Viewing Seattle’s Nikkei community through multiple lenses

CLAIMING THE ORIENTAL GATEWAY: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America

CLAIMING THE ORIENTAL GATEWAY: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America

CLAIMING THE ORIENTAL GATEWAY: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America
By Shelley Sang-Hee Lee. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012, $29.95, paperback)

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Seattle was the West Coast’s most populated Japanese American city. However, in the subsequent years prior to World War II, both the San Francisco and Los Angeles Japanese American communities not only surpassed the then-nicknamed Queen City in numbers, but also overshadowed it in geographical, commercial and cultural importance. This situation remains intact today. Still, it could plausibly be argued that in terms of the historical representation in published books of these three urban racial-ethnic communities, Seattle’s ethnic enclave has fared better or at least comparably with its San Francisco and Los Angeles counterparts.

In support of this contention, I would cite such older Seattle-based classics as S. Frank Miyamoto’s sociological community study, “Social Solidarity among the Japanese in Seattle” (1939); Monica Sone’s autobiographical memoir, “Nisei Daughter” (1953); John Okada’s novel, “No-No Boy” (1957) — works which the University of Washington Press reprised, respectively, in 1984, 1979 and 1979 — and Kazuo Ito’s compendium of Pacific Northwest personal narratives, “Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America” (1973). Of more recent studies of note, I would offer the following: Sylvia Yanagisako’s cultural history, “Transforming the Past: Tradition and Kinship among Japanese Americans” (1985); Yasuko Takezawa’s ethnographic history, “Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity” (1995); Quintard Taylor’s interracial community exploration, “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era” (1994); David Takami’s historical portrait, “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle” (1999); Robert Shimabukuro’s social movement appraisal, “Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress” (2001); Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves’s heritage-preservation survey, “Sento at Sixth and Main: Preserving Landmarks of Japanese Heritage” (2002); Stephen Fugita and Marilyn Fernandez’s community impact analysis, “Altered Lives, Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember Their World War II Incarceration” (2004); Louis Fiset’s camp-and-community-based inquiry, “Camp Harmony: Japanese American Internment and the Puyallup Assembly Center” (2009); and Jamie Ford’s interethnic novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (2009).

The remarkably well researched, intelligently conceptualized, masterfully organized, and beautifully written book under review by Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, “Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America,” considerably enriches and enlarges this laudable intellectual legacy pertaining to the Seattle Nikkei experience. It does so primarily as a result of the author viewing that geographic and demographic local phenomenon through the dual lenses of cosmopolitanism and globalism. Thus, while the temporal focus of Lee’s tome is the pre-World War II Nikkei past of Seattle, she interprets that period through two tightly interwoven analytical concepts that many present-day historians now favor. That such is the case can be readily appreciated by reference to the content and contentions of the book’s five core chapters.

In “Multiethnic Seattle,” Lee employs a “Pacific world” perspective to showcase how Seattle, like some other West Coast cities “located within global networks of people and capital contributed … (both) to … the growth of a diverse population … (and) the ideological and imaginative meanings applied to urban space and the people making claims to it” (pp. 20-21). Accordingly, Lee first establishes that between the 1870s and the 1930s, there emerged a metropolitan pocket centered on Jackson Street (the part of the city south of the downtown district) that became home to most of the city’s non-white residents and other ethnic minorities, including a burgeoning Japantown. She then argues that although this area was regarded as a skid row “ghetto” by most white Seattleites, who made it the butt of jokes, this settlement space’s population, albeit increasingly dominated by Nikkei, was in fact radically heterogeneous. Moreover, its international medley of residents — Asians, Hispanics and blacks — countered the denigration of outsiders by emphasizing the neighborhood’s attractions and strengths (most notably its easygoing social interactions and cosmopolitanism) and muting its alleged problems and shortcomings.

In the following four core chapters, Lee builds upon how Japan and, more specifically, Japanese Seattleites (the city’s largest non-white group) were “crucial in Seattle’s bid for urban distinction as a cosmopolitan location and the nation’s ‘gateway to the Orient’” (p. 45). Consonant with this objective, in the core chapter titled “Making Seattle ‘Cosmopolitan,” Lee highlights two Seattle-based events, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1934-1942 International Potlatch festivals. These commemorations simultaneously dramatized the shared interests of Japan and the United States in a coalescing Pacific world and spotlighted the vital role that Japanese Americans in Seattle could play in coming years through brokering the cosmopolitan international and intercultural relationship between these two steeply ascending national powers.

As for the succeeding core chapter, “Making Local Images for International Eyes,” it focuses upon the 1924-1929 historical experience of the renowned Seattle Camera Club. The cosmopolitan achievement of this nearly exclusive Japanese immigrant organization of pictorialists, or art photographers, was to foster its 25 to 50 locally anchored members crossing over geographical and social boundaries to exhibit their artistic images of Seattle as a developing world city at national and international exhibitions. This activity, in turn, permitted these creative artists to transcend constraints circumscribing the otherwise rather parochial lives of Seattle’s Nikkei community.

In the final two core chapters — “‘Problems of the Pacific’ in ‘the Great Crucible of America’” and “That Splendid Medium of Free Play” — Lee rivets her attention on how, respectively, Seattle’s public schools and organized sports acted as catalysts of cosmopolitanism and internationalism for the city’s Japanese Americans. The former did this through attendance at integrated schools (particularly secondary ones) with diverse multiethnic and multiracial student bodies, a curriculum that promoted better understanding of Pacific Rim concerns, and at least some administrators and teachers who devoted their time and energy to advance a brand of Americanism that bridged the East-West span confronting their pupils. As for sports, they not only strengthened ties among Japanese Americans in Seattle, but also “linked Japanese communities throughout the Northwest, along the West Coast, and on both sides of the Pacific” (p. 151). In addition, athletic competition in a great variety of sports also provided ample occasions for social interaction across ethnic lines, and sometimes led to a constructive reconceptualization of the boundaries

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