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Our Special Neighborhood

By Suma Kato Yagi For The North American Post

If hills had voices, Seattle’s First Hill on 12th Avenue and Main street (*) would be whispering its unique history.

In 1934, at the foot of the hill on the south side was a two-story, single frame house. The upstairs unit was the home of the Yoshida family. The Japanese Congregational Church met in the basement. Next door was a row house, one part was the living quarters for the Ishii family and the other was a Japanese language school named Ishii Gakko (Mr. Ishii’s school).

Next to the school were at least four single dwelling homes, each shared by two or three families of Japanese immigrants (Issei): Hirata, Kawase, Shigihara and Kusakabe with their American-born(Nisei) children.

At the end of the hill was a big drop off to an empty lot, overgrown with weeds and covered with debris -our playground.

On the north side at the foot of First Hill was the driveway to a Texaco gas station, followed by four more twostory houses. It seemed all these houses had more than one family living in them based on the large number of children. The first shared by the Kato, Amabe. and Yamashita families. Next were the houses where the Tanaguchi, Aoyama and Suzuki families lived and behind it, the Ichikawas.

Strong bonds were formed among the nearly 40 Nisei children, sharing the unpaved, rocky hill as their playground. We formed teams, using the telephone poles on each side of the hill as bases for our games of Jintori. The boys collected milk bottle tops and competed among themselves. The girls tossed and juggled their colorful beanbags, small sacks filled with red beans.

The Japanese Buddhist Church, located at the crest of the hill was the only building built as a church and not converted from a residence. It seemed almost boastful in contrast to the other neighborhood structures.

The Buddhist church had long stairs on both sides leading to a large covered porch. Big doors opened to an entryway where the aroma of incense hung in the air. The gold trimmed archway in front of the large altar where the gilded Buddha sat gave it an aura of elegance and reverence.

I often wished our family attended this church instead of the Japanese Congregational Church where we worshipped in tiny quarters, sat on hard, wooden folding chairs and the dankness of the basement penetrated our bodies.

And the Buddhist church children always had a sembei (sweet rice cookie) in their hands, much to the envy of us attending Congregational Church.

-Copyright 2009, JCCCW

(*) Currently, Seattle University campus

Editor’s note: Suma Kato Yagi was born in March 1927 in Seattle. She attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary and was incarcerated in 1942 at Puyallup and Minidoka WRA. She relocated to Ogden, UT, returned to Seattle and graduated from Garfield High School. She attended Seattle Community College and the University of Washington extension program and has been active in several Nikkei organizations. Suma is a skilled writer, specializing in narrative poetry.

This article is a monthly series by participants of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s Omoide writing workshop.

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The North American Post is a community newspaper that celebrates Japanese culture in the Greater Seattle area. Founded by 1st generation Japanese-Americans in 1902, the publication is one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the region. Today, with bilingual articles in English and Japanese, the publication connects readers with diverse cultural backgrounds to Seattle’s Japanese community. Our articles include local news, event calendars, restaurant reviews, Japanese cooking recipes, community interviews, and more.