Portland’s Nihonmachi: Lost to Discrimination but Persevering in Time
By Cameron Ansley
Tamaki Fukuda’s family was a part of a larger migration from Japan to Oregon during the 1890s to 1920s. According to Henry Sakamoto, many of these individuals were employed on railroads, farms, and in the forests, creating a demand for housing as well as other domestic services. One prominent and long-standing community that met these demands was that of Portland’s Nihonmachi, also known as Japantown. According to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO), Nihonmachi was located in Portland, near the Willamette River and north of West Burnside Street. Encompassing about 25 blocks, Nihonmachi stood as a hub for the Japanese American community and was home to many businesses and extracurricular activities.
In a collaborative story map project with the Architectural Heritage Center, the JAMO introduces some of these businesses: the Oshu Nippo (Daily News), Teikoku Store, the Merchant Hotel, Matsubu Bath & Laundry, Nakata Brothers Store, Mikado Hotel & Bathhouse, and the Yamaguchi Hotel. Many of these businesses were family-owned and served as the owners’ homes too. Specifically, hotel owners and their families would occupy some of their rooms, while other businesses would have living spaces in the back (Sakamoto, 2023). The Nakata Brothers Store primarily sold fresh produce while the Teikoku store provided postal services and money transfers to Japan alongside their sale of groceries (JAMO & AHC, 2023). Bathhouses like Matsubu and Mikado provided a clean and relaxing bathing experience while maintaining the traditional Japanese style of bathing. The Merchant Hotel was considered the heart of Nihonmachi through its perseverance and support of locally-owned businesses, while the Yamaguchi hotel housed long-term tenants and supported the community by providing midwifery care for women being neglected by hospitals. The Oshu Nippo served as the main, if not the only, Japanese American newspaper that printed in both English and Japanese and covered a wide range of topics including politics, economics, history, poetry, religion, medicine, and sports as affirmed by the JAMO’s Oshu Nippo Translation Project (JAMO & AHC, 2023).
Due to the presence of numerous family-owned businesses and the arrangement of up to four families on each block, the sense of camaraderie among Japanese Americans in Nihonmachi was immense. Through social activities, Japanese Americans were able to come together and support one another despite the growing hate against them. Some of these activities included attending Katei Gakuin (North Japanese School), learning judo at Obukan Judo, attending the Portland Buddhist Church, and becoming an active member of the Nihonjin-kai (Japanese Association of Oregon) (JAMO & AHC, 2023). As opposed to American children, Nihonmachi’s Japanese American youth would attend public school and then Katei Gakuin, every day during the week. Katei Gakuin served as a Japanese language school, teaching the youth how to read and write hiragana and katakana, two of Japanese’s alphabets, while also implementing Japanese cultural values into their curriculum. In their spare time, these kids also had the option to learn judo at Obukan Judo, which intended to “help the youth strengthen their mind, body and moral character” (JAMO & AHC, 2023). On the weekends, Japanese American families could attend sermons held at the Portland Buddhist Church and engage in social and cultural activities such as weddings, festivals, and potlucks. The Nihonjin-kai acted as both a social club and a Japanese American advocate for the community through its operation of the Free Employment Bureau, hosting of Japanese American Citizens League meetings, establishment of Japanese language classes at the University of Oregon and YMCA, and hosting of visiting foreign dignitaries (JAMO & AHC, 2023). By 1940, Nihonmachi had expanded to include 86 hotels and apartments, seven tailors, fourteen restaurants, twelve barbershops, eighteen laundries and baths, eight groceries, five gift shops, two transfer companies, three doctors, four dentists, four newspapers, two general merchandise stores, two confections/candy shops, two pool halls, one garage, two photographers, two carpenters, one tire shop, two drug stores, and one jeweler (Sakamoto, 2023). This success of Nihonmachi continued until World War II.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, discrimination and hate against Japanese Americans intensified and became more blatant. It was common for a Japanese American to be called a “Dirty Jap” or to encounter establishments that hung up signs reading, “No Japs Allowed” (Sakamoto, 2023). On February 19, 1942, swift action was taken against all Japanese Americans when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the use of exclusion orders and confinement of Japanese Americans. For Nihonmachi, this culminated in local business owners being arrested by the FBI and families being forced to sell their belongings, abandon their businesses, and be separated and relocated all across the country. By May 4, 1942, Nihonmachi had become a ghost town (Sakamoto, 2023).
