Reclaiming the Lost History of Tacoma’s Japantown

On a sunny day in Tacoma in 1935, a young Japanese man might wake up in the hotel run by his mother in downtown Tacoma while his dad works in a sawmill down on the tideflats, pick up an apple from one of the many Japanese fruit stands on his way to Stadium High School, then head back downtown to attend two hours of Japanese Language School and make plans to go down to Tokyo Beach on the weekend, assuming he didn’t have to work at one of the handful of markets down on South Tacoma Way. This young man would have been taught not only the Japanese language at the school, but also Japanese culture and the fact that though his heritage is Japanese, he is by birthright, an American first and his every action is not simply his behavior, but a reflection of the entire Japanese American community. This is a world that existed in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington and I did not know anything about it until I read Lisa M. Hoffman and Mary L. Hanneman’s new book, Becoming Nisei: Japanese American Urban Lives in Prewar Tacoma

I knew nothing about it because in 1942 this community was destroyed forever by FDR’s Executive Order 9066 which put coastal Japanese in concentration camps and scattered their communities. In 2004 the Tacoma Japanese Language School (TJLS) building was demolished to make way for more space for the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington. Hoffman and Hanneman recognized that a piece of history was being lost and sought to excavate and preserve the history of that building and the individuals who lived their lives around it.

What makes Becoming Nisei so compelling is that the authors are not content to simply label individuals in the community and instead recognize that the experience of life is a fluid one and that people and cultures change over time. This coupled with their focus on the physical space in which this history occurred results in what feels like a holistic anthropology in which the focus of the community is brought into context. 

After reading Becoming Nisei, I was intrigued and inspired. I had questions about the authors, their research, and their approach to dredging up a piece of Tacoma history that had been intentionally erased. Lisa M. Hoffman and Mary L. Hanneman were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules at the University of Washington to indulge me. Here they are:

– Can you both tell us about your backgrounds and how you became interested in this project?

Lisa: I am trained as a cultural anthropologist and have done the majority of my research in China, but I also have explored issues in the US as well.  Much of my work is focused on the relationship between subjectivity and spatiality, or people-making and place-making.  So, when I heard that the TJLS was being torn down and how it was a central institution and place for the prewar Japanese American community, I was intrigued by the spatial questions related to this social history.  That is why I became interested in the project.  As Mary and I did more research, my own understanding of what it meant to “become Nisei” became much more nuanced.

Mary: My Ph.D. is in modern Japanese history, ca. 1850-early 1900s.  I am interested in Japan’s modernization and how the process of industrialization and military modernization in the late 19th century impacted Japanese ideas about their national identity and national character.  My own interest in the project evolved, but I was interested in questions about how the Japanese immigrant experience of going to a new place mirrored the ways in which Japan as a nation also found itself in a new place, a new world, after it emerged from centuries of national isolation in the 1860s—and faced a sense of “Now what?” and “Who are we?  What do we want to become?”

– What was the most difficult part of researching Becoming Nisei?

LISA: The most difficult part was how long it took to get this book completed.  We are deeply regretful that more of the Nisei are not able to read it.

MARY: Indeed, the biggest obstacle was just being able to focus on the project together—there were many interruptions over the years.  The “easiest” part was interviewing the Nisei, as they were wonderfully open to the project, though looking back on our interviews, there are many things I think we would have/could have done differently, including what questions we asked.

– The Nisei are often called ‘the bridge’, your book emphasizes the concept of ‘bridging’. Explain this difference and how this approach to depicting these individuals influenced the project.

MARY: The interviews and the knowledge and insights we gained from them are central to the book and what we as a team were able to do in the book.  The idea of bridging I think is something that became more and more apparent to us as we grappled with the interviews, what the Nisei were telling us, and how they described their lives and views—they were not a “bridge” in the sense of being at some distinct points Japanese and at other distinct points American—but this was an on-going process of integrating dynamic elements of themselves and all the influences around them.

