Walking through Tacoma’s once forgotten Japantown

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Tacoma historian and Artifacts Principal Michael Sullivan (left) and writer/historian Tamiko Nimura (right) led a walk through Tacoma’s Japantown last week as part of Downtown on the Go’s annual summer walking series. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

A walk of just over a mile in downtown Tacoma shined light on the sunny times and dark clouds of the city’s history.

More than 200 people strolled through the heart of Tacoma as Downtown on the Go hosted a tour of Tacoma’s historic Nihonmachi “Japantown” with historian Michael Sullivan, and writer Tamiko Nimura last week as part of the agency’s summer walking tours to promote transportation alternatives. 

Tacoma’s Japantown encompassed roughly what is now the borders of the University of Washington-Tacoma. The vibrant community spanned Pacific Avenue and Market Street from South 11th to South 17th streets between the mid-1880s and beginning of World War II and was home to grocery stores, cafes, boarding houses, churches, schools and portrait studios.

“Some of Tacoma’s best photographers were Japanese,” Sullivan said, noting that their images not only capture their subjects but provide researchers with records of the City of Destiny’s early years. 

Tacoma’s Japantown, which was located around Union Station, was once home to thousands of residents who ran hotels, cafes, vegetable stands and grocery stores during the years before World War II and that resulted in their internment in relocation centers around the West Coast. Photos courtesy of Washington State Historical Society

The neighborhood formed naturally, since Tacoma was an international hub even back before the turn of the last century as ships to and from Asia came and went through Commencement Bay. The Northern Pacific Railroad’s tracks to the waterfront connected Asia with the rest of the nation. Tacoma became the first port in the nation for Japanese immigrants, so it seemed only logical that a neighborhood sprung up right outside the rail hub of Union Station. The city’s Japanese-American population peaked around 1920 with about 1,500 residents in a city of 100,000 people. It was the largest Japantown, compared to the overall size of the city, in the nation.

The march of progress and time have largely removed many of the buildings that made up the neighborhood, but two significant buildings remain, the Tacoma Buddhist Temple and the Whitney Church.

The rising population of Japanese immigrants in Tacoma in the late 19th and early 20th century grew to the point that services outgrow the backrooms of grocery stores and demanded a dedicated space. The funeral services for three Japanese Americans who died saving their families from a boiler fire in 1918 provided the spark to form the first Buddhist Church in Tacoma. A church opened less than a year later on a street-level hall in the Columbia Hotel, which was located along Market Street. It quickly proved too small. That led to the construction of the current church, at the corner of South 17th Street and Fawcett Avenue, which opened a decade later and holds services to this day. Residents of Tacoma’s Japantown raised money to build the Whitney Methodist Episcopal Church in 1929, a generation after the congregation formed in 1907. The church served not only as a house of worship but as a community center for the shopkeepers and restaurateurs who often lived above their shops. The building gained its name from Nettie Whitney, a teacher who volunteered to teach English there and helped raise money for its operations. She also helped the residents of Japantown during one of the darkest periods of the neighborhood’s – and the city’s – history.

The outbreak of World War II led to Executive Order 9066 that forced residents of Japanese ancestry from their homes and into relocation centers. Tacoma’s Japantown became a ghost town almost literally overnight. More than 700 Japanese Americans left their homes and shops on May 17 and 18 of 1942 and rode the railroad to live out the war in internment camps.

Many left the belongings they couldn’t carry with them in the basement of the church, which Whitney was among a group of people who watched over the church until their friends returned. Only a fraction of them ever did. Japantown became a historical footnote that is only now being remembered and honored.

Japantown

Anyone interested in taking their own walking tour around Tacoma’s Japantown can download the mobile app Tacoma Japantown Walking Tour on their Apple and Android devices. Information about future downtown walks can be found at downtownonthego.org.

Tacoma Japanese-American Day of Remembrance will be held at 4 p.m. on May 17 at the Washington State History Museum to commemorate the anniversary of the unconstitutional mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. This third-annual event is free and open to the public. More information can be found at washingtonhistory.org.

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