Multnomah County

WWL: Plaza pays tribute to Japanese Americans

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- At the north end of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, there's a tribute to Portland's Japanese Americans. The Japanese American Historical Plaza celebrates their contributions -- and reminds people of a dark time in the city's history.

Henry Sakamoto of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment said, "We wanted to do something with this city property because it's such a beautiful place."

Sitting between the Burnside and Steel Bridges, the Japanese American Historical Plaza tells a story of triumph and tragedy.

Landscape architect Robert Murase wanted to pay tribute to Japanese immigrants who established a vibrant community in Portland.

"My parents came to Oregon in the early 1900s," Sakamoto said. "I think my dad came in 1910."

Sakamoto helped raise the $500,000 to build the plaza, which was dedicated in August 1990. 

"There are 13 stones upright, and each one of them has a haiku poem written on it," Sakamoto said.

The inscriptions proclaim patriotism and include the Bill of Rights -- but there are also reminders of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Sakamoto said, "Many people don't know that we had concentration camps here in the United States housing people of Japanese ancestry."

Sakamoto was among 3,700 rounded up in 1942 at what's now Portland's Expo Center. His family was sent to a camp in Idaho until the war ended -- even though many Japanese Americans fought for the United States.

"We could tolerate it, and we had to understand why it was happening," he said.

After the war, they returned and rebuilt their lives. In appreciation, Japanese grain importers donated 100 cherry trees that still blossom every spring along the park. But the plaza is more than just a park -- it's a history of struggle and the promise of America.

The plaza is next to Naito Parkway, named for Japanese American businessman Bill Naito. Naito was the major fundraising force for building the plaza.


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