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https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/6/16/tacoma-japantown-project/

The Tacoma Japantown Project

This year, 2024, marks 10 years that I have been researching, writing, and marking the story of Tacoma’s historic Japantown. Readers of Discover Nikkei might have read about this work in different formats: encyclopedia article, personal essay, walking tour, smartphone application, day of gathering. I’ve also written essays about Tacoma-related Japanese American people and places.

I’ve wanted to compile and share this knowledge with as many people as possible, though, and online seemed to be the easiest place to do that. For several years I have been developing a website with a team, mostly from the University of Washington, Tacoma. It’s called the Tacoma Japantown Project, and it’s a compilation of place-based stories about this once-vibrant and little-known community. My hope in creating a website has been to upload just about everything that I know about Tacoma’s Japanese American history into one place—it might be the librarian’s daughter in me, I guess.

A few years ago, the co-authors of Becoming Nisei, Professors Lisa Hoffman and Mary Hanneman, approached me with a proposal to share some of the rich material they gathered in writing that book, and adding onto it with my own research and that of others, making it a digital humanities project. After several years of work and with the help of a few small grants and private donations, the team and I are unveiling the site for the public.

The site has three major sections: historical overview, resources, and maps. The historical overview is an adapted version of my encyclopedia article about Tacoma’s historic Japantown, divided into parts. The resources include links to other writings that I’ve gathered over the years, partly from my own writing, partly from others as well. There is a section for descendants who might be doing genealogical research, and a section focused on the voices of Nisei who grew up in Tacoma. I’m especially excited about the maps, both static and interactive, that show the extent of Japanese-focused places in the city. The interactive maps are truly a collaborative effort, based on the research of Sarah Pyle and Chris Beyer, my assistants, as well as Sarah’s technical expertise with the arcGIS software. I am also grateful to UW Tacoma’s AAPI Thrive project for their support for an assistant, Jody Sanchez, to help with gathering permissions for various materials and images on the site. UW Tacoma’s School of Urban Studies helped me locate an intern, Mohamed Yusuf, for further technical expertise with the maps.

Some of my very favorite parts of the site, though, are the photos that descendants of Tacoma Japanese Americans have sent me and given me permission. Because only 1 in 7 Japanese Americans returned to Tacoma after the war, descendants of this original community live all over the country. I have heard from descendants in California, in Texas, in Pennsylvania and more. Several of these descendants have been in touch with me as well as the co-authors of Becoming Nisei, and with my colleague and friend Michael Sullivan. Kim LeRoy’s photograph of her ancestors may be one of the very first photos of Japanese Americans in Tacoma. She is a descendant of what we know as the first Japanese American in the city, Henry Seizo Matsumoto, and is working on a book about her family history. Lynette Butsuda’s photos and excerpts from her father Clinton “Yosh” Butsuda’s memoir are incredibly precious. They give us valuable insight about his Issei mother’s store in the theater district, as well as their family’s life on the Tideflats across the water from the downtown Nihonmachi core. Their family worked with the St Paul Ave and Tacoma lumber mill, another aspect rarely and sparsely documented in Washington state history. The Japanese lumber mill workers lived just blocks from the current Northwest Detention Center, where members of the activist groups Tsuru for Solidarity and La Resistencia have been protesting the inhumane treatment of the detainees. In a recent message, Lynette told me about the history of that particular site, and what existed before the detention center there—it was once a slaughterhouse. There are so many layers of history here, painful and resonant.

Interactive maps highlight places important to Tacoma's early-twentieth-century Japanese American community.

* * * * *

Though this particular phase of the project is almost complete, there is still so much work to be done on the history of Tacoma’s Japanese Americans. It’s exciting that descendant Merilee Tanbara is writing a novel based on her Nisei mother’s experiences growing up in prewar Tacoma. The city itself, as well as the university where much of Japantown was, have talked about further ways to create public memorials and monuments for the history. I know that there are still community members who remember that the University promised to create a commemorative garden after they demolished the Japanese language school building in 2004. (A memorial for the language school, “Maru,” exists on the UWT campus, but no interpretive marker exists at the graffiti-marked concrete foundation of the school itself.) I am also reminded that the developers who hired me and my colleague Michael Sullivan to research the history of the current student housing building have not added any interpretive content to the site, and the history work that we did is in danger of being lost. That particular site was once the second home of the city’s Buddhist temple, as well as a jujitsu studio and a Chinese apothecary. I am writing about these matters of unfinished business, as another form of documentation, in hopes that they will not be empty promises.

Others have talked about renaming a street for the principal of the Japanese language school, Masato Yamasaki. Still others have suggested a version of the “stumbling stones” memorials in Germany. I have hopes for a memorial similar to Nihonmachi Alley in Seattle, or perhaps near the former center of Tacoma’s historic Japantown, where the first Uwajimaya store began.

And there are historic preservation concerns, as well. The archives of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple and the Whitney Memorial United Methodist Church, once both predominantly Japanese American institutions, are also in need of cataloging and preservation. And the Tacoma Buddhist Temple is surrounded by the campus footprint of the University of Washington, Tacoma. One of the main reasons that I wanted to work on a capsule history of the Temple (along with my colleague Justin Wadland) was that I wanted to create a larger public awareness about the Temple’s importance in our city’s (and region’s) history. It is the only building from Tacoma’s historic Japantown that still exists from that time and is still serving the city’s Japanese American community. As the University moves forward with its next master plan, I hope that they will keep that importance in mind.

I’ve lived in Tacoma for close to 20 years now, though my family is mostly in California. Some might wonder why I have devoted so much of my time and energies to a neighborhood so far removed from our present. My family is not one of the Tacoma Japanese American families who left in 1942. I tell people that my family and the Tacoma community ended up in the same place. My family went to Arboga, near Sacramento; the Tacoma community went to Pinedale (near Fresno). They all ended up at Tule Lake in Northern California.

I also tell people that one way to measure the cost of the wartime incarceration is to measure what’s not there anymore. My training in American ethnic studies has taught me that history can be as much about absence as it is about presence. And I talk about ways of honoring the losses and the resilience of the Japanese Americans who returned to Tacoma and remade their lives here.

 

© 2024 Tamiko Nimura

Japantowns Seattle Tacoma Tacoma Japantown United States universities University of Washington 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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