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Nihongo Gakko: Tacoma’s Japanese Language School

Interviews and Project By Brenda Sonnier; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“It was through the Japanese Language School that we learned how to respect our parents, our elders, and how to behave in public … but [our principal] always stressed our allegiance is supposed to be American.”  Yoshiko Sugiyama, former Japanese Language School student.

A group of students and faculty outside the Tacoma Japanese Language School, May 22, 1927. Photo from University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

In 1911, the Tacoma Japanese Association opened Nihongo Gakko, a Japanese Language School in Tacoma, Washington. Every weekday, after attending public school, Japanese-American students would attend Nihongo Gakko.

From left to right: sisters Yoshiko, Tadaye, and Kimi.

In this oral history project, UWT student Brenda Sonnier interviews former Japanese Language School students Sadako Hirose, Tadaye (Teddy) Kawasaki, and Teddy’s sisters Yoshiko Sugiyama and Kimi Tanbara.

Nihongo Gakko had nearly 300 students in attendance, including Sadako, Teddy’s, Yoshiko, and Kimi.

Students would attend Nihongo Gakko after public school every day to learn about Japanese culture, art, language, and history.

In their interview Sadako, Teddy, and her sisters, reflect on their time at the Japanese Language School and learning Japanese calligraphy, grammar, and gardening.

“In the summer we had a victory garden on the side of the building [and] every classroom had a garden” explained Teddy.

The sisters also discussed their principle Masato Yamasaki and his wife Kuni Yamasaki, who they remembered as being passionate and dedicated to teaching their students.

“They didn’t get much pay, but they enjoyed it!” Sadako said. “They were dedicated people,” Teddy added.

Additionally, Teddy and her sisters explain the changes they witnessed in Tacoma and Nihongo Gakko’s transition into the official registration location for Tacoma’s Japanese community and their relocation to internment camps in 1942.

Kimi explained that “they choose Japanese School mainly, not because of anything other than the fact that it was a good meeting place for the people…If it hadn’t been there it would have been the Church.”

Sadako, Teddy, Yoshiko, and Kimi were all initially sent to Pinedale Assembly Center, California, then later relocated to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming.

From left to right: Yoshiko, Sadako, and Tadaye.

Due to WWII and the internment of the Japanese community, Nihongo Gakko was closed and left abandoned.

In 1951, Teddy’s mother asked her to buy the school, so she did, explaining it was “for sentimental reasons.” The school was used mostly as storage.

Then, in 1993, Teddy sold the school to the University of Washington, Tacoma and due to excessive damage the building was demolished.

In order to commemorate and honor Nihongo Gakko and the Japanese community of Tacoma, UWT installed a Japanese Language School memorial sculpture and plaque along the Prairie Line Trail in 2014.

View the complete oral history Tacoma’s Nihon Go Gakko: Japanese Language School by Brenda Sonnier