Tacoma Neighborhoods: Japantown (Nihonmachi) -- Thumbnail History

  • By Tamiko Nimura
  • Posted 10/26/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20177
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From the 1880s through the 1940s, Japanese immigrants created a vibrant Japantown (Nihonmachi) in downtown Tacoma. Crammed into a few blocks stretching from 17th Street near Union Station north to 11th Street, and from Pacific Avenue west to Market Street, the community included hotels; restaurants; barbers; dry cleaners; laundries; Japanese newspaper offices, churches, and temples; import shops; produce stands; and a Japanese-language school. The Issei (first-generation Japanese pioneers) organized themselves into unions and business associations that tracked registration and travel of local Japanese. Eventually, the community grew into 180 businesses at its peak in the 1930s. Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) grew up in a walkable, highly literate community filled with numerous ties to friends and to Japanese language and culture. Tacoma's entire Japanese American community was forcibly removed following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A small fraction of the pre-war community returned after World War II, but many more settled elsewhere. In the twenty-first century, Tacoma's "Japantown" exists largely in a memorial for the Japanese language school and in the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, with most of the historic Nihonmachi under parking lots or absorbed in the Tacoma Convention Center or the University of Washington Tacoma campus.


Although the Issei did not use the word "Nihonmachi" (Japantown) to refer to their enclave until 1915, Japanese have lived in Tacoma for considerably more than one hundred years. Japanese newcomers first arrived in the late 1880s, and soon began opening businesses in the city. It's unclear if the first Japanese business was a curio store on Railroad (now Commerce) Avenue, or a grocery store and restaurant. Soon afterward, several Japanese-owned cafes and restaurants opened. Businesses grew up in a concentrated area with barbershops, laundries, restaurants, import shops, produce vendors, and hotels. Japanese residents were wary of the "Tacoma method," which Tacoma residents had used to forcibly expel Chinese settlers just a few years earlier, and so they did not settle in the waterfront area formerly occupied by the Chinese.

Many Japanese men arrived as railroad workers, mill workers, or farm workers. Land laws in Japan prevented second and third sons from inheriting family estates, so many of these settlers came to seek their fortunes in the United States. Although some men arranged marriages to "picture brides," a number of Issei bachelors were able to travel back to Japan to participate in their marriage arrangements. After the U.S. and Japanese governments worked out the so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement" in 1907 and 1908, the Japanese placed limits on migration that prevented anyone other than parents, wives, and children of men already in the United States from emigrating to the U.S.

Eventually the settlers in Tacoma, as in several other major West Coast cities, created a vibrant community known as Nihonmachi. Though alien land laws and racially restrictive covenants prevented Japanese immigrants from owning land or property, some were able to make other arrangements. Some bought property in their children's names, since the children were American citizens, while others were able to lease property or land from Caucasians.

Community Development

The community grew in the late 1800s, despite anti-Japanese immigrant laws, exclusion leagues, and anti-Japanese sentiment at the state and federal levels. In 1892, some 30 "upper village" merchants organized to form the Tacoma Japanese Society (later the Tacoma Japanese Association). The Tacoma chapter, one of thirty such organizations in the United States, was created to administer the "Gentlemen's Agreement" between the United States and Japan. Registrants had to register with the group in order to travel to and from Japan, or to bring their families to the United States. By 1910, 63 Japanese business owners served a community of more than 1,000 Japanese railroad workers, farm laborers, and mill workers. Community members built the first Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church and Immigration House in 1907, and rented a meeting room in the Hiroshimaya Hotel as the beginnings of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Eventually the Tacoma Japanese Association became large enough to canvas funds for a nondenominational Japanese language school in 1912, hire Caucasian attorneys to fight on behalf of the Japanese community in the Washington State Legislature, and welcome Japanese consuls during official visits. By 1917, there were more than 150 Japanese-owned or operated businesses in Tacoma.

The immigrants and their children built a close-knit, bustling enclave in a relatively small area, mostly within an 8-block radius in downtown Tacoma. This highly walkable area meant that a close-knit community developed and played a cohesive role in Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) identity. Nisei growing up in Tacoma's Nihonmachi remembered the proximity of their Japanese friends and Japanese-owned businesses. Nisei Toshio Inahara (b. 1921) remembered his father's confectionery store as a place of comfort. The other main Japanese area, near Opera Alley, belonged to a "rougher" element, involving saloons, gangs, pimps, and prostitutes (Magden, 9-10). Ties of language, culture, and proximity helped to bind the community. Several Japanese-language newspapers were published, including the Takoma Jiho (Tacoma Times), Tacoma Japanese Weekly, and a branch of the Seattle-based Hokubei Jiji (Hokubei Times). Japanese American sports teams from Tacoma played other Japanese American teams as well as African American teams from Seattle.

