Spokane's Japanese Community

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/08/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8048
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Japanese immigrants first arrived in Eastern Washington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, mostly as railroad workers and mine laborers. Many went back to Japan when the work ran out, yet a significant number stayed and settled in Spokane. Around 1910, the population of Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) reached about 1,000, many living in a crowded downtown block called Japanese Alley. The population declined to only about 383 by 1935 because many Japanese families sailed back to Japan and new immigration was banned.  Yet when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it marked the beginning of a population boom for Spokane's Japanese community, because Spokane was outside the coastal evacuation zone. A flood of Japanese Americans from Seattle and the West Coast, seeking to avoid being sent to relocation camps, arrived in Spokane, causing the population to at least triple. The war years were difficult for the Japanese American community, which was often shunned and distrusted by the mainstream population, even though a number of Spokane Japanese Americans served heroically during the war. After 1945, many families returned to their homes in Western Washington and Oregon, but a significant number remained in Spokane. Since then, the Japanese community has slowly been absorbed into the larger community, yet it continues to celebrate its heritage with annual Japan Week festivities and other cultural activities.

Working on the Railroad

In the 1880s and 1890s, the railroad and mine companies in the West attempted to solve their massive manpower needs by looking across the Pacific to Japan. They imported Japanese laborers by the thousands. Nearly every railroad camp in the Inland Northwest had a Japanese section, usually segregated from, for instance, the Irish and Italian sections. Some of these Japanese work camps even had their own makeshift bathhouses and Buddhist temples.

These young Japanese men worked for years in the Inland Northwest just to pay off their passage fare. They were often mistreated, and even, in a few instances, expelled or lynched. Many returned to Japan after they had finally saved up enough money to take home, but a significant number decided that their economic future was brighter in America's Northwest.

One of those was Kisaburo Shiosaki, a third son with no hope of ever inheriting a piece of the family's tenant farm in Japan. So in 1904 he signed up with the Oriental Trading Company of Seattle, a leading supplier of Japanese railroad labor, and took passage to America. He laid track in Montana and Canada before finally ending up as a worker in Spokane's Great Northern rail yards. In 1915, he sailed back to Japan, married a woman from his village, brought her back to Spokane and started a laundry in Hillyard, the section of town containing the rail yards. A number of other Japanese workers, brought in by the railroad to break a strike, also lived in Hillyard, many in old boxcars converted to houses.

However, most of the Japanese population lived in a few square blocks in downtown Spokane, variously called Trent Alley, Japanese Alley or Chinatown (even though it was far more Japanese in character than Chinese). This block was crammed with Japanese hotels, laundries, barbershops, apothecaries, grocery stores, and noodle restaurants. From 1909 to 1915, Spokane even had its own Japanese-language newspaper, The Spokane Times. A church called the Japanese Methodist Mission thrived. It became an important community center and evolved into the Highland Park United Methodist Church. A Buddhist congregation formed in 1945 and continues to this day.

Issei vs. Nisei: Generation Gap

Shiosaki's son, Fred Shiosaki, born in Hillyard in 1924, remembers that his parents made him attend a Japanese language school downtown so that he would not forget his Japanese heritage.

"There was this battle at home about whether we were going to speak Japanese or English," said Shiosaki. "We had to speak some Japanese, since neither my father or mother spoke a lot of English. ... (But) I never did learn to read or write Japanese" (Kershner, "American").

He and his other Nisei friends felt far more American than Japanese. Yet America had not proven to be particularly welcoming. In 1921, Washington had passed the Alien Land Law, barring Asians from owning land. Then the federal Immigration Act of 1924 entirely banned immigration from Japan. After that, the number of Japanese families in Spokane gradually declined. Many people returned to Japan, losing hope that their families would ever be able to join them in America. By 1935, Spokane had only 383 people of Japanese ancestry.

Racial intolerance remained a problem, even more so as international tensions with Japan increased in the 1930s. At one point, Washington Water Power Co., the region's electric power giant, felt it necessary to assure its customers that it employed no Japanese workers.

The War Years

Then, on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Spokane's small Japanese American community was immediately viewed with suspicion. The FBI arrested and briefly detained some Issei leaders. The FBI also detained and searched guests at a Japanese wedding party that night at Spokane's Desert Hotel. As the weeks went on, people of Japanese ancestry were barred from approaching certain sensitive installations, such as airfields. Some Japanese workers were fired from their railroad jobs.

White customers refused to patronize Japanese-owned businesses, such as the Shiosaki family's laundry. "We might as well have closed up and walked away," said Shiosaki, then a senior at Rogers High School. "For the first month or so, I thought we were going to starve to death" (Kershner, "American").

When Shiosaki returned to school he was relieved to find that "my friends were still my friends" (Kershner, "American"). Yet a few months later he was ordered to the principal's office. An FBI agent was waiting. The agent said they had reports that Shiosaki had been skulking around, taking photos. Shiosaki was the photographer for the school's annual and had been taking pictures of the school. He was told to desist, and the annual had to hire a professional photographer.

Meanwhile, the Japan-born mother of Spady Koyama, a Nisei and recent graduate of Spokane's Lewis and Clark High School, urged him to enlist in the U.S. Army. She told her son, "No matter what anybody says to you, this is your country" (Kershner, "Fighting").

So Koyama showed up at the Selective Service office in Spokane one month after Pearl Harbor. The man behind the counter looked at his face and said darkly, "Go home. We're at war, you know" (Kershner, "Fighting").

