Tacoma’s lost Japantown rediscovered in guided tour
“An entire neighborhood, erased in a bat of an eye.”
That’s how local historian Michael Sullivan and writer Tamiko Nimura describe what happened to Tacoma’s Nihonmachi — or Japantown — which Sullivan says reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the thriving community was effectively erased from Tacoma’s landscape. In the fervor of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which sent Tacoma's Japanese residents to remote confinement sites.
Specifically, May 17 and 18, 1942 are days that will live in Tacoma infamy. Over the two days, more than 700 Japanese Americans were forced to leave the city. Only one in seven ever returned.
“Echoes certainly stretch far into today,” Nimura observed.
Is history repeating itself?
“As we’re speaking today, the Supreme Court is debating the constitutionality of what’s been called the Muslim ban or the travel ban,” Nimura said last week. “We’re living in an era of anti-immigrant rhetoric where thousands of people … are living under the fear of deportation, as first-generation Japanese Americans were also fearing.”
Sullivan calls what happened in Tacoma "a sad ending to a legitimate success story about America."
“The fact that we lost an entire neighborhood, not just an ethnic minority group but an entire bite out of the city … due to a decision that directly affected civil rights is a big story,” he said.
It’s also a story that more current Tacoma residents should be familiar with, which is exactly what Sullivan and Nimura are hoping to do this week.
Shining a needed light on this often forgotten or overlooked chapter of Tacoma’s past is one of the motivations behind Wednesday’s Walk Tacoma tour of Tacoma’s Japantown.
The free, one-mile jaunt, which Sullivan and Nimura will lead, will explore an area of downtown that was once the cultural epicenter of Tacoma’s Japanese American community. The walk will explore an area surrounding Union Station, between Pacific Avenue and Market Street.
By 1920, Sullivan said Tacoma had a Japanese American population in the thousands — most living downtown. As a railroad and seaport city, Tacoma also had a “floating population” of migrant workers and other laborers, Sullivan said, putting the number of Japanese Americans filling the streets of Tacoma at 3,000 people “on any given day.”
They worked at a hotel, shops, restaurants and newspapers, Sullivan said, and frequented barbershops, laundries, churches, temples and a Japanese Language School. At its height, Tacoma’s Japantown was home to some 180 businesses.
“Our Japantown, on just per capita in terms of relative to the size of the city, was the largest Japantown in the country,” Sullivan said. “It was a major part of our downtown.”
Today, unfortunately, most of these physical landmarks are gone, which adds an extra challenge for historians trying to bring it back to life for walk participants.
“Because we have so little physically left … I found that a lot of folks in Tacoma, who grew up in Tacoma even, had very little idea about what happened here,” Nimura said. “I lived in Tacoma for ten years and had no idea that we had such a vibrant Japantown and such an amazing community.”
Some architectural reminders remain. The tour will visit the Whitney building — built in 1929 and home to the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church — and the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, down the street, home to Tacoma’s first Buddhist congregation.
More than physical locations, however, Wednesday’s walk will help participants visualize and appreciate a once vibrant piece of this city that was lost to bigotry and fear. Though some institutions and leaders spoke out against the forcible removal of the city’s Japanese citizens — most notably mayor Harry P. Cain, who became the only mayor of a major West Coast city to take such a stand — much of the city stood by and watched it all happen.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s found in this regrettable silence and inaction.
Today, that feels like a teaching that’s as applicable as ever.
“Tacoma was not just a bystander for this. In many ways, the removal of the Japanese in Tacoma, the way it played out, was as dramatic as anywhere,” Sullivan said. “We literally had a neighborhood that surrounded a train station, and on a given day an entire neighborhood ... walked right through a familiar building and walked onto a railroad siding and gave up their liberty.
“It is just absolutely an astonishing thing to think about, and an important thing to remember.”
Even more, it’s a chapter to learn from and never repeat.