The Great Depression brought failure to a few businesses -- 13 hotels, 7 laundries, 4 dry cleaners, and 3 restaurants. Several Japanese-owned florists and grocery stores moved to South Tacoma Way. Nevertheless, many Japanese businesses -- close to 180 -- managed to stay afloat. Fujimatsu Moriguchi (1898-1962) began his now-famous grocery business Uwajimaya in 1928, selling fish cakes from the back of his Tacoma truck. The community participated in downtown celebrations, participating in parades on the Fourth of July and a "Village of Nations" festival with Japanese dancing, kendo, and judo demonstrations. After significant fundraising efforts, community members established a permanent location for the Tacoma Buddhist Temple in 1931.

Wartime and Forcible Removal

As the 1940s dawned, the number of Japanese-owned enterprises had reached an all-time high of 181. The region's growing numbers of shipyard workers and the construction crew for the U.S. Army's McChord Field provided a boost to Nihonmachi's customer base.

Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought shock and confusion to the Japanese residents of Tacoma, as with many other Japanese communities in the United States. Issei community leaders, including the Japanese language school principal Masato Yamasaki (1873-1943), were arrested by the FBI. Sixty-five Issei-owned businesses placed advertisements pledging American loyalty in the two major English-language newspapers, the Tacoma News Tribune and the Tacoma Times. On December 14, 1941, Tacoma's mayor, Harry P. Cain (1906-1979) spoke publicly on behalf of the Japanese, the only mayor of a major West Coast city to do so.

Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized local military officials to issue exclusion orders mandating that both Japanese-born immigrants and Japanese American citizens on the West Coast be sent to inland confinement sites in remote, desolate locations. With little time to settle their personal and financial affairs, most Tacoma Japanese stored their belongings in the basements of the Japanese Language School, the Buddhist Temple, and the Whitney Methodist church. The language school became the "Japanese Community Center," the point of registration for most Tacoma Japanese residents before they were shipped to Pinedale, a temporary assembly center in California. From there, they were sent to one of two sites of incarceration: Minidoka, Idaho, or Tule Lake, California.

Postwar Decline

After the war ended, relatively few Japanese returned to Tacoma -- only 174 out of 872 residents. Some, like Uwajimaya's owner Fujimatsu Moriguchi, decided to relocate to Seattle. While in camp, some worried about a return to their hometown after reading reports of anti-Japanese sentiment in Tacoma's English-language newspapers. A few returned because they felt it was still home. Many who did so found that their belongings had been vandalized or looted.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of Japanese-owned businesses in Tacoma dropped sharply, despite the 1958 report of a city government urban renewal committee that marked historic Japantown as an important element in saving the downtown from urban decay. The largely Japanese congregation of the Methodist Church moved to Puyallup and other local congregations, selling the building to the University of Washington in Tacoma in 1999. (As of 2016, the building was still in use, as an instructional and work space for the university.)

By the 1970s, only a few main sites for gathering a Japanese community remained in the Tacoma area. One was the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, which still stands in 2016. In 1950, a group of concerned Issei met with Nisei leaders and created the Tacoma Nikkeijin Kai, a community-service organization that continues to meet at the temple. Another was the Whitney Methodist Church population, which continued to worship in Puyallup until 2016.

The largest community gatherings have been reunions organized by or for the former students of Japantown's Japanese language school. These Nisei students returned to Tacoma in 1977, 1983, 2003, and 2014, each time visiting the businesses and sites that they had known as children. Despite efforts in the late 1990s to preserve the language-school building and mark Japantown as a historic district, the University of Washington demolished the building in 2004, deeming it unsafe for occupancy. In its place, the university in 2014 erected a memorial statue, designed by Gerard Tsutakawa (b. 1947), to the language school; it also devoted research to documenting the experiences of the school's students. Along with a small number of descendants of Japantown residents still living in Tacoma, the language-school monument stands today as one of the few physical reminders of the city's historic Japantown.


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