PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — For several decades, Portland once had a thriving Japantown.
That neighborhood was nearly erased, however, when Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Now, the goal of a new project looks to preserve their memory by showing the full history.
“It’s everybody’s history,” said Chisao Hata with the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “It’s all of our history, and so it’s part of Portland’s history. And we want it to be in the forefront into everybody’s awareness.”
Hata, who serves as the creative director of the museum’s living arts program, is also looking forward as she reflects on the past.
There’s a lot to see and learn, and she wants you to know even more.
“It’s about place and having a place and losing a place and having a — feeling like you’re being erased,” Hata said. “So it’s time that we stand up and lift up those stories. We’ve had to fight for some of the buildings.”
Those buildings made up what was once Portland’s vibrant Japantown.
“There used to be 36 nihonmachi or Japantowns along the West Coast prior to World War II,” Hata said. “And then with the issuance of Executive Order 9066, our communities were erased and encouraged not to return.”
By telling the stories within those structures, the museum is collaborating with the Architectural Heritage Center.
Stephanie Whitlock is executive director of the Portland non-profit that has more than 100 programs, including its popular walking tours. Eventually, there will be one for Portland’s Japantown.
“One of the things we try to show people in this project is … a lot of buildings in Portland and everywhere have such a deep cultural significance, maybe not special architectural significance,” said Whitlock with the Architectural Heritage Center. “But everyday stores, barber shops, groceries — those are important to Portland’s urban fabric because of the cultural history within them.”
The two groups will also create a virtual tour that’s an interactive digital storytelling map, showing how the Japanese community was also in other parts of Portland.
“In fact, the Yamaguchi Hotel, which … has a rich association with Japanese history, is slated for demolition,” Whitlock said. “So that’s kind of the beauty of the virtual tour, too, is we can capture the buildings that have been lost.”
“We want to remember, but not necessarily bring back, everything the way it was — because that’s not possible,” Hata said. “But what was in our communities, how people lived in the communities: the churches and schools and doctors and dentists and grocery stores and barber shops and community halls — those are all still memories that people have, even myself, of being down here in the ’80s and ’70s when we could gather down here.”
The collaboration comes with help from a $25,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The two organizations will be able to teach others about what Japanese Americans in Portland went through. They said the stories will be powerful, positive, and sometimes painful.
“We’re looking at the history of Japanese American farmers and their contribution to the state, especially prior to World War II,” Hata siad. “That program is called Inaka, which means farmland, back to the land.”
According to Hata, about 60 to 70% of the fruits and vegetables in Oregon around that time were originally grown by Japanese farmers. She added that the groups want to bridge the generational gap, too.
“We’re looking at bringing generations of people together to still capture the stories of mythology of Japantown and other experiences of growing up here and newer generations that are questioning their identity or want to know and not really knowing what to ask,” she said. “And then the other part is remembering nihonmachi and reimagining nihonmachi, or Japantown.”
It is an effort to make sure history is preserved.
“I’m a third generation Japanese American, and I’ve spent a good deal of my life in search of identity,” Hata said. “I’m from the generation that lost their language because of the World War II experience. And the pandemic actually had me thinking a lot about what my parents and many of our grandparents lived through for over three years. They couldn’t go to the store.”
Hata said they didn’t have freedom.
“They were behind guard towers and or in prisons,” she said. “The concentration camps were prisons and just, you knowing the resilience and the fortitude and the, we call it ‘gaman,’ the ability to endure in the face of a lot of pressure, that would buckle a lot of people — is really the inspiration that we owe it.”
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon is on Northwest Flanders Street in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood. It is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Organizers said the new program should be complete by 2023.