LISA: As Mary notes, the term “bridge” has been used extensively to describe Nisei – that is, they were expected to be a bridge between Japan and the US.  Yet as we grappled with the ongoing negotiations over identity that the Nisei described in their narratives, we found the term bridge to be too static, like a piece of infrastructure or single line between two distinct points (i.e., Japan and the US). This approach also tends to reproduce ideas of assimilation and acculturation of immigrants, which we wanted to critique.  Rather, we wanted a term that was better able to convey the contested, contingent, and processual aspects of identity formation for the Nisei.  This term also has room to account for the Nisei’s own agency, suggesting a more layered and dynamic understanding of becoming Nisei. 

– What information did you look for, but were you unable to find?

MARY: For me, since so much of the research that historians do is text-based, documents-based, I was frustrated in particular not to be able to find anything that was clearly and definitively written by the Japanese Language School principal, Masato Yamasaki, who emerged as a central figure in the community.  We were able to piece together a lot about him from various sources, but I would have liked to have been able to hear directly from him.  He is a compelling character to me, seems very admirable in so many ways—what made him tick??

LISA: Also, as we went back over the interview narratives, we wished we had more specific family background information.  There was inconsistency in terms of what was remembered by each interviewee and having other written documents, perhaps in the Japanese Association archival materials, would have been great.  

– When approaching a piece of ‘lost history’ like this, what are some considerations you feel are often overlooked?

LISA: This is an interesting question for a couple of reasons.  First, I think that people often don’t consider the structural and systemic practices that have produced these erasures. It is not simply that development happened or that a building ended up in a state of disrepair.  Rather, we wanted to emphasize that anti-Asian legislation, like the alien land laws in the 1920s, along with wartime incarceration produced such a landscape.  In addition, settler colonial logics of land-taking and elimination are so ingrained into urban processes that they support this kind of collective amnesia.  

MARY:  I think something important that is overlooked is the fact that the people who lived in the past had lives that were as important, as varied, as joyful, as screwed up, as filled with hope, regret, fear, uncertainty, etc., etc. as our own lives.  We see them as one-dimensional because we simplify and essentialize as we try to understand.  In a way, the idea of “becoming Nisei,” and “bridging” tries to overcome that tendency towards one-dimensionality.  

– What are some ways that the people of Tacoma can help preserve and promote Japanese American history?

MARY:  First of all, we are very glad that people are as interested in the book as they are—it shows that people feel a deep connection to this place and, I think, a sense of responsibility to remember and honor what has gone before.  Already on the UWT campus there are storyboards about the Tacoma Japanese Language School and the sculpture, “Maru” by Gerard Tsutakawa (who has family connections to the TJLS) that commemorate the school. But I’d love to see some plaques in the sidewalks along Broadway, for example, that commemorate some of the Japanese businesses that used to be in the city. Someone in one of the groups that we gave a presentation to suggested naming Court C “Yamasaki Way.”  Something like that would be a nice memorial, but also a reminder to people to be aware of the layers of history and human contributions to the city that are no longer visible.   

LISA: Also the work of activists like Tamiko Nimura is really important.  She has created an app that takes you on a walking tour of Nihonmachi, for instance.  This kind of real-time, embodied experience is important and can help promote action by others.  So participating in such activities is one thing. We also hope to store these interviews and other materials with the UW Libraries and ideally have public access to them.  We also hope this leads to an online presence that would let people add information, photos, and memories—being a part of that public history could be great as well. (We just need funding to get that website done!)

– What are you working on next?

MARY: There was so much information that ended up having to be left out of the book—Lisa and I are thinking about and talking about writing some academic articles that might utilize some of that material.  Otherwise, for me personally, my future projects are in comparative Japanese and Indian nationalisms, so related, but a new extension of my thoughts on transnationalism.

LISA: Yes, as we continue to go back over all of the material we have, Mary and I have felt there is more to say, especially in relation to structural forgetting and logics of settler colonialism in the urban.  We expect to have a few more articles on this material.  Separately, I also am moving on to other work that extends my questions about the interplay of subjectivity and spatiality, but now through engagement with genomic research and notions of Seattle as a “collaborative” ecosystem for such work. 

I want to thank Lisa and Mary for joining me and sharing their passion and their expertise on this fascinating piece of history. Becoming Nisei: Japanese American Urban Lives in Prewar Tacoma is published by the University of Washington Press and is available in independent bookstores and online.

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