By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
One of the last remaining remnants of historic Japantown in Portland, Oregon has been destroyed despite protests.
Blanchet House, a homeless nonprofit organization, began the demolition of the historic Yamaguchi Hotel in the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District Monday, March 13. The City of Portland deemed Yamaguchi Hotel unsafe for occupancy.
Before World War II, Japantown thrived with commercial and residential activities. It served as the hub of the Nikkei community in Portland.
Built in 1905, the three-story Yamaguchi Hotel housed a hotel on the upper two floors and businesses on the ground floor.
From 1923 to 1942, Shigezo and Masaye Yamaguchi, Japanese immigrants, managed the Yamaguchi Hotel, later Hotel New Meyer, as hotelkeepers. Shigezo also worked as a track worker for a railroad company. Masaye was renowned as a midwife in the Nikkei community.
Shigezo and Masaye raised three children, George, Roy, and Mary. Shigezo died in 1935. Masaye continued to hotel keep until War Relocation Authority (WRA) incarcerated her family at Tule Lake Relocation Camp, California. In 1943, WRA transferred them to Minidoka Relocation Camp, Idaho.
George and Roy enlisted with the United States Army. George joined the Military Intelligence Service and attended its Language School. He died in an aircraft crash in Okinawa in August 1945. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Roy served the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Tokyo.
After her release from Minidoka Relocation Camp, Masaye moved to Chicago. She became a naturalized American citizen in 1955. She died in 1988.
From 1958, Blanchet House served the homeless community with its meal and residential programs. In 2012, they vacated the Yamaguchi Hotel, when they moved the programs to a new building.
Blanchet House lacks the funds to restore the unreinforced masonry building to conform with the building code. After its demolition, they plan to relocate their Harrington Health Clinic to the corner lot.
Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO), Restore Oregon, and the Architectural Heritage Center advocated preserving this important historical landmark. However, the Portland City Council ultimately approved its destruction.
On Sunday, March 10, JAMO held a ceremony in front of the Yamaguchi Hotel. The community honored its role in Japantown’s history and the Nikkei community. They placed origami cranes on the steel fence.
On Monday, March 11, Blanchet House’s contractor began demolition of the Yamaguchi Hotel.
Chisao Hata, JAMO Creative Director, said to KGW, “These are buildings that, for me, as an artist, hold stories. They hold our memories; they hold history.” Hata continues: “The buildings are basically neglected, and it’s hard to understand why there can’t be pride in whatever you have possession of, but demolition by neglect is something that has really been happening in this area by a long time.”
Nicole Possert, Restore Oregon Executive Director, remarked to KGW, “As many as a few years ago, the building was not in the shape it is today. Saying that they don’t have money and it could have been prevented if we all worked together sooner.”
The dismal end of the Yamaguchi Hotel marks another historical destruction to a lost Japantown in Portland.
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