Uncovering Tacoma’s Nikkei Past: The Japanese Language School Memorial

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The taiko players are warming up, their arms circling up in the air and back towards the drums. I’m standing on a gravel path, near a Japanese maple tree. There are metal lines running along the ground, which seems strange until I remember that I’m standing at the Prairie Line Trail, a converted railroad track that the University is transforming into a public park, similar to the High Line Park in New York City.

I’m happy to see a familiar face in the slowly gathering crowd. It’s Aya Hashiguchi Clark, a Japanese American actress and playwright who I recognize from social media. We’ve connected but hadn’t met in person until today. “Do you know people connected to the memorial?,” I ask her. “No, not really,” she says. “I’ve just been wanting to meet more Japanese people in Tacoma.” I know just what she means. Ever since I moved from California, and then from Seattle, I’ve been searching Tacoma for Japanese American community centers. Although the Tacoma Buddhist Temple’s Bon Odori is still going strong, I don’t know of many other events or places where Japanese Americans gather in Tacoma.

Close to two hundred people are starting to gather under and around a white canopy tent. They are bringing out more chairs for people to sit. Just in front of the taiko group there’s a podium and a small stage. The chancellor of UW Tacoma welcomes us, the taiko players open with a performance, and then there’s a song sung in Japanese. Some people are looking around for the singer, but no one materializes. Later in the ceremony we find out that the song was a recording of the Nihongo gakko school song, written by the school’s founder and principal, Masato Yamasaki. “In harmony,” the song goes, “let us cultivate and discipline our minds, to dedicate ourselves for the sake of the world and our fellow man.”

Unfortunately, the original building of the Japanese Language School is no longer standing. From 1911 to 1942, the school served its Japanese community as an after school program. Students learned to read and write in Japanese; they also learned Japanese history and culture. Because Principal Yamasaki was a prominent community leader, he was one of the first to be arrested. He died in 1943 at the Lordsburg, New Mexico incarceration center. His wife died in Tacoma shortly after the war, in 1946.

After World War II, the building stood mostly vacant for decades. The University of Washington Tacoma purchased the building in 1993, as part of the original footprint for its Tacoma campus. “Our intent was to find a tenant who could help refurbish the building for use until the campus developed up the hill and could integrate the building for academic functions,” said Michael Wark, Director of External Relations. “Despite extensive efforts, a tenant wasn’t found. When the building was cited as a hazard by the city in 2003, the university brought in consultants to evaluate the structure. They found the building could not be restored with historic integrity and recommended the heritage be preserved instead. At that time, the university committed to build a memorial.” Two professors at the University, Mary Hanneman and Lisa Hoffman, are also working on a book project that will compile oral histories from 40 of the Nihongo gakko students.

At the memorial unveiling, I introduce myself to Greg Tanbara, one of the community volunteers who spearheaded the project. (The other lead volunteer, Debbie Bingham, has also been involved in Tacoma memorial work, including the city’s Chinese Reconciliation Park.) His mother, Kimi Fujimoto Tanbara, was one of the students at the Japanese Language School. I asked him how it felt to be here at the completion of so much work: information-gathering, fundraising, education, design. “Well, it’s been a long project,” he muses. “It’s involved bits and pieces from my childhood, my adult life—and I’ve learned a ton.” One of the things he learned during the project is that Tacoma’s Nihongo gakko was one of the few Japanese language schools on the West Coast which was not affiliated with a Buddhist or Methodist organization. The founders, Masato and Kinu Yamasaki, were determined that the school serve the community as a stand-alone youth center. One of the former students, Ted Tamaki, said that the school was designed thus, in order to cultivate “oneness or togetherness in the student body.”

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We talk briefly about what Japantown once was, and how little of it is left. Greg tells me that many of the Tacoma residents were forcibly removed first to Pinedale Assembly Center, and then to Tule Lake and Minidoka after that. The community never returned to its prewar numbers. After the war, very few Nikkei returned—only, according to one source, one third of the 450 residents who had lived in Tacoma. I take a picture of Greg and one of his daughters, Eleanor—part of the memorial’s past, present, and future.

The memorial was designed by Japanese American sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, in collaboration with landscape architect Kenichi Nakano. “My Japanese side definitely influenced me on this one,” noted Tsutakawa at the ceremony. The memorial, he also noted, is reminiscent of the Japanese flag, a circle (“maru”) within a rectangle. It was chosen from a selection of four designs by an advisory board of former Japanese Language School students.

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“Maru,” Japanese Language School memorial sculpture by Gerald Tsutakawa.

On an emotional day, perhaps one of the highlights of the ceremony came when Hitoshi “Ted” Tamaki came to the stage, speaking on behalf of the Nihongo gakko students. “When I think about representing all of the students, it gives me shivers,” he told the assembled crowd. The feeling of community that the school cultivated was so strong that it reflected outward, he told the crowd. Many of the former students from the school kept in touch, despite wartime circumstances and dispersal. Indeed, students returned for a reunion in 2003, the year before the University had to demolish the building.

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Several of the remaining former students from the Japanese Language School pose with Gerry Tsutakawa, bronze sculptor and designer of the memorial.

The night before the ceremony, I am doing some research. I’ve checked out Ronald Magden’s history book, Furusato: Tacoma-Pierce County Japanese 1888-1977. I am studying a map, a pen-and-ink drawing of Tacoma’s Nihonmachi, a thriving community that at its peak in 1940 included over 180 businesses. Myura Grocery, Kashuya Hotel, Fugetsu-do, Hinode-Tei…and, Uwajima-ya. Uwajimaya, or “Waji’s,” is the large and well-known Asian American grocery and gift store, with branches around Seattle and Portland. (There are several Asian supermarkets in Tacoma, but they are either pan-Asian or Korean, rather than Japanese—and they are both far from the downtown core.)

Today’s gathering, then, has been bittersweet. We are gathering to celebrate the installation of a community memorial to Tacoma’s Nihongo gakko, the Japanese Language School. But some of us may also be grieving the Tacoma with a thriving Nihonmachi. Some of us may grieve the loss of the Tacoma that once was, and even the Tacoma that could have been.

In the Northwest morning, the taiko drummers continue to play; in the gray light, the bronze memorial gleams brightly.

For more information about the school:

http://www.tacoma.uw.edu/japanese-language-school-memorial/history
http://www.tacoma.uw.edu/japanese-language-school-memorial/photos-map-and-oral-history-project

This essay originally appeared at Discover Nikkei, as part of a yearlong series about being Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest. Tamiko would like to thank Yoko Nishimura, Project Manager, for the permission to reprint.