Little Italy. Chinatown. Japantown. These ethnic enclaves — communities within larger American cities — were the centers of immigrant life for many newcomers. Seattle’s International District included what was known as Nihonmachi or “Japantown”, located east of 4th Ave. between Jackson and Yesler, and along Main to 7th. Vestiges of this once thriving community are apparent from the businesses that still carry original storefronts, and buildings such as the Panama Hotel where a community bathhouse still remains.
Just beyond Nihonmachi stands the Wing Luke Museum, housed in what was the East Kong Yick Building. In the building’s former hotel rooms, the exhibition: “Vintage Japantown: Through the Lens of the Takano Studio” — running through February 2012 — displays a plethora of memorabilia and photographs that capture the daily lives of Seattle’s early Japanese immigrants. Meticulously assembled and researched by Exhibits Manager Michelle Kumata, the artifacts are accompanied by captions containing personal anecdotes and historical detail.
The Takano Studio opened around 1920. Its original owner, Tay Takano, sold the business to his apprentice Henry Miyake in the late 1920’s. Those who still hold ties to the community can recognize familiar faces in these photographs, says Kumata. These faces are seen in photos of social clubs, church organizations, fraternities and sororities. Children attended the Nihongo Gakko (Japanese Language School) and received art and performing arts instruction. The Japanese Baptist Church was founded in 1899, soon followed by churches of other denominations. Today the Seattle Buddhist Church remains a community hub for services, local events and classes.
But Seattle’s Japanese American community extended beyond the confines of Nihonmachi. The neighborhoods of Green Lake, Lake Union, Bellevue and the White River Valley included farms, grocery stores, produce markets and other businesses. As early as 1912, produce from these farms was sold at Pike Place Market.
In one photo caption, Kazuko (Uno) Bill, daughter of farmer Kinuta in South Park, described the farms from this time: “We were a farming family. There was a small farming community of Japanese in the South Park area. The farms extended from East Marginal Way to the Duwamish River just outside the then city limits of Seattle. The area was owned by Joe Desimone, and rented to the Japanese. Since the Isseis were not allowed [by law] to own or rent property, it was in the name of an older Nisei, in our case, James Nobuyama. The area was across the highway from Boeing Field and when Boeing expanded we had to move.”
Another anecdote by Roberta Tamura recounts memories of his grandmother Sawa Beppu, who worked as a midwife. She was part of a community of Japanese midwives that delivered babies and provided post-natal care. Beppu had delivered hundreds of babies in the Japanese American community.
The Takano photographs portray a comparatively idyllic period in the history of Japanese Americans prior to World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Theodore Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066. As a result, the numerous Nihonmachis that sprouted on the West Coast during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were left nearly vacant as Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps and lost much of their worldly possessions.
Vintage Japantown provides a unique window into the Nihonmachi community. The photographs seem to convey a sense of belonging, a strong desire to establish roots, as if to say: “We were here and we thrived.” This feeling of home is perhaps the greatest attraction to Seattle’s International District and the spirit it represents.