However, some former residents returned to Nihonmachi and tried to rebuild their businesses after their release from incarceration in 1945. These businesses included Ota Tofu and Obukan Judo. Prior to Exclusion Order 9066, the store then named Ohta Tofu, provided fresh-pressed tofu to the local community and groceries until the family’s incarceration. However, the Ohta family were one of the more fortunate business owners upon their return: their landlord had saved their shop space and equipment while they were gone (Anderson, 2017; JAMO & AHC, 2023). According to Heather Anderson, the store was then temporarily renamed as Soybean Cake Company until 1955, when the family changed the name to Ota Tofu, the way their family name is spelled originally. Over time, Ota Tofu was able to recapture their widespread success, reaching palates outside the Asian community. The shop was relocated to 812 SW Stark Street where it stands today under new ownership as the oldest tofu shop in the United States (Anderon, 2017; JAMO & AHC, 2023). Obukan Judo’s revival, on the other hand, was a community effort. During WWII, Obukan Judo instructors and students alike were incarcerated, while judo and other martial arts were banned from practice and instruction. When the war ended and incarceration ceased, nobody came to pick up the pieces of the Obukan Dojo until 1953, when a mixed group of Judo club members from the YMCA and Reed College joined the community in reviving the Obukan dojo. Today, Obukan Judo stands at 7333 NE Fremont Street, Portland (JAMO & AHC, 2023).
With the history of discrimination and hardship of Japanese Americans, many organizations have arisen, advocating for them and working hard to preserve their history. Some of these organizations specific to Oregon or the Portland area are the Japanese Ancestral Society of Portland, Japanese American Citizens League, and Japanese American Museum of Oregon, previously known as the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center or the Oregon Nikkei Endowment. Both in its prime and following Japanese American internment, Nihonmachi businesses as well as these organizations stand to remind us of the hardship, success, and perseverance of Oregon Japanese Americans.
About the Author
Cameron Ansley participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2023 Oregon Women’s History course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Cameron is a Japanese American Criminal Justice major who is deeply passionate about her Japanese heritage and the Japanese community.
Evacuation Sale, Teikoku Company, Portland, Oregon, 1941, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 1941. https://discovernikkei.org/en/nikkeialbum/items/507/
Japantown: NW Portland, ca. 1940, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 1940. https://discovernikkei.org/en/nikkeialbum/items/499/
Paper Trail to Internment, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 1940s. https://www.si.edu/object/booklet-paper-trail-internment:nmah_1812304
Portland Obukan judo team, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/onlc/48959853116/in/album-72157629749189719/
Sophia Espinoza, Ota Tofu, 2023.
Anderon, Heather Arndt. “The Secret History of America’s Oldest Tofu Shop. Roads & Kingdoms, September 17, 2017. https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/ota-tofu-portland/.
Sakamoto, Henry. “Japantown, Portland (Nihonmachi).” Oregon Encyclopedia, May 18, 2023. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/japantown_portland_nihonmachi_/#.ZHVe_S-B1KO.
Japanese American Museum of Oregon, and Architectural Heritage Center. “A Forgotten Community.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, May 2, 2023. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/3788edd6c7284058
Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “Nihonmachi: Portland’s Japantown.” Discover Nikkei, June 28, 2021. https://discovernikkei.org/en/nikkeialbum/albums/44/.
“Oshu Nippo Translation Project.” Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 2019. https://jamo.org/collections/oshu-nippo-translation-project/.