Japanese American History

Japanese Americans have been a critical part of Portland's past and present.

This section was produced in collaboration with The Asian Reporter, a community newspaper featuring international and Pacific Northwest news and events with an Asian focus.

In the 1890s, the first generation of landless Japanese farmers arrived in Oregon, hoping for better wages and employment opportunities. Mostly young men, the immigrants toiled building railroads, working in canneries and farming. The backbreaking work and scant wages sidelined many dreams of earning fortunes and returning home wealthy.

Many of these workers decided to forge new lives in Portland. By 1900, about 2,600 Japanese immigrants lived in Oregon, with more than half residing in Portland’s Nihonmachi (Japantown), located in present-day Old Town Chinatown. Many worked in service industries while others opened shops and restaurants. Some headed east to farm in the Hood River Valley, accounting for 75% of the Hood River strawberry harvest by 1920.

By 1940, Nihonmachi boasted more than 100 businesses within a six- to eight-block area, where the Japanese community could buy food, receive medical care, bank and obtain legal assistance. The Japanese-American community had a place to call its own and a place to thrive.

Ota Tofu: America’s Oldest Tofu House Calls Portland Home

This local family-run shop has been making tofu by hand for over a century.

That progress came to a halt on Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the evacuation and internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens. Entire families were herded into makeshift quarters at the Portland Assembly Center at the Portland International Livestock Exposition Center (now known as the Portland Expo Center) before being sent to internment camps throughout the region.

In 1945, when Japanese Americans were allowed to return to their homes, they found most of their belongings gone, including their residences and businesses in Nihonmachi. Still, the spirit of the Issei (first-generation immigrants) prevailed, and Japanese Americans relocated throughout the city and the suburbs, bringing with them the unique cultural heritage that is alive and well in the modern landscape. While not forgetting past injustices, the Japanese community reestablished itself as an immensely important part of the vibrant city of Portland.

Japanese American Community

Japanese Americans have been a vital part of Portland's history for generations.

Portland became the sister city to Sapporo, Japan, in 1958. The Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association formed to illuminate the many similarities and differences between the two cities and encourage and promote Japanese-themed events throughout Portland. The association is Portland’s oldest sister city association and one of the oldest in the nation. Its best-known collaboration is the world-famous Portland Japanese Garden. The Japanese Garden Society of Oregon commissioned Takuma Tono, an internationally recognized Japanese landscape architect, to supervise and develop the garden, which opened to the public in 1967. The original five gardens are still featured today, along with the Kashintei Tea House, which was imported from Japan and reassembled in 1968. The garden now attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year.

Portland Japanese Garden

An authentic example of Japanese landscaping, the Portland Japanese Garden is a haven of tranquil beauty with an unsurpassed view of Mount Hood.

One of Portland’s most influential and well-known businessmen and activists was Bill Naito. Naito was born in Portland years after his parents emigrated from Japan but were forced to move during the war. When he returned, he helped transform Portland into the city it has become today. He acquired several vacant/neglected historic buildings in downtown, and, in a short period of time, renovated them instead of following the trend to focus on the suburbs. Naito is credited with coining the name “Old Town” for Portland’s Skid Road district, in order to improve the area’s image, and one way he publicized the name was by having it painted in large letters on the side of a water tower atop the White Stag building. Naito worked to convince others of his vision that Portland could become a major U.S. city and strongly advocated the light rail system that was proposed in the 1970s. His input and collaborative effort led to the opening of the MAX light rail system in 1986. Shortly after Naito’s death in 1996, the Portland City Council decided to rename Front Avenue “Naito Parkway” in his memory. Naito Parkway runs along Tom McCall Waterfront Park, passing some of the historic districts Naito helped to preserve.

Japan’s rich history in Oregon can be relived at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. The ONLC is Portland’s Japanese-American history museum. The museum highlights the Issei immigration and retells the story of early life in Oregon, Nihonmachi, and life after the Executive Order 9066, including the Portland Assembly Center and contemporary Nikkei life. The center displays rotating exhibits and strives to preserve and share the history and culture of the Japanese-American community through cultural performances, guest speakers and monthly community events.

The Portland-Japan Connection

Many of the best Portland goods and restaurants are popping up in a surprising place: Japan. (And vice versa!)