Nihonmachi Then and Now: The Japanese American Legacy of Culture and Resistance in Portland, Oregon

By Sophia Espinoza

As America’s west coast continued to expand in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the demographics of Oregon began to change as rates of immigration increased. Hispanic and Latino, Chinese, and Japanese communities began to expand in Oregon as employment opportunities offered a new life in a developing world. As the number of Japanese immigrants increased, neighborhoods and communities formed that catered to these families and individuals. From the early twentieth century until the early 1940s, Oregon saw the rise of Nihonmachi, or Japantown, in Portland, with Japanese culture and communities thriving for decades.  

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration in Japan ushered in an era of new thinking and exploration, a stark contrast to the 200 years spent in harsh isolation from other countries. According to Quinn Spencer in the Oregon Metro News, this new era brought Miyo Iwakoshi and Andrew McKinnon, the first Japanese immigrants to Oregon in 1880, who settled in Gresham. This was the start of the first wave of Japanese immigrants to America. This initial generation of people was called issei, roughly meaning “first generation immigrant,” replacing the original broad word for immigrant, ijusha. Generations living in America as the first U.S.-born children were labeled as nisei, then sansei, and so on. 

Map of Nihonmachi, N.W. Portland, ca. 1940. Courtesy Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

Portland’s Oregon’s Nihonmachi was a mecca of sorts to Japanese immigrants, and as such, attracted immigrants with diverse backgrounds in all types of labor. This is reflected in the many prominent businesses in Nihonmachi, This self-sustaining community had a plethora of businesses, restaurants and hotels and doctors’ offices. According to George Katagiri’s Oregon Encyclopedia- Oshu Nippo article, Shinsaburo Ban created a private newspaper called the Oregon Shimpo (meaning the Oregon News).

The Oshu Nippo (Oregon News), New Year’s Edition, 1915, 1.

The paper changed to the Oshu Nippo in 1909, was published at 131 Northeast Second Avenue, was written and published until the seizure of the office materials in late 1941, and provided one of the only news outlets for Japanese immigrants who did not read English. According to Katagiri, the isolation of lumber, railroad, and agricultural jobs led to a heavy reliance on the Oshu Nippo to stay in the know. In a community, common belief is often a strong binding factor.

The Epworth United Methodist Church, located at 54 Southwest First has been a pillar of religious expression and a gathering place for Japanese Americans. Reverend Teikichi Kawabe, originally a deacon in San Francisco, moved to Portland and opened the Japanese Methodist Mission in February 1893. This church became not only a location of religious practice, but Oregon Encyclopedia’s George Azumano reports that the church purchased a bus for transporting children to their in-home kindergarten program and expanded with a dance hall that would become a classroom and events hall. The Epworth United Methodist Church was a pillar of the Nihonmachi community, with many roles that would support the community for decades.

Tokio Sukiyaki Restaurant, 228 NW 4th Avenue, Portland, OR ca. 1930. Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Ota Tofu, Photos by Sophia Espinoza, 2023.

Dr. Kei Koyama and his dental office, NW 3rd Avenue and Couch Street, Portland, OR ca. 1941. Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

Medical care also fell under the scope of Nihonmachi’s diverse range, with doctors like Benjamin Tanaka providing services for families in the area. Dr. Tanaka was a University of Oregon Medical School graduate and opened a practice as a general physician on the second floor of the Merchant Hotel in the early 1920s. Tanaka was known for his ability to speak English and Japanese fluently, as well as for keeping the Japanese community informed by occasionally translating medical lessons in the Oshu Nippo (Young, 2023). In addition to a local physician, Nihonmachi’s residents were also treated by dentist Kei Koyama. A Nisei, Koyama moved to the United States in 1915 and received his degree in dentistry from what is now the Oregon Health & Science University in 1929. In addition to serving the community through his profession as a dentist, Koyama worked as a member of Portland’s Japanese Chamber of Commerce (Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 2023). Medical professionals like Dr. Tanaka and Dr. Koyama ensured the health and well-being of many of those living in the neighborhoods of Nihonmachi and its nearby areas. This wide variety of businesses made Nihonmachi a wonderfully unique place, with many specialty stores that reminded Japanese immigrants and their children of the comforts of Japan, while providing them with an ever-evolving version, slightly reimagined to fit the change of culture that came with moving to the U.S. 

By the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Nihonmachi had become greatly successful and it seemed that Oregon was beginning to accept the Japanese community. Businesses were thriving and families were happy. The success that Nihonmachi was feeling came to an abrupt halt when Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, forcing thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry to be forcibly removed from their residences and relocated to internment camps across the U.S. Families were forced to abandon the majority of what they owned, and Portland’s Nihonmachi was no exception. The Oshu Nippo’s printing machines were confiscated for fear of spreading anti-American rhetoric and Japanese espionage. People in high-power positions like Dr. Koyama and Dr. Tanaka were arrested almost immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941. Many businesses held massive sales, while others opted to leave their belongings to friends in the area. Many of those who spent years in the camps had no idea what the state of their community would be in when they returned. Business fronts were rented out or bought by other people, and those who had trusted their belongings with neighbors often returned to find that they had destroyed or rid themselves of their belongings for fear of being a sympathizer. The devastation of having their lives taken and erased rocked the Japanese community to the core, and many wondered if they would ever rebuild their lives to the way they were.

