In Washington State in the year 1910, the census showed that one out of every four residents was foreign-born. Of the other three out of four, many were first-generation, born in the USA of immigrant parents, and having come to Washington from the eastern USA. For that reason, in Seattle in 1910 “diversity” could be measured by whether you were of Swedish, Norwegian or German origin: the most numerous of immigrant backgrounds.
Immigrants from Scandinavia and northern Europe, especially those who worked in logging, fishing or carpentry, populated working-class neighborhoods like Ballard and Fremont in Seattle. They were quickly assimilated, unlike Japanese immigrants who were marked by their obvious racial difference. Japanese immigrants to Seattle in the early 1900s were largely confined to the Nihonmachi district.
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In the early 1900s increasing numbers of Japanese immigrants came to the West Coast of the USA. By 1910, though they numbered only 1% of the total population of Washington State, Japanese were the largest group of immigrant Asians (total of 12,929 in Washington State), far outnumbering Chinese (only 2,709 Chinese numbered on the census in Washington State in the year 1910.)
In the outlying areas of Seattle some Japanese worked in agriculture, while in Seattle an urban community of hotels, restaurants and stores developed in the International District which had previously been “Chinatown” but became Nihonmachi, primarily occupied by Japanese.
Riichiro Fukano came to Seattle from Japan in 1905 and worked in farming and other jobs as he learned English and adapted to life in the USA. He sent home for a wife, Kiyono, who came to Seattle and married Riichiro in 1910. The couple began operating a hotel in Nihonmachi on Ninth Avenue South, just east of the present-day freeway and close to what later became Yesler Terrace. The Fukanos had four children while living in Nihonmachi and operating the hotel.
The move to north Seattle
In 1921 Riichiro Fukano made a bold change to go into a business in north Seattle. He had been told of a drycleaners whose owner was going to move away. The business, M&M Cleaners, was at 4139 Fremont Avenue North (on the southwest corner of N. 42nd Street). The business had been named for the two owners, and one, Mr. Ed Myerstein, was the owner of the house which had a storefront facing Fremont Avenue. Mr. Fukano thought this house would be very suitable for his family because they could live upstairs while operating the business, and so he leased the property from Mr. Myerstein.
The Fukanos kept the name of the business, M&M Cleaners, and advertised tailoring and mending, as well. After the Fukano’s eldest daughter Mitsue turned 18 in 1930, the Fukanos bought the house and the drycleaning business in her name, because she was born in Seattle and was a US citizen. This was a common strategy to get around the Alien Land Laws which prohibited ownership of property by Japanese immigrants.
It must have been a big adjustment for the Fukano children to move from the downtown Seattle neighborhood where they were immersed in a Japanese community, to Fremont where they were the only people of Japanese ancestry. The five Fukano children, including the youngest who was born in 1924 after the family moved to Fremont, attended B.F. Day School, which in those days went through eighth grade. Then the children all went on to attend Lincoln High School.
There was a Japanese Club at Lincoln High School of students whose families were scattered throughout north Seattle. Japanese families living in north Seattle primarily worked in greenhouses or they operated market stands selling fruit, vegetables and flowers. Some, like the Fukanos, had small grocery stores or drycleaners.
The Japanese of north Seattle form a community
Like other Japanese immigrants, the Fukanos wanted their children to have the best of both worlds: they wanted their children to learn English and go on to college, but they also wanted their children to keep their connection to Japanese language and culture. The Japanese of north Seattle were scattered over the area and so they formed a community called the Green Lake Japanese American Association with its own building where they could hold classes and meetings. The building was nearer to today’s Northgate, a name which did not yet exist. As a center-point of reference, the name Green Lake was chosen for the Japanese Association building.
At the community center the Green Lake Young Peoples Club met for dances, skating parties, skits and plays. It was customary for businesses to be closed on Sundays and this was an opportunity for the parents, who worked hard all week, to meet and socialize at the community center on Sundays. Picnics with other Japanese families was a popular pastime and there were subsets such as a drycleaners group which used to go on picnics together.
Clouds of war and the expulsion of the Japanese
Then came the terrible day of December 7, 1941, when Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy,” and U.S. Congress approved a declaration of war upon the Empire of Japan. Japanese living on the West Coast of the USA immediately became the targets of fear and hatred because they were suspected of subversion in support of the nation of Japan.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the War Department to incarcerate people of Japanese ancestry, even though many of them had already become U.S. citizens and their children were born in the United States. In Seattle the order was given by zones and neighborhoods, so that Japanese were to report in turn to the relocation center on the fairgrounds at Puyallup. Then almost all of the Japanese in Seattle were sent to a prison camp, Minidoka, in the Idaho desert.
Before leaving for their incarceration, the Fukano family closed their drycleaning shop and asked a neighbor to watch over the building while they were gone. They had no idea that it would be more than three years until they could return.
Later in the 1920s another Japanese family, the Tamuras, came to Fremont and they also operated a drycleaning business. Their house was at 723 North 35th Street, which is now the park space next-door to the Fremont Branch Library. Like the Fukanos, the Tamura’s drycleaning shop was at the front of the building and they lived in the back. Unlike the Fukanos, the Tamura family did not own their building.
At the Minidoka detention camp, one of the Tamura’s sons drowned while swimming in a canal, one of two drownings which occurred at Minidoka. After the war the Tamura family did not return to Fremont.
The Fukano family returns to Fremont
When the war ended in 1945 and the Japanese were allowed to leave Minidoka, some, like the Tamura family, went elsewhere to start their lives over again. The Fukano family came back to Fremont and found that although the building had been neglected and was somewhat deteriorated, their house and shop were still livable. The Fukanos started up the drycleaning business again, and with the help of their adult sons, the shop operated until the 1960s.
The Fukano family contributed to the writing of the book, The Green Lake Japanese American Community, and to the website Densho, documenting Japanese-American experience.
“The Census of 1910.” HistoryLink Essay #9444 by John Caldbick, 2010.
Densho.org — sharing the stories of Japanese Americans.
Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle, by David A. Takami, 1998. 979.7772, Seattle Public Library.
Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle, by David Takami, 1992. 979.7772, Seattle Public Library.
“Executive Order 9066,” Wikipedia article.
The Green Lake Japanese American Community, 2005. 979.7772 G8238, Seattle Public Library.
Interview by telephone with Henry Fukano, February 10, 2017. All photos used in this article by permission of Mr. Fukano and the Densho webpage. All rights reserved under the Creative Commons Copyright; do not copy photos or text without permission.
Nishitani family — this family of northeast Seattle had a similar experience to the Fukanos in that the Nishitanis owned their business. A family member stayed on the Nishitani property during the war, and afterward the business continued successfully. A contrasting experience is that of the Akahoshi family who lived at the present site of Dahl Field; they never owned their property but were able to stay in place.
Seattle Municipal Archives – Seattle Facts — Quick Information Page – Seattle population figures.
Seattle Park History: A.B. Ernst Park at 723 North 35th Street in Fremont.