Nihonmachi, ca.1920

And here is an extraordinary document from an exceptionally rare source. This hand drawn map produced by Kazuo Ito shows the extent of Tacoma’s Nihonmachi or Japantown about 1920. The individual listings show Japanese operated businesses, many of which also served as family homes for the 1700 residents of Japanese ancestry living in downtown Tacoma. These were the townies-the merchants, innkeepers, restauranteurs, grocers, teachers, barbers, tailors, photographers, doctors, mechanics, apothecaries, florists, bankers, porters and artists who made up Tacoma’s thriving Japantown. Joe Kosai, who grew up in his family’s hotel on Pacific Avenue and later taught math for Tacoma Public Schools, remembered going down to the theater district all by himself on Saturday mornings, getting help from the usher into his seat where his knees didn’t bend and his sneakers poked out into the aisle, and then watching cartoons, cowboy movies and sci-fi serials until his eyes and neck hurt from looking up at the giant screen. He was six.

Map Japantown

Japantown was anchored by the grocery stalls and restaurants around the public markets between 11th and 13th on Market Street to the North and the many hotels clustered near Union Station on the South. In between a busy neighborhood went about its daily routines,

Yamane Restaurant
Yoshi Yamane’s Cafe ca. 1917

morning delivery wagons, kids to school, businesses opening with the turn of a key and the flip of a sign, lunchtime rush at the cafes, the early afternoon papers arriving, grocery shopping and streetside visiting, after school sports and language school, travelers wandering into the barber shops and hotel lobbies from the evening trains at Union Station, then the lights of the restaurants and clubs take over the streets and the shopkeepers close up shop and head upstairs for dinner with the family.

Tacoma’s nihonmachi peaked in population about 1920, as did their country counterparts in the Fife Valley, each reporting a resident population of just over 1300 in the federal census. But as Kazuo Ito’s wonderfully detailed book on the History of Japanese Immigrants in North American points out, the count did not include migrant agricultural workers, maritime sailors and dockworkers and the many nomadic travelers and adventurers who wandered the Japantowns of the far west. Tacoma’s Japantown was culturally dense with a Buddhist temple, churches, a language school, judo dojos, Japanese language newspapers and theaters, private tearooms and social clubs. 1919Per capita Tacoma had one of the largest nihonmachi’s in America and it was that fact that drew the attention of Congressman Albert Johnson, chairman of the powerful House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Tacoma, Fife and the south sound region were in his congressional district and he was fiercely opposed to their presence and threatened by their enterprise and growing prosperity. Before most of the nisei (American born) Tacomans that would be interned at the start of the Second World War were even born, Congressman Johnson was crafting federal legislation that would block their citizenship, landownership rights and basic civil law protections. The seeds of destruction for Tacoma’s nihonmachi were planted not in the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but in the mind of Albert Johnson just after the First World War a generation before.

Politics and prejudice aside, the nihonmachi remained the first neighborhood travelers to Tacoma by train would see. Through the 1920’s and 30’s, the automobile undeniably took a bite out of the railroads but most working folks, traveling families and wandering young

Tommy's market 1921
Tommy’s Market at Crystal

sight seekers still went by train and traveled in cities by streetcar. The hoteliers, cafes and townies of Japantown served them best, with good food at a fair price, clean sheets and a comfortable bed in a safe room and a steam bath, haircut, shave or directions with no questions asked unless you ask. When it came to fresh food locally grown, the nihonmachi fed Tacoma. From just cut celery to sea cucumber row, the discerning handling of food was a basis for trust between the Japanese community and the city’s streetcar neighborhoods and kitchens. At the public market, the Japanese grocers were not relegated to the back stalls. Their mouthwatering displays of green vegetables, hand picked berries (sprinkled continually with a fine spray of water) and fresh cut flowers were prominently in the front stalls where they could best attract shoppers in off the busy street.

So back to Kazuo Ito’s amazing map of Tacoma nihonmachi, back to the smells of steamed vegetables and waxy hair tonic, to the sounds of markets and news stands. Back to Joe, safe in his seat at six years old in a vast, fantastic movie theater in the middle of an even bigger city that feels completely like home to him.


Search the app store in Apple and Android formats to download a walking tour of Tacoma’s Japantown……




Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


  1. Wonderful posting, helps me understand when the Japanese were a significant part of the city and county.The terrible race-baiting of the times continues, only the races that alarm us change.Mexicans today, the Irish in a few years–you never know,


  2. Wonderful posting, helps me understand when the Japanese were a significant part of the city and county. The terrible race-baiting of the times continues, only the races that alarm many here change.Mexicans today, the Irish in a few years–you never know,


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