Story Wonders: Tacoma’s Japantown


The Japanese Language School Memorial on the University of Washington campus.

“I’m not from Tacoma and didn’t know there was a Japantown here until recently,” said writer and guide Tamiko Nimura. 

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived in and around Tacoma for the majority of my 40 plus years. I was born at Tacoma General. I even go to a church connected to Whitney Memorial, the one-time Japanese Methodist Episcopal church in the heart of Japantown.

I didn’t know, either.

About two years ago I stumbled on the history. Ever since I discovered Tacoma once had several blocks filled with businesses owned by Japanese immigrants and citizens, I’ve been trying to imagine the place. I’ve pieced the picture together in my own mind with historical records of the Japanese American Citizens League, the photo documents of the Northwest Room, and

When I was working at the downtown campus, I peered down the streets while driving up the hill off the 705 exit, wondering what used to be where.

About a year ago, I discovered Michael Sullivan with his Tacoma History blog and then somehow tumbled into a heartfelt post by Nimura. 

Then two weeks ago, I read of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the order that incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the U.S. without trial or recourse.

To commemorate this event, the University of Washington and the Broadway Center in Tacoma put together a play called Nihonjin Face and then a guided tour (my mouth dropped wide open when I read this!) of Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

By coincidence, I already had tickets for the play with the youth group from my church.

All I had to do was race from one end of the town to the other to make it to the tour on time.

Of course, I raced. 

When I arrived breathless at the starting point, I noticed many other interested tourists wanting to see where Japantown once rested on the side of Tacoma’s steep hill. I never counted heads but estimate thirty to fifty of us wandered around while both Nimura and Sullivan pointed to where the remaining buildings stood and to a grassy knoll. In that spot, the Japanese Language School taught a whole generation of children born in the United States before the incarceration.

We started at the corner of the university nearest The Swiss. From there, we could stare up at the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church, now owned by the U.W. and used as an art studio. The congregation never fully recovered after Camps Harmony and Minidoka.


Frederick Heath designed this church along with many other sites familiar to the area, including Stadium High School down the road.

Next we moved down Fawcett Street and across the hill to the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Across from this once stood the Japanese Language School. After Pearl Harbor, the teachers faced arrest and the locals came to be sorted for removal.

(I missed on-site photos of this because I held the iPad instead here. Once I blogged about the mural behind the temple, though.)

We spent more time hearing about the buildings lost to the wrecking ball, including the Lorenz Building and the Hiroshima-ya Hotel. Sullivan and Nimura told stories of Chinese Americans wearing “I am Chinese” buttons to explain their right to stay in the area during the war and then went on to tell of one of the greatest community losses from the incarceration.

A massive parking garage now squats on the the corner of C and 13th. This is the former location of The Crystal Palace, designed by the same architect who built Pike’s Place Market in Seattle.

Here vendors from every corner of the area sold wares much like what still happens in Seattle. The freshest produce came from the Japanese American farmers in the Fife Valley, Sullivan told us. Months after the farmers faced life in the Puyallup Fairgrounds, the market closed and became barracks for soldiers.

I’m not sure how to end this post except to say that two years ago, when I started reading about the history in my backyard, I had no idea it would become so painfully relevant in 2017. I’m encouraged that so many of us turned out to learn what I wish we had known all along–what I wish still stood vibrant and alive perched on Tacoma’s hill.

I think now of all the other multicultural treasures we have and dream of keeping them thriving in our neighborhoods. I think we have enough memorials.



Finding Lotus Flowers in Tacoma


Mural behind the Tacoma Buddhist Temple

Not too long ago I found a post from a shirttail relative on my Facebook page. My father’s cousin’s son (I think that means he’s my second cousin) posts a variety of things from science tidbits to grammar funnies and photography. One day he posted a mural in progress that caught my imagination.

I shared it on Facebook and many others liked it, too. Watching it grow in the pictures my cousin posted, I began to wonder exactly where I might find this wonder created with a lift and spray paint. I work downtown and could tell from the address that it was somewhere next to the apartments where I teach. The day I saw it completed, I decided to leave a little early to have a look.

The first time I had no luck. I knew I was on the right street but saw nothing like the giant octopus with the lady and lotuses. All I found were a few old brick churches with no paint in sight. Googling it again that night to check the address, I confirmed what I already knew: I was in the right area. While searching for it electronically, I did, however, discover an entire murals project I hadn’t known existed. I’ve written before about my love for Tacoma in spite of her blemishes, but I think I love more the people out there improving her with their buckets of sprayed on color.

The Tacoma Murals Project is working to improve the city by putting up murals with the help of artists working together with communities. They finished 15 from 2010 to 2012 according to their website. The mural I was searching for by Chelsea O’Sullivan on 17th and Court D was one of 6 new murals according to the News Tribune. I had a delightful time looking at the website with the pictures of places transformed by art as I tried to figure out where the lady with the lotus blossoms was hiding.

Driving back the next morning, I discovered O’Sullivan’s work was down an alley on the backside of one of the churches I had seen on the first day. The church is actually the Tacoma Buddhist Temple — it’s plain front side sits at the address of 1717 Fawcett Avenue listed on the Facebook page.  I took pictures in that alley and stood soaking in the sight I had only ever seen on a screen before. A self-guided tour of these project murals might be in my near future because finding that art hiding nearby felt like discovering gold in the neighborhood where I work. Blessings on those who bring these joys into the world and thank goodness for shirttail relatives who keep up with these things.


Cherry Blossoms flowing over and around the side of a building.


A Pacific Octopus


Lady with lotuses.


Full picture minus the octopus blocked by a jeep.