TACOMA — The University of Washington Tacoma will commission a public sculpture for a memorial to capture the heritage of the historic Japanese Language School that was supported by a thriving Japanese American community that didn’t return to downtown after World War II.
The memorial, to be completed in early 2014, will feature a bronze piece by sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, a renowned artist best known for his “Mitt” at Safeco Field in Seattle. As part of the memorial project, an interpretive plaque cast in bronze will tell the story of the school and its community.
“Readapting historic buildings has been a cornerstone of UW Tacoma,” says Mike Wark, director of External Relations for UW Tacoma. “We couldn’t save the Japanese Language School building, on the western edge of the 46-acre campus footprint, so we committed to raise funds for a memorial to preserve its heritage as an institution that served to uplift the Japanese American community.”
The sculpture and plaque will be installed with landscaping along the Prairie Line Trail – UW Tacoma Station, a linear park through the central core of the urban campus. Slated for completion early in 2014, the university portion of the trail has been developed in collaboration with the City of Tacoma, which plans to complete the connecting portions of the pedestrian/bike trail that will eventually feed into paths throughout the city and beyond.
The Japanese Language School Memorial will be visible from the front doors of the Tacoma Art Museum. Stephanie Stebich, director of the museum, says, “Gerard Tsutakawa is a distinguished Northwest artist whose work is admired for its refinement and scale. The proposed sculpture is an elegant statement about the contributions of the school and a reminder about our shared history. The monument will serve as a focal point for community healing and strengthen bonds between generations and cultures.”
State funds cannot be used for such a project, so the university turned to the community to raise funds to install the memorial. The university and project supporters are now within $8,000 of an extended goal; donations will be accepted until June 30, 2013.
The Japanese Language School was constructed in 1922 and expanded in 1926 by the immigrant community as a cultural center. From the 1890’s into the 1940s, Tacoma’s “Japan Town” was defined by a wide range of businesses, hotels and homes primarily located between S. 11th to S. 21st streets near Pacific Avenue.
Tacoma’s Japan Town did not return to the downtown after World War II and the internment of the city’s Japanese citizens. The wood-frame building gradually deteriorated. Cited by the city as a hazard in 2003, the university hired a preservation-oriented architectural firm that determined the building could not be restored with historic integrity. The building was demolished in 2004.
Along with a committee of former students, Greg Tanbara, son of former student Kimi Fujimoto Tanbara, has served as a lead volunteer on the project along with Debbie Bingham, head of the city’s Sister City program. They picked up the reins of the project in 2010 as the university acquired state funds to complete the Prairie Line Trail–Tacoma Station project and determined the memorial was a natural fit.
“This project is dear to the hearts of many people of my parents’ generation, and we want to be sure everyone who has been supportive of the idea of creating the memorial over the years has an opportunity to participate in this fundraising effort,” says Tanbara. “I don’t want anyone to be left out who would like their name, or the name of a former student in their family, to appear on the plaque that lists our supporters.”
An unveiling ceremony and celebration will be planned upon completion of the project.
More information about the Japanese Language School, its community, and the memorial project can be found attacoma.uw.edu/jls.