Home History History of Seattle Nikkei Immigrants from “The North American Times” Part 6, Growth and Decline of Japanese Barbershop Businesses

Part 6, Growth and Decline of Japanese Barbershop Businesses

“General Assembly Meeting of the Barbershop Committee” (North American Times, Jan. 14, 1918)

History of Seattle Nikkei Immigrants from ‘The North American Times’

This series explores the history of the pre-war Japanese community in Seattle, by reviewing articles in “The North American Times,” which have been digitally archived by the University of Washington and Hokubei Hochi Foundation (hokubeihochi.org/digital-archive). Publication of this series is a joint project with discovernikkei.org.

By Ikuo Shinmasu
Translation by Mina Otsuka
For The North American Post

‘The North American Times’ was first printed on September 1, 1902, by publisher Kiyoshi Kumamoto from Kagoshima, Kyushu. At its peak, it had a daily circulation of about 9,000 copies, with correspondents in Spokane, Vancouver BC, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. When World War II started, Sumio Arima, the publisher at the time, was arrested by the FBI. The paper was discontinued on March 14, 1942, when the incarceration of Japanese American families began. After the war, the paper was revived as “The North American Post.”

Part 6  Growth and Decline of Japanese Barbershop Businesses

In the last chapter, I wrote about the NYK Seattle shipping route which made a great contribution to the development of Seattle. In this part, I’d like to introduce articles about the growth of Japanese barbershop businesses in Seattle from 1918 and the Nisei who strove to start their own such businesses around 1939.

Japanese Barbershop Business in Seattle

The Japanese barbershop business in Seattle experienced a large growth starting in 1910. I wrote about its prosperity in “Yoemon Shinmasu – My Grandfather’s Life in Seattle, Part 2, Yoemon’s First Job and Life in Seattle” (“The North American Post,” Jun. 28, 2019).

The number of Japanese barbershops in Seattle” (“The North American Times,” Jan. 13, 1939, and other sources). Red bar marks when they matched the prices of Caucasian competitors and masked up during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

In 1916, Seattle had 76 barbershops run by Japanese. In contrast, there were 325 barbershops run by Caucasians in the entire city in the same year. There was a movement by Caucasian-owned barbershops to eliminate Japanese-owned shops. Consequently, the Japanese Barbershop Committee, which was established in 1907 with Chuzaburo Ito as its head, devoted its time and effort to work towards peace with their Caucasian peers. We can see traces of their hard work in “The North American Times.”

Japanese Barbershop Committee 

“General Assembly Meeting of the Barbershop Committee” (Jan. 14, 1918 issue).

“General Assembly Meeting of the Barbershop Committee”
(North American Times, Jan. 14, 1918)

“Yesterday the general assembly meeting of the Seattle Japanese Barbershop Committee started in the afternoon at the Japan Hall, followed by a New Year’s party which began at 7 p.m. There was a total of about 200 participants from the committee, including males and females, and some guests including Consul Matsunaga, and Takahashi, Tsukuno, and Kikutake from Hokubei Nihonjin-kai (North American Japanese Association). Others in attendance included Takeuchi from the “Taihoku Nippo” (Great Northern Daily News, a competitor of the “North American Times”), Miyazaki from the “North American Times,” and Caucasian barber examiners and vice chairpersons and their spouses. They had a banquet with catered food and boxed meals from Maneki (restaurant). As master of ceremony, Chuzaburo Ito introduced Consul Matsunaga, who gave his speech in both Japanese and English. Then the former examiner Ray, Chairperson of Hokubei Nihonjin-kai Takahashi, Vice Chairperson of the Caucasian Committee Ivy, Takeuchi from Taihoku Nippo, the current examiner McGauchie, Miyazaki from “The North American Times” and others made comments in turn. Interpreter Katayama translated English speeches into Japanese as the committee advisor and received a great round of applause each time. The banquet was followed by an after-party, where the participants enjoyed a variety of performances for which they gave a big round of applause. The level of excitement was something we had not experienced for a long time at any gathering.”

We can see that under the leadership of the Barbershop Committee, with Ito at its helm, many Japanese people in the barbershop business not only attended New Year’s parties, got along with their peers and formed a close bond, but also worked hand-in-hand with their Caucasian peers to build a working environment where they could operate their businesses smoothly.

In the same issue, a section titled “What We’ve Seen and Heard” gave a detailed explanation of the Barbershop Committee.

