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A Guide to Japanese American Heritage & Culture

Yokoso Portland e!

Japanese-American heritage and culture contribute to Portland’s beauty. A calm and peaceful Japanese aesthetic enhances many public and private gardens throughout the city—slender purple irises, waterfalls, ponds filled with brightly marked koi and moss-covered rock gardens.

Take a leisurely stroll through the pride of Portland, the formal Japanese Garden, overlooking the city from Washington Park. Learn about the experiences of Japanese Americans interned during World War II and the importance of the Bill of Rights at the award-winning Japanese American Historical Plaza in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Hop on Tri-Met’s extensive public transportation system and discover the many treasures of Portland’s Japanese and Japanese-American communities.

From the first Japanese laborers who arrived in Portland during the Gold Rush to the fourth generation of today, Japanese Americans have been instrumental in bringing economic prosperity to the region through such industries as agriculture, import-export and technology. Today, an array of Japanese-American businesses and cultural sites grace the Portland metro region and offer the visitor ample opportunities to experience the legacy of the Issei, the first Japanese immigrants.


The Issei, first-generation Japanese immigrants, brought the tradition of matsuri, or festivals, to Portland. Their American descendants continue to celebrate O-shogatsu (New Year’s), Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day), Tango No Sekku (Boy’s Day), Tanabata (Weavers or Star Festival), and the Buddhist Obon (Honoring the Ancestors). Area churches and temples provide an excellent opportunity to sample ethnic foods and get a taste of Japanese-American culture at these events.

Did You Know...

President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, apologizing for the internment of thousands of Japanese citizens during World War II. This act mandated payment to the 60,000 surviving internees.

Issei (ee-say) are first-generation Japanese immigrants; Nisei (nee-say), the first generation to hold American citizenship, were born to Issei; Sansei (sawn-say) are third generation; Yonsei (yone-say) are fourth generation.

Nemawashi, literally meaning “preparing the roots for transplanting,” is the Japanese technique of consensus building that has changed North American corporate practices.

Epworth United Methodist Church and the Oregon Buddhist Temple, two of the oldest Japanese churches in Oregon, helped families after resettlement and provided cultural continuity through annual events.

Martial arts schools include karate, judo, akido, kendo and sumo wrestling.

In Japanese, nature is used as a metaphor. “Flower on a high peak”: unobtainable; “clean as a split bamboo”: honest, straight talking; “rain firms the ground”: adversity builds character.

Mochitsuki: Portland’s Japanese temples celebrate the New Year by pounding sweet rice into mochi.

Portland has schools of Japanese arts including: ikebana (flower arrangement), koi (ornamental carp), bonsai (miniature tree sculpting), Buyo dance, koto (a stringed instrument), calligraphy, poetry and tea ceremony.

History: The Japanese in Portland

In the 1880s, landless Japanese farmers emigrated to the Pacific Northwest hoping to make their fortunes and return home wealthy. These were the Issei, the first Japanese immigrants. The work they found in fish canneries, on railroads and on farms was backbreaking and low-paying. By 1891, more than 1,000 Japanese bachelors lived in Oregon. As their numbers rose, so too did discrimination against them. By 1907, the U.S.-Japan “Gentlemen’s Agreement” prohibited laborers from further emigration from Japan, but allowed women and family members to join the men already here.

Despite growing discrimination, a thriving community evolved in a 12-square-block area (now called Old Town). Known as Nihonmachi or Japantown, this commercial center was the cornerstone for the Japanese community, with its own newspaper (Oshu Shimpo), Japanese grocery stores, hotels, bath houses, laundries, theaters, gambling and social clubs, beauty salons and restaurants. In 1889, Shintaro Takaki opened his restaurant, Ohayo, the first Japanese business in Portland. The first Japanese settler in the region opened a sawmill in 1880 near what is now the town of Orient, Oregon.

Success came to an abrupt and tragic halt on February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that led to the evacuation and internment of thousands of loyal Japanese American citizens. Portland community members were detained for several months at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Center in North Portland before being moved to remote internment camps in rural Idaho, Wyoming and California. In 1945, people were allowed to return to their homes. However, in their absence, most lost everything they owned — homes, businesses and farms had been confiscated by the Federal government or simply taken over by others. At first defeated by the inability to pay taxes or generate income, individuals struggled and many succeeded in reestablishing homes and businesses. Japantown, however, never recovered. Japanese Americans relocated throughout the city and its suburbs.