Story Wonders: Tacoma’s Japantown

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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 historylink.org.

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.

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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.

 

 

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Wednesday Wonders:Mr. G the Gingerbread Man Goes to Japan Part 2

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When we last saw Mr. G on his trip, he discovered that people drive on the left in the island nation just before he enjoyed an apple–or rather he watched while the human ate the apple.

Today, I report on the rest of his adventures as told by tour guide Marci Kobayashi-Smith. These adventures took several days for our intrepid Mr. G.

Day 1

We went out for breakfast with the Gingerbread Man.

(They went to Denny’s in Japan!)

He looked over every page of the breakfast menu carefully.

Then we had fun taking pictures while we waited for the food to arrive.

He looked at both options first and then decided to share with Akira. You can see Akira is trying to teach him how to use chopsticks.

(Akira Kobayahi is tour guide Marci’s husband.)

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After breakfast Akira paid the bill and let the Gingerbread Man keep the change. He said he’s going to bring it back with him so Q can see how Japanese coins look.

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We took walk after breakfast and met someone very interesting but I’ll save that for later. Right now we’re driving to the nursing home to see Akira’s mom. Akira is helping the Gingerbread Man drive.

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Day 2

We have a lot to report today! First, I want to share some pics from yesterday. The Gingerbread Man (we’ve nicknamed him Mr. G) found some interesting things.

First, he found a big building just for karaoke. Inside there are many small rooms and people of all ages go in and rent the rooms and have fun singing. We told him it’s not so unusual. There are karaoke buildings like this all over Japan.

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Mr. G. also noticed there are a lot of poles and wires. You can see them here in this picture.

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In Japan, most of the telephone and electric wires are above ground. Mr. G said that in Puyallup most of the wires are underground. Is that true??

Even though there are many wires, there are still some beautiful streets. This street is lined with Gingko trees.

It was so pretty so we decided to take a walk. And we weren’t the only ones. Many people were out walking…

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We also found a flower shop, a grocery store with many bicycles parked out front and a Pizza Hut!!

Mr. G said he thinks there might be a Pizza Hut in Puyallup but he doesn’t eat pizza so he’s not sure. Have you seen delivery scooters like this in Puyallup?
Mr. G was really into the yellow leaves. He asked us to take many pictures…

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He saved a few leaves. You’ve probably seen Gingko trees before but just in case he’s going to bring back a couple of leaves to show you. Here is one.

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So you are probably getting tired of the yellow leaves, right? Well, on the way back home, we met someone really interesting. And, I’m not talking about the snowman. Take a look at this next picture. Can you guess what it is?

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Well how about this next picture? Look carefully and I bet you can figure it out!

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Did you figure it out? He is a police officer! The little corner office where he works is called a “koban” and in English everyone calls it a police box. It’s like a mini police station. Every neighborhood in Japan has one.

Usually there is only one or maybe two officers working at the Police Box. Sometimes you can see them out patrolling on their bicycles.
And one last view from our walk yesterday…

Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about the laundromat we visited. And, guess what? Mr. G. went out for sushi!

Day 3

Today Mr. G stayed home but I still haven’t shared some of the pics from yesterday…We went out for sushi. Instead of taking sushi that came around on the conveyor belt we ordered from the digital menu. A few minutes later it arrived on another conveyor belt right to our table. Then, Mr. G got really excited when we put the plates down the shoot. Every 5 plates we get a chance to win a prize and this time WE WON!!!

 

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But, after all that raw fish Mr. G wanted something different so we ordered grilled eel, tenpura and french fries! Yum!

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The french fries and plate prizes were a fantastic selling points for Quinton, too! He says he’d rather go on Mr.G’s trip than to Disneyland!

And that concludes the tour. Mr. G is somewhere on his way across the Pacific back to the Puyallup elementary school and Quinton’s class.

Wishing you peace and french fries for this holiday season,

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Wednesday Wonders: Ever Dream You are Back in Middle School?

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In my last piece for The News Tribune, I mentioned my middle school teacher Mr. Pat Keaton.

He emailed me a few days later, congratulated me on my writing and then mentioned that Dieringer was celebrating its 125th year as a school district.

Would I like to go on a tour of the old school?

Well, yes. Yes, I had been thinking of asking the construction company that now owns it whether I could tour it for quite some time.

So here is my wonder for this week: a tiny school built in 1928. My 8th grade class in 1985 graduated about 70 students, and we were the biggest class in the history of the place. In this article you can see a photo of the graduating class of 1931 with eight students.

It looks even smaller now that it did then.

Petersen Brothers did an excellent job of utilizing the space while restoring and maintaining a historical site.

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They even pulled out the projector from where it once sat above the gym. Apparently, the community used to gather to watch movies long before my time when there was a town of Dieringer, Washington tucked between Sumner and Auburn.

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Middle school was not my finest hour.

Here you can see the baseball field paved over. Right here between the gym and the railroad tracks, I did not make the cut for girl’s softball. (I am not sure what I was thinking. I barely knew which hand to put in the glove.)

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It fascinates me that I wanted to go back to the home of the Fighting Shamrocks.

Don’t get me wrong. You couldn’t get me to return as a student to the school of olden days even if you offered me an all-expense paid trip to the SCBWI conference in New York. I don’t mean those years did not wound me. Adolescence grabbed me by the shoulders and shook my soul until I wasn’t sure my head would ever stop spinning.

But, honestly, the tour gave me amazing perspective. The troubles I have now will someday look as distant as the experience with the softball team. Twenty years from now I may even visit the painful scenes of today with a sliver of nostalgia.

Go figure.

May you look at your past with wiser eyes and maybe even see today a little more softly-

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A recycled bit on the wonder series:

As a part of my 2016 blog revision, I started a new small weekly post I call ‘Wednesday Wonders.’

One of my favorite things about writing and other art forms is the way they open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.