Japanese Language School opens in Tacoma on May 21, 1912.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/19/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5074
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On May 21, 1912, the Tacoma Japanese Association opens a Language School for the children of the community. The school opens at 411 S 15th Street in Tacoma, with 13 pupils in attendance. The teacher is Kuni Yamasaki, who moved from Seattle to Tacoma to teach at the school. The children attend the language school for an hour a day after attending the public school. The purpose is to learn the Japanese language -- reading, writing, and calligraphy, and to learn Japanese tales, customs, and culture. Pre-school children take classes in singing and do handicraft activities. They play, just as in other kindergartens, and they begin learning the Japanese alphabet.

Japanese Ways and Things

A history of the Japanese community in Tacoma, published by the Tacoma Japanese Association in 1917, and translated by James Watanabe in 1988, describes the goal of the school. Besides basic education studies:

"... there are subjects ... such as karuta (matching poem cards), declamation, etc. Other benefits include exposing the children to Japanese cultural activities such as graduation exercises, Kigensetsu Ceremony (ceremony celebrating the coronation of Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan), Imperial birthday celebration, etc. Besides learning the Japanese language and culture, they also learn to socialize with one another. Also in February 1914 a 'magic lantern' was purchased and occasionally the 'magic lantern' society would meet to show subjects relating to Japanese history and moral training ..." (History of the Japanese in Tacoma, p. 58).

The object of the school was to teach the children Japanese "ways and things." The parents brought Japanese objects, such as bamboo flower vases, sandals and straw mats, and wallhangings.

By 1914, enrollment increased to 27. The school was crowded and required new space. Also there was disagreement within the Tacoma Japanese Association about the importance of the school. On August 12, 1914, the Association voted to make the school separate from the Association. The School Support Society was formed and elected officers. They worked hard to raise funds and in March 1915 moved the school to a new building at 510 S 15th Street.

A Thriving Community

At this time (1915-1917) Tacoma had a substantial Japanese American community. About a third of the laborers in the lumber industry were Japanese (about 1,300 workers). Japanese-owned businesses included 5 grocery stores, a Japanese language newspaper (Tacoma Jiho Newspaper, started 1912), 24 laundries, 14 hotels, 6 restaurants, and 17 barbershops.

Religious organizations included the Japanese Baptist Church, the Japanese Methodist Church, and the Japanese Buddhist Church. In nearby Fife, an agricultural district, Japanese farmers cultivated more than 700 acres of land, growing vegetables for the nearby communities.


History of the Japanese in Tacoma translated from the Japanese by James Watanabe (Pacific Northwest District Council, Japanese American Citizens League, [1917] 1988).

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