This is a collaborative project between the AHC and the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. The project was awarded a grant from the Telling the Full History Fund program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see a full list a grant awards) and made possible through the National Endowment for the Humanities’ American Rescue Plan Humanities Grantmaking for Organizations.
Through the lens of architecture, this project tells the full history of Japanese Americans in Portland, OR during the 20th century through a multi-part project: an interactive digital storytelling map and walking tour programs for adults and older youth that explore underrecognized commercial, civic, and cultural sites associated with the Japanese community. The project considers the historic built environment as it reflects racism and discrimination, inequity and justice, experienced by Japanese Americans.
Portland’s Japantown, or Nihonmachi, is a fragile district that over the long 20th century has seen successes and challenges. For half a century it was a vibrant area for Japanese in Portland, Oregon, and Washington until its growth was abruptly halted by the forced removal of Japanese from the West Coast during WWII. It is relatively unknown compared to Nihonmachi on the West Coast like Los Angeles or San Jose. National Register-listed sites in or adjacent to this ten-block area comprise one of only two designated landmarks in Oregon related to Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural heritage. New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District is Portland’s only National Register district listed primarily for cultural historical importance (rather than architectural importance or civic history). Yet new development threatens the district’s historic status. It places added import on preserving this history, as seen in the impending demolition of the c. 1905 Yamaguchi Hotel operated by Japanese and used by a prominent Japanese midwife for years.
Early settlement in Japantown began in the late 1880s and by the 20s and 30s it was a thriving community hub, home to cultural and social service institutions and a range of professional and retail goods. The over 100 Japanese businesses included hotels and apartments, tailors, restaurants, barbershops, laundries and baths, groceries, newspapers, candy shops, pool halls, drugstores, and more.
Lesser known is the significant Japanese American population in the area southwest of downtown. Portland’s busy Front Avenue was renamed Naito Pkwy in 1996 after civic leader Bill Naito because of the Japanese Americans who lived and worked here.
While economically self-sufficient, Portland’s Japanese faced discrimination, prohibited from owning land and barred from becoming U.S. citizens. The legal treatment of the Japanese during the 1920s, 30s and 40s was an effort to rid Portland and Oregon of all Japanese. This heightened after Pearl Harbor when Japanese in Portland and the entire West Coast—both immigrants and U.S. citizens by birth—were incarcerated for an indefinite period.
In Portland, young lawyer Minoru Yasui (Oregon’s first licensed Japanese American attorney) gained national prominence when he challenged the wartime curfew imposed on “all persons of Japanese ancestry” by intentionally seeking arrest by walking the streets of Japantown. Convicted of violating curfew, he served nine months in solitary confinement. His was the first case to test the constitutionality of military orders applied to U.S. citizens.
Fewer than half of Japanese Americans returned to Japantown after the war owing to civic organizations and politicians working to prevent their return to Oregon. Fighting decades of prejudice, loss and erasure, much of Portland’s Japantown is lost–but much still exists. This project takes a step to preserve and raise awareness of the extant sites, recognize those that are gone, and in doing so prevent future loss of architecture, cultural memory, and identity of the Japanese American community, past and present.