian-Americans" and appealed for the elimination of discrimination. In the early 1960s, the construction of I-5, which divided the International District in half, and the construction of the Kingdome, which was carried out from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, led to violent protests by young Asian-Americans, known as the "Kingdom Protests." In fact, the construction of I-5 resulted in the demolition of many of the buildings and houses that had existed in Japantown before the war. It is said that many Japanese-American residents were forced to leave Japantown due to eviction caused by this construction.

Communicating the history and culture of Asian minorities

After the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Korean and Vietnamese stores began to appear in the International District in the 1970s. In particular, after the area was divided by I-5, a row of Vietnamese stores began to appear in the eastern area, and an area called "Little Saigon" was created.

Currently, the International District is home to many nonprofit organizations working to preserve and pass on the history and culture of Asian immigrants, including Japanese immigrants, such as the InterIm Community Development Organization (InterIm), which was founded in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Kingdome Protests, and the International District Historic Preservation and Development Agency (SCIDpda).

In 2016, InterIm opened Hirabayashi Place, a complex on Main Street that includes low-income housing and a daycare center. The building is named after Gordon Hirabayashi, who resisted the internment of Japanese Americans during the war.

In addition to managing and operating historical buildings, SCIDpda also supports the Friends of Japantown, an organization that brings together businesses in Japantown to improve infrastructure and plan events. Friends of Japantown held a summer festival in Japantown on August 26, 2017. Over time, the importance of conveying the history of Japantown has begun to be recognized anew in Seattle, a city with a strong liberal orientation that values ​​diversity.


Taylor, Quintard. The forging of a black community: Seattle's Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era . (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994)

Chin, Doug. Seattle's International District: The making of a Pan-AsianAmerican community. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002)

Seattle: International Examiner Press

A chronology of the history of Japantown (wartime and postwar)

1940s 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor, start of the Pacific War
Seattle's first public housing complex, Yesler Terrace, is built.
1942 The Japanese American Internment Order (Special Executive Order No. 9066) is issued.
1945 End of the Pacific War
1950s 1950 Start of the Korean War (until 1953)
1951 The Treaty of San Francisco between the United States and Japan is signed.
1960s 1962 Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech
1964 Wing Luke becomes the first Asian-American to serve on the Seattle City Council. Civil Rights Act is enacted. The Gulf of Tonkin incident leads to the Vietnam War (until 1975).
1965 Highway I-5 completed
1968 Kingdome construction decided by local referendum
1969 InterIm founded
1970s 1972 First Korean business opens at ID
1975 Fall of Saigon, Unification of Vietnam
SCIDpda was founded
1976 Kingdome completed. President Ford rescinds Executive Order 9066.
1980s 1988 President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Japanese American Reparations Act).
1990s 1994 The City of Seattle formulates its Urban Village Strategy, and revitalization of downtown areas, including the ID, begins.
1999 Sefco Field completed
2000s 2000 Union Station was restored and an office complex was built on the site. Uwajimaya Village was built. Uwajimaya moved to its current location. Kingdome was demolished.
2002 Century Link Field completed
2003 Kobo at Higo opens at the former Higo Variety Store site
2010s 2016 Hirabayashi Place completed

*This article is reprinted from Seattle lifestyle information magazine Soy Source (June 9, 2017).

© 2017 Soy Source / Misa Murohashi, Megumi Matsuzaki, and Mao Osumi

African Americans Asian Americans central business districts Chinese Americans communities downtown International District Japantowns postwar Seattle United States war Washington World War II
About the Authors

A third-year student at Waseda University's School of International Liberal Studies. During his one-year study abroad at the University of Washington, he interned for Soy Sauce and North American Post for three months. Influenced by his father, who lived in Seattle, he became interested in the history of Japanese immigrants in Seattle.

(Updated May 2017)

A fourth-year student in the Department of English at Sophia University's School of Foreign Studies. During his one-year study abroad at Seattle University, he interned at Soy Sauce and North American Newspaper for six months. At Sophia University, he serves as the head of the newspaper club.

(Updated June 2017)

Misa Murohashi is General Manager of North American Post Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of The North American Post. Since graduating from Sophia University, Tokyo, with a BA in Business Administration, Misa has been in the content publishing industry for over twenty years. She later earned a master’s degree in Urban Planning from the University of Washington, Seattle, where she studied community development in Seattle’s International District for her thesis. The research taught her Japanese American history, and her interests in it brought her to her current position in 2017.

Updated October 2021

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More