Free iBook: History of Portland’s Japantown

Portland’s Japantown Revealed Cover

Awarded “Best Textbook” and “Best Widget, 2015” More

I’m pleased to introduce my multitouch iBook: Portland’s Japantown Revealed. Free at iTunes.
It’s a collection of historic documents, photographs and interviews that tell the story of Portland’s “Nihonmachi” (Japantown) - a once vibrant community that disappeared with the forced removal and incarceration of its citizens. It’s the fourth title in my Homefront USA series of iBooks. 

It’s filled with over a hundred archival photographs and dozens of video interviews with former Japantown residents selected from the collection of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. The book details life from the 1890s until the eve of WWII when it had grown to a bustling neighborhood with over 100 businesses. Located within a twelve block area in an area north of Burnside St and west of the Willamette River, it was a home to scores Japanese American families and a regional destination for others who wanted to buy traditional food, receive dental and medical care, find legal assistance, and take care of their banking needs.

One exciting feature of the iBook are interactive “Portland Revealed” widgets that allow the reader to blend historic and contemporary photographs. I created them by seeking out locations of historic photographs where the architecture had been preserved and re-photographing the contemporary setting. The resulting overlay lets the user “paint” the historic figures into modern settings.

ONLC 01856 Morimoto Kawamoto truck

“ … we just didn’t know what was going to happen to us. Were they going to shoot us, or are they going to send us all to Japan, and we can’t even speak Japanese properly.”

The book details the Japanese American reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the uncertainty that swept through Nihonmachi. A Japanese American woman who was nineteen at time recalls “Well, they won’t take us, we’re citizens … “we’re citizens,” that’s all we kept saying, “they wouldn’t take us.” A  man looks back and recalls thinking “ … we just didn’t know what was going to happen to us. Were they going to shoot us, or are they going to send us all to Japan, and we can’t even speak Japanese properly.”

To give the reader historic context for the temper of the times, the book includes pamphlets, posters and movie clips that exemplify the anti-Japanese rhetoric of the era. Portland’s Japantown residents retell the story of the sudden arrests and disappearance of community leaders in the days following Pearl Harbor.

By February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 cleared the way for the forced removal and incarceration of Portland’s Nihonmachi.

Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley

Once the exclusion orders were issued, Portland’s Japanese Americans had only a few days to get their business affairs in order before having to report to the Portland Assembly Center. Many were barred by the Alien Land Laws, from owning property, thus their businesses investments were in fixtures and inventory. Limited to only a suitcase of personal possessions, many had to leave everything behind or liquidate possession or properties in quick sales for only pennies on the dollar. Within days Nihonmachi’s residents were stripped of their civil rights, freedom and financial equity.

Their first stop was the Portland Assembly Center operated in the summer of 1942. It was one of the many temporary incarceration centers built in large population centers on the west coast until more permanent centers could be built further inland. The Portland Assembly Center was really the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion. Plywood construction and rough partitions could not cloak the smell of manure, or deter the swarms of black flies.

Page from Portland’s Japantown RevealedFor four months, over 3,500 evacuees made do in this roughshod temporary housing with minimal plumbing and little privacy. No information was given on how long they would be at the assembly center or where they would go next. See interviews with people incarcerated at that center and contrast them with the cheerful photographs circulated to the US public. Most of Portland’s Nihonmachi was eventually moved from the Portland Assembly Center to more permanent incarceration at the Minidoka War Relocation Center.

But after the war … the Japanese town was not there… I don’t think there was that central feeling of Japantown. ~ Former resident

Released from incarceration in 1945, Portland’s Japanese community faced tough decisions about where to “restart” their lives. Most had lost their livelihoods, homes and possessions in the wartime roundup. Released from incarceration in 1945, Portland’s Japanese community faced tough decisions about where to “restart” their lives. Most had lost their livelihoods, homes and possessions in the wartime roundup.

In the post-war years, some Japanese American businesses were re-established in what had been Portland’s Japantown. Nonetheless, the vitality of a neighborhood that once was a vibrant Nihonmachi never fully recovered from the US government’s forced removal and incarceration of its Japanese American residents during the war years.

Unless otherwise noted images from the Nikkei Legacy Center.
Young girl detainee by Russell Lee. 
U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.

Student Consultants Design Museum Curriculum and Mobile App

Portrait of Seki Hiromura-Ace's mother and one of the Hiromura boys

If you follow my blog, you’re well aware of my advocacy for project-based learning. So when I was asked to teach a social studies methods class at the University of Portland, I naturally looked for a way to integrate a community-based project that would give my graduate and undergraduate pre-service teachers experience in PBL, the chance to work along side professional historians and an opportunity to make a difference in the community. For more on our course approach, see our class blog.

I live in downtown Portland on the edge of what is known as Old Town / Chinatown. Its a very diverse and historic neighborhood and once the center of a thriving Nihonmachi or “Japantown.” It’s now the home of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, a small museum dedicated to “Sharing and preserving Japanese-American history and culture in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood, where Japantown once thrived.”

I approached the museum with a simple question – “What could you do with a dozen unpaid curriculum consultants?”

While planning my course, I approached the museum with a simple question – “What could you do with a dozen unpaid curriculum consultants?” And so our partnership began – my pre-service history teachers working with professionals at the museum to develop educational material to support their collection. I wanted my student so experience project-based learning from the perspective of the learner in the hopes that they would someday incorporate that approach into their teaching. I also wanted them to recognize that effective teachers are entrepreneurs, actively fostering external partnerships to support learning in their classrooms.

mobile-app-image

After a number of meetings we decided on three projects – an online lesson using curated videos detailing Japanese incarceration, a series of lessons to support an artifact-filled Museum in a Suitcase for circulation to Portland area schools and a iPhone app “Walking Tour of Japantown PDX.” All three projects would extend the reach of the museum and celebrate a once vibrant community that had fallen victim to wartime hysteria.

The app was going to take some technical assistance, so I reached out the Portland’s app community and was able to partner with GammaPoint LLC, PDX-based mobile app developer. We are worked with them to develop Japantown PDX, a native iPhone app walking tour of the historic Japantown in Portland. It features geo-fenced text, photos, audio and tools for sharing user reaction to the content via social media. We are also working with GammaPoint to make this project replicable in the k-20 space.

gallery-1912 Portrait

More on PDX Japantown: During the 1890s Portland was a hub from which Japanese laborers were sent to work in the railroads, canneries, lumber companies and farms throughout the Pacific Northwest. By the 1920s, a steady stream of Japanese “picture brides” had transformed a rough and tumble twelve-block section north of W Burnside between 2nd and 6th Ave into a more respectable Nihonmachi with over 100 Japanese managed businesses and professional office. Portland’s Japantown thrived until the WWII when Issei and Nisei were rounded up by federal officials and incarnated in inland camps. Portland’s Japantown was decimated. After the war a few returned to the old neighborhood, but many took up new residence in Portland’s postwar single family housing boom. The neighborhood had long been home to African-Americans and various immigrant groups. As Chinese-Americans began to predominate in the neighborhood, it gradually became known as Chinatown. Today, even most Portlanders are unaware of it’s heritage as Japantown.