“What We’ve Seen and Heard” (“North American Times,” Jan. 14, 1918).

“The Barbershop Committee currently has 175 members, 88 of whom are males and 87 are females. The number of females is just one short of the males, and the fact that they are all licensed and making a living in the barbershop business is highly encouraging. There is no other place in the United States with a Japanese barbershop committee as big and powerful as this one. 

At the New Year’s party last night, the former examiner Ray sat next to me and whispered in my ear: ‘I was surprised to know that there were this many Japanese female barbers. Japanese women are prudent, immaculate and detail-oriented, so they are more popular than Caucasian female barbers. Particularly, since their hands are softer than males,’ once a Caucasian man gets his face shaved by a Japanese woman, he will become a regular for sure.’ 

He certainly had a point.”

From this article, we can estimate that as of January 1918, there were about 87 barbershops run by Japanese couples. My grandfather Yoemon, too, worked with his wife, opening his shop at 163 Washington Street in 1918, and was popular with many Caucasian customers.

“New Board Members of the Barbershop Committee” (Jan. 25, 1918). 

This issue reported on the new board members appointed at the regular general meeting held on January 13 with a list of their names. The breakdown of their home prefectures according to the directory source is as follows: 10 members from Yamaguchi, eight members from Fukuoka, two members from Hiroshima and one member from Shizuoka.

Councilor Ritsu Sato in “Hokubei Hyakunen Zakura” (100-Year Cherry Blossoms in North America) writes in detail about the history of hard-fought battles against the Caucasian Committee. When he came to Seattle in 1907, he started a barbershop business with the help of Ito, and supported Ito as Vice Chairperson with accountant Jitsuzo Hara before World War I. He opened a barbershop in Seattle after the war, too, but said that the world seemed to have changed quite a lot compared to his old, struggling days.

Fukujiro Iwami is another Councilor and is from Yamaguchi Prefecture. His name was on my grandfather Yoemon’s funeral notice prepared by his friends when he died in an unforeseen accident in 1928.

I also found the names of some family relatives from the same hometown as Yoemon, who were listed as board members – Takejiro Uesugi, Saisuke Yoshida, and Ryunosuke Yoshida.

An article published on October 9, 1919 reported that a big farewell party was held at Gyokkoken (restaurant) before Saisuke Yoshida and Ryunosuke Yoshida temporarily left for Japan. Yoshida is the older brother of Ryunosuke (Jim Yoshida’s father) and ran Oukaro (a Chinese restaurant). He was quite well known in Seattle.

Price Increase to Align with Caucasian Committee

“Hideous Increase in Haircut Price” (Apr. 24, 1918). “What a bold decision to suddenly increase the haircut price from the recent 45 cents to 75 cents (50 cents for a haircut and 25 cents for a shave) overnight. We understand that the Japanese Barbershop Committee works hand-in-hand with the Caucasian Union, but there is no need to raise the price that much. We simply feel frustrated knowing that the decision was not made at their own will. We can’t avoid a price increase owing to inflation, but this is simply unthinkable.”

Forty-five cents back in the day was approximately 90 sen in Japanese currency and is about 900 yen at the current rate. Seventy-five cents was about 1 yen, 50 sen and is about 1,500 yen ($11.80) at the current rate of Japanese currency.

“Price Increase in Barbering” (Apr. 26, 1918) “As Committee Chairperson Ito came and told us, Caucasian barbershop owners had informed the Japanese side of their decision to set their price at 75 cents minimum. Baffled by such a sudden and big increase, he tried to negotiate, first to increase the price to 60 cents and then to 75 cents but it was not accepted. If they didn’t follow the flow, Japanese barbers would lose union customers, so they had no choice but to raise the price, knowing that it would puzzle many.”

The executive members of the Caucasian Committee showed understanding of Ito’s suggestion, it seemed, but they couldn’t reach a consensus within the committee. The April 30 issue reported an “Independent Barber Plan” which was a movement to encourage people to leave the committee and operate businesses targeting only Japanese customers. However, in the end, to align with the Caucasian community, Ito made a tough decision and unwillingly agreed to the same price increase as on the Caucasian side.

Seattle General Strike “Relations with the Japanese” (Feb. 4, 1919) 

“Report on General Strike, Relation with the Japanese”
(“North American Times,” Feb. 4, 1919).

