Japanese Language School to Receive UWT Commemoration

By Eva Revear and Chelsea Stone

 

A memorial statue will be built on the UW Tacoma campus to commemorate downtown Tacoma’s historic Japanese Language School; an addition to the city’s culture that was decimated after World War II.

“I hope that this sculpture will become an icon on campus,” said Mike Wark, Director of External Relations for UW Tacoma, “I hope it inspires students to learn more about this history.”

“Japan Town” was a thriving area of business and culture from S. 11th to S. 21st streets near Pacific Avenue. Built in 1922 on the western edge of UW Tacoma’s current campus, the school was used to teach Japanese American children the art and heritage of their country, and was later utilized as a prominent cultural center.

Unlike the Japanese Language schools in other cities, Tacoma’s was not affiliated with a church, but was built entirely by the community. Wark explained that it served to uplift the community in the same way UWT strives to uplift it now.

Masato Yamasaki, principal of the school, inspired his students, several of whom are still alive, that no matter the circumstances and persecution under which they were living, they were not to bring shame to their community.

The school was later used as a processing center for those being forced into internment camps after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and never regained its sense of community, even after Japanese Americans were allowed to come home. Of the 1500 Japanese families from Tacoma that were forced into camps, only 10 or 15 returned.

The sculpture will serve to memorialize these families, and the school. It will be located at the North gate to campus, at the end of the Prairie Line Trail, visible from the Tacoma Art Museum.

“Our gateways to the community are very symbolically important,” said Wark, “we want it to be beautiful.”

To be completed early next year, the memorial will display a statue from Gerard Tsutakawa. Stephanie Stebich of the Tacoma Art Museum said in an online article on the UW website that Tsutakawa is a “distinguished Northwest artist whose work is admired for its refinement and scale. The proposed sculpture is an elegant statement about the contributions of the school and a reminder about our shared history.”

Once it was decided that the school would be memorialized through a sculpture, the university brought together landscape architects and the sculptor, as well as some previous members of the school to produce the current design.

“They selected this one because of its simplicity and strength,” said Wark, “The round shape is consistent with ancient traditions of Japanese ceramics as well.”

The bronze piece will include a plaque describing the story behind the school and its impact on the community.

Wark said in a news release that because the Japanese Language School building couldn’t be preserved as many of the city’s historic buildings have been, a commitment was made to “raise funds for a memorial to preserve its heritage as an institution that served to uplift the Japanese American community.”

The university raised funds to financially support the project, and donations will be accepted until June 30 of this year. Reported to be within $8,000 of the $600,000 needed to support the memorial, donations can be made online at the UW Tacoma foundation website. Each donor will be listed on the plaque.

The university bought the decaying Japanese Language School from a family in 1990, but it had to be demolished in 2004 after being deemed irreversibly damaged. An older plan for a memorial monument costing 2.5 million dollars was dropped after the economy took a negative turn.

 

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