Koyama persisted and shortly afterward was recruited into military intelligence when the Army realized that Japanese-speaking Americans were a valuable asset as translators and interrogators. Koyama was born in Ferry County, Washington, in 1917, the son of a Great Northern section foreman, but had been sent back to Japan to live with relatives at age 5. He returned to Spokane to live with his mother at age 11. So, unlike many Nisei, Koyama was fluent in Japanese.

The Safe-Haven of Spokane

Meanwhile, Spokane's Japanese community suddenly swelled with newcomers. People from Western Washington and elsewhere on the West Coast arrived by the hundreds, hoping to avoid being sent to government internment camps. In early 1942, word had spread that the federal government planned to evacuate people of Japanese ancestry from "military zones" on the West Coast and send them to hastily constructed camps in places such as Idaho and Wyoming. Spokane was just outside the evacuation zone -- the closest city to Seattle deemed to be safe.

Seiko Edamatsu was one of the Seattle residents who looked at Spokane as a haven. Her family owned a hotel in Seattle's International District. On December 7, 1941, soldiers gathered on the streets of the International District. "We knew a lot of those boys," she said. "But all of the sudden, on that day, you felt like you were enemies" (Kershner, "Salad Days").

When the government made it clear that evacuation and internment camps were imminent, Edamatsu, only 22 at the time, told her father she didn't want any part of it. "If I am placed behind barbed wire fences, I think I'd be real bitter to my country," said Edamatsu, a Nisei. "I don’t want to be that way about my country" (Kershner, "Salad Days").

So she came up with a plan. She would go to Spokane for a scheduled Christian Youth Council Conference, and simply stay there. So she got off a train in Spokane in March 1942, alone and with no connections, and headed to an employment agency. Fortunately, she was hired right away as a "house girl" in the home of a Spokane attorney named John E. Blair, who turned out to be tolerant and generous. In fact, when the evacuation order finally arrived on the West Coast two weeks later, Blair took in the rest of Edamatsu's family, seven in all.

Similar scenarios were enacted all over Spokane, at least tripling the number of people of Japanese descent. However, these newcomers were not always welcomed, not even by the existing Japanese community. Edamatsu said they were considered a threat, because of the fear that it would prompt the government to extend the evacuation order to Spokane. That never happened.

Meanwhile, young Nisei men such as Shiosaki found that they had been classified 4C by their draft boards, for "enemy alien." This was galling because they were neither enemies nor aliens, but American-born citizens. Shiosaki finally got his chance to serve his country in 1943, when the U.S. Army formed an all-Japanese unit (with white officers) to serve in Europe. Shiosaki served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and his unit helped rescue the famous Lost Battalion near Strasbourg in 1944.

Meanwhile, Koyama was wounded on a beach at Leyte in the Philippines after serving as an interrogator at General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. He earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and later went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, retiring in 1970 as a colonel.

Recovering Lives

When the internment camps closed and the war ended in 1945, many Japanese Americans returned to their homes on the West Coast or simply went elsewhere to look for work. Many had lost everything. Yet a significant number, including Edamatsu, had developed roots in Spokane.  She had met a young Japanese American farmer from California who had also come to Spokane seeking haven. They married in 1944. When the war ended they stayed and farmed a small patch of land on the outskirts of Spokane. They later started their own successful business, Eddie's Salads, creating ready-to-eat salads using food grown on their own truck farm.

Returning soldiers, including Shiosaki, found it difficult to find work in Spokane because of the lingering anti-Japanese resentment. However, after earning a degree in chemistry at Gonzaga University in Spokane, he was finally able to find work as a lab technician for a local laboratory. He encountered fewer employment obstacles from that point on, becoming the city chemist for the City of Spokane and later a top manager with the Washington Water Power Co. -- the formerly Japanese-free company.

By the 1950s and 1960s, Japanese Alley was a thing of the past. Most of the Japanese community had dispersed throughout the city or into the suburbs. In 1973, Japanese Alley and Trent Alley were demolished in the urban renewal projects leading up to Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair.

Since then, the Japanese community has been assimilated into Spokane's larger community, largely through intermarriage. In 1973, the minister of Highland Park United Methodist Church estimated that 80 percent of the marriages he performed were mixed marriages.

Today, the original Issei generation is gone, and the Nisei generation is dwindling. Yet Spokane's Japanese American heritage is still celebrated every year with Japan Week, a citywide festival of Japanese culture. Highland Park United Methodist Church hosts an annual Sukiyaki dinner and cultural celebration. Other Japan Week festivities are centered at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute in Spokane, which hosts Japanese exchange students. Through these events and a series of oral history projects, Spokane's Japanese legacy remains alive.

Sources: "October 2006: Stories from the Inland Empire: Spokane, Washington," from Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, a digital archive (www.densho.org); Jim Kershner, "An American Story: Fred Shiosaki," The Spokesman-Review, April 15, 2001, p. F-1; Jim Kershner, The Spokesman-Review, "Salad Days at Last: Seiko Edamatsu," Ibid., November 8, 1999, p. A-1; Jim Kershner, The Spokesman-Review, "Fighting to Serve His Country: Spady Koyama," Aug. 14, 2005, page O3; Dan Hansen, The Spokesman-Review, "Continental Divide," Jan. 5, 2003, page F1; Jim Kershner, Spokesman-Review, "When Dragons Roamed Trent," August 14, 2005; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington state legislators pass the Alien Land Law in 1921" (by Heather MacIntosh), and "Japanese immigration to the Puget Sound region," (by David A. Takami) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 5, 2007).
Note: This essay was corrected on March 28, 2008, to state that a Buddhist congregation formed in Spokane in 1945, and on May 31, 2012, to correct the definitions of Issei and Nisei.

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