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Japanese American Heritage Adds to Portland's Beauty

by Pat Snider

Photo by Pat SniderThere's no need to travel all the way to Washington, DC or Japan to witness the spectacle of blooming cherry trees when we have our own show right here in Portland. Between mid-March and early April, the 100 Akebono cherry trees lining the north end of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park explode into bloom. Their beautiful double pink blossoms form a brilliant floral canopy, and are a welcome harbinger of spring, marking the end of a long, gray winter. The trees, planted in two parallel rows, were a gift to the city from the Japanese Grain Importers Association and decorate the waterfront side of the Japanese American Historical Plaza.

Dedicated in August, 1990, to the memory of Japanese Americans deported to internment camps during World War II, the Plaza extends along the Willamette River and Naito Parkway between the Burnside and Steel Bridges. This award-winning park was designed by landscape architect Robert Murase, himself an internee at age four. It was the first memorial to the Japanese interment in the country and was funded and promoted by the efforts of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Portland businessman and real estate developer, Bill Naito.

The main entrance from Couch Street is framed by two large copper columns, each depicting carved images of the Japanese American history in the Northwest. The one on the left shows an elderly man holding a child; the right one features children on a train to an internment camp and a mother and child guarded by a camp sentry.

Beyond the columns, a collection of large boulders follows a serpentine line next to the river walkway and cherry trees. The stones are carved with poems written by Lawson Inada, a professor of English at Southern Oregon University, and touchingly tell the story of local Japanese Americans. Some of the stones are broken, some shattered to represent the disrupted lives of internees. One large boulder lists the names of the different internment camps and another one displays a plaque with the Bill of Rights, an ironic reminder of the laws designed to protect the rights of all citizens. Not far away, is a plaque with a copy of the official Congressional apology to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese American internees signed by President Reagan in 1987. At the far end of the Plaza, near the foot of the Steel Bridge is the Friendship Circle. Two tall stainless steel columns soar from a circular garden, celebrating the Portland and Sapporo, Japan, sister city relationship.

West of the Plaza is the neighborhood known today as Old Town, but it was once the center of a thriving Japanese American community called Nihonmachi, or Japantown. At the end of the 19th century, large numbers of Japanese workers immigrated to the Pacific Northwest to work in farms, orchards, salmon canneries, and railroads. By 1905, more than 25,000 called Portland home. A bustling, business community developed in this area with its own newspaper, grocery stores, theaters, shops and restaurants.

All that came to an end on February 19, 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 directing the military to incarcerate all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. Portland families were sent to what had been the Pacific International Livestock Expo Center and from there to various relocation camps scattered throughout remote, rural areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and California. Japantown never recovered, and as one of the poems engraved on a stone in the Plaza reflects: Just over there was our community. Echoes! Echoes! Echoes!

Today, the history of the local Japanese American community is told at the Oregon Nekkei Legacy Center located at 121 NW Second Avenue, between Couch and Davis Streets in the old Merchant Hotel. Its exhibits, artifacts, and photos highlight the experiences of first generation immigrants called Issei, the development of Japantown, and the forced internment during World War II.

Japanese American Historical Plaza
Located at Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park
1020 SW Naito Pky
Portland, OR 97201

Oregon Nekkei Legacy Center
121 NW 2nd Avenue
Portland, OR 97209
503-224-1458

Hours: Tuesday - Saturday,
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.

Admission: $3 (free for Friends of the Legacy Center).