Remembering a Tacoma, Wash. JA community hub

BECOMING NISEI: JAPANESE AMERICAN URBAN LIVES IN PREWAR TACOMA

By Lisa M. Hoffman and Mary L. Hanneman; Co-published with University of Washington Libraries 

(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020, 312 pp., $29.95, paperback)

“(Becoming Nisei) is about a place, now gone, but returned to you through the voices of people who lived there.” 

— Gregory Masao Tanbara, Foreword, “Becoming Nisei”

Written by two professors from the University of Washington Tacoma, “Becoming Nisei” is the result of close to two decades of work, bilingual archival research, and group interviews with 42 different Tacoma Nisei. Published in 2021, the book is a richly detailed and essential work about the Japanese American roots of Tacoma history — a much lesser-known history across Japanese American studies and within Washington state — as well as the transnational and spatial roots of Nisei identity formation. The book is written and structured as an academic one, but non-academic audiences interested in Tacoma’s Japanese American history will find a wealth of resources.

In 2004, when the Japanese language school in Tacoma, Wash. was demolished, it was one of just four buildings left of the city’s once-vibrant Japantown, which had been built from the 1890s until World War II. Yet much more than the school’s concrete foundation remained. A close-knit Japanese American community — many of them scattered around the United States — still remembered their prewar existence. They remembered their language school, which doubled as a social and community center, and their beloved principal and wife duo, the Yamasakis. And they remembered the space of the city’s Japantown, contained mainly within the downtown core, which transformed drastically when they were evicted in May 1942.

Professors Lisa Hoffman and Mary Hanneman took up UW Tacoma’s request to document the stories of the Japanese language school and its students. They conducted interviews in group settings in different parts of the United States (Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles). As they collected these stories, they quickly realized that the language school not only played a central role in the making of the city’s Japanese American community, but continued to hold sway in the memories and identity formation of the Nisei who once lived there.

The authors have structured the book in six chapters with a brief and moving foreword by Gregory Masao Tanbara, a lifelong Tacoma resident and a Sansei son of one of the Tacoma families. While the work was clearly collaborative, Hoffman’s background in anthropology emerges in the book’s analyses of space and identities, while Hanneman’s background in modern Japanese history is clear in the book’s emphasis on the Meiji era roots, cultural influences, and policy directives of the Japanese language school. Hanemann and research assistants translated pamphlets and archival papers from the language school and the Tacoma Japanese Association, now housed in the special collections of the University of Washington Libraries.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its liberal use of quotations throughout the book, which enables readers to “listen” to the Tacoma Nisei in their own words. There are numerous photographs of prewar families and storefronts and maps of Japanese American-owned businesses, including the regionally famous grocery store, Uwajimaya. Readers learn about Japanese Americans living outside as well as inside the downtown core, like the mill workers on the Tacoma tide flats and the grocery store owners in South Tacoma. For descendants of Tacoma Japanese American families, there are short biographies of the families interviewed in an appendix at the back of the book.

(Disclosure: I read this book in manuscript format and provided a publication blurb.)

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