Instead of congregating in the same areas as large groups, many Japanese immigrants and their children were forced to disperse to other places, leaving fewer people returning to reside in Nihonmachi. The Yamaguchi Hotel was left abandoned for years and never returned to its prior glory. After being vacant for years, it was demolished in March of 2023 after a long fight to keep it preserved (De Dios, 2023). Much like the Yamaguchi Hotel, many of the other businesses faced remodeling, reconstruction, demolition, or simply never reopened. Others felt that they could not return to Portland because of the racism towards Japanese Americans that had infested the city. Dr. Tanaka could no longer perform as a physician due to the anti-Japanese sentiment from his former colleagues in the medical field, and moved to Ontario, Oregon, and worked with the Holy Rosary Medical Center for the rest of his career. After Pearl Harbor, Saizo and Shina Ohta of Ota Tofu were incarcerated at Minidoka concentration camp, where Saizo passed away. When Shina returned to Portland in 1945, the owner of their rented space had preserved their company equipment and the space they were renting. Shina and her daughter reopened under the name Soybean Cake Company, which would turn into Ota Tofu in the 1950s. With the rise of meat-free and other alternative diets, tofu would gain traction in the U.S. and support Ota Tofu for decades to come. Shina’s grandson and his wife moved it from Nihonmachi to 812 SE Stark St., where it continues to serve the greater Portland area as the oldest tofu manufacturer in the country.

Much like Ota Tofu, the Epworth United Methodist Church returned after World War II (Azumano, 2023). From 1942-1945, the church did not function, due to the forced relocation of its members. After August of 1945, the building itself served as a boarding house of source for those who could not return to their former homes after their displacement to concentration camps. The congregation moved to its current location at 1333 Southeast 28th Avenue, where it continues to serve the Japanese American community, with Ikoi-no-kai (Meeting Place), a hot lunch service for the elderly in the neighborhood. After Oyama of the Oshu Nippo was released from his detainment at the Santa Fe Department of Justice camp, he began to publish newspapers again in 1946, with the help of Kimi Tambara, a civil rights activist who would work as the English editor for the paper (Katagiri, 2022).

Though many of the businesses and stores run in Nihonmachi have ceased to exist, much of the Japanese American legacy lives on, not only through the storefronts and monuments that remain but also in the hearts of those who lived in Nihonmachi and have passed their stories on to their following generations. There will always be a reminder of what once was, both in the people that continue to live in the greater Portland area and Oregon as a whole, and the pockets of culture that continue to share their legacy. As time continues to pass, what remains of Nihonmachi’s glory is seen in the streets and nooks of Portland, and if a moment of pause is taken, the persistence of culture and the celebration of Japanese American life is seen throughout the city, now and with high hopes, forever. 

About the Author

Sophia Espinoza participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2023 Oregon Women’s History course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Sophia is a Biology major with an emphasis in Natural History and Field Biology, who is passionate about veterinary medicine and advocating for Indigenous communities’ rights in everyday life, as well as academia.

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Dr. Kei Koyama and his dental office, NW 3rd Avenue and Couch Street, Portland, OR ca. 1941. Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

Map of Nihonmachi, N.W. Portland, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon

Ota Tofu, Portland, Oregon. Photos by Sophia Espinoza, 2023.

The Oshu Nippo (Oregon News), New Year’s Edition, 1915, 1.

Tokio Sukiyaki Restaurant, 228 NW 4th Avenue, Portland, OR ca. 1930. Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon,

Secondary Sources

Anderson, H. A. “The Secret History of Tofu in America.” Slate Magazine. September 13, 2017.

Azumano, George. “Epworth United Methodist Church (Portland).” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

De Dios, Austin. “Historic Yamaguchi Hotel Building Comes down One Week after Scheduled Demolition.” Oregonian/, March 25, 2023.

Dowsett, Libby. “When Portland Had the Largest Japantown in Oregon.” Street Roots, January 18, 2019.

Hedberg, Dave. “Hiroshima Peace Trees.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

“Ikebana International, Portland Chapter 47.” II Portland Chapter 47. Accessed May 24, 2023.

Kornhauser, Michico, “Ikebana International, Portland Chapter.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

Katagiri, George. “Japanese Americans in Oregon.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

Katagiri, George. “Oshu Nippo.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Kornhauser, Michico, “Ikebana International, Portland Chapter.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

Loftus, Mitzi. “Day of Remembrance.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 24, 2023.

“Story Map Tour of Portland’s Lost Japanese American Community,” Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Accessed March 24, 2023.

Sakamoto, Henry. “Japanese American Historical Plaza (Portland).” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 18, 2023.

Sakamoto, Henry. “Japantown, Portland (Nihonmachi).” Oregon Encyclopedia, Accessed May 18, 2023.

Spencer, Quinn. “Miyo Iwakoshi: The First Japanese Immigrant to Oregon.”                                           Metro News, March 11, 2021.

Young, Morgen. “Benjamin Tanaka (1887-1975).” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 18, 2023.