In February 1919, in sympathy with the strike of approximately 25,000 shipyard workers in Seattle, more than 100 labor federations spread across Seattle went on general strike. At the time, to figure out how it would affect the Japanese community, a reporter from “The North American Times” visited the head of the Japanese Barbershop Committee Ito and conducted an interview. Here is what Ito said:

“Upon visiting the headquarters of the Caucasian Barbershop Committee and inquiring about their intention, we learned that they have decided to go on strike in sympathy with Caucasian workers. They have yet to decide what message to send to Japanese peers… They expect the Japanese to go along with the strike, if and when the Caucasian Committee decides to also ask for their sympathy. Thus the Japanese Committee will have to make its own decision based on what the Caucasian Committee decides. Once the general strike begins, however, it is clear that even without a chance to negotiate, shops will have fewer customers and Japanese barbers will eventually have to close their shops, if all the infrastructure including electricity and water gets halted. It is such a foolish turn of events and a pity on the otherwise growing economy and its productivity.”

The Japanese Barbershop Committee had no choice but to follow the Caucasian Committee and closed their businesses. They reopened on February 11 after the strike was over. There was an ad to inform readers of the reopening in the February 10 issue.

We Agree to the Same Business Hours

“Hokubei Nihonjin-kai Conference” (July 31, 1919). “The Japanese Barbershop Committee has been working closely with the Caucasian (peer) Committee and is in agreement with what it did. This time, the Japanese committee is being asked to agree to operate on the same hours that the Caucasian peers have started to adopt. Upon discussion, the committee has accepted the requested times, and to show their willingness to cooperate as peers, announced the following…

On the last day of July 1919, by the Seattle Japanese Barbershop Committee:

‘We will operate from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays only. Effective as of August 4.’”

Japanese barbershops had operated from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day until then. From the Caucasian perspective, the Japanese were working too much and were becoming a nuisance to their businesses. This was one trigger of the anti-Japan movement. To prevent it, the Japanese committee accepted the request from the Caucasian side and agreed to shorten their business hours.

Spread of Spanish Flu

“Barbers Must Wear Masks” (Oct. 24, 1918).

“Barbers Must Wear Masks” (“North American Times,” Oct. 24, 1918).

“Under the order of the city authorities, starting today all barbers are required to wear masks for disease avoidance to prevent the spread of the flu. There were 302 newly reported patients in Seattle yesterday and 12 people have died so far. According to the information from Kashima-maru which arrived in port last night, the flu has entered Japan and a few patients had been reported at the time of the ship’s departure… A telegraph from Paris has informed us of the raging flu in the city with 886 disease-related deaths reported in the past week.”

We can read a report on what life was like in Seattle at the time in the November 12, 1918 issue.

“We have been under special orders from the Washington State Department of Health since October 2 to have our faces covered at all times, but on November 11, the order was lifted, which was great news to us. As of yesterday, there have been a total of 485 deaths since October 2. The number of patients had reached a little over 10,000 by October 9. During this period, theaters, movie theaters, temples, schools, and many other places were all shut down. Retail stores opened from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and all businesses except for food suppliers were closed on Saturdays.”

As a way to prevent the spread of infection, people had to live under such strict restrictions 100 years ago, too. Barbers were required to shorten business hours and wear masks during this period.

In the November 16, 1918 issue, I found an article reporting on the strong recommendation for barbers to continue wearing masks to prevent another spread, even after the restriction order was lifted.

Nisei Successors

“What a Delight: a Nisei Barber’s Daughter” (North American Times, Jan. 13, 1939).

Beginning in 1930, more and more Nikkei returned to Japan due to the economic depression and the worsening of U.S.- Japan relations. The number of barbers decreased as well (see graph). On the other hand, some Nisei in the remaining families were making their own moves to take over their parents’ barbershop businesses. Let me introduce some articles about them.

“What a Delight: a Nisei Barber’s Daughter” (Jan. 13, 1939)

“(1) There is Momoichi, who is the second son of Jitsuzo Nakata who runs a barbershop on Bainbridge Island. He graduated from Bainbridge High School last year. With the determination to take over his father’s business and explore the real world, he enrolled this spring in Moler Barber College (MBC) which is located at 104 First Avenue (probably Seattle). He is looking forward to his day of graduation and using his hair clippers at work.

(2) There is another son by the name of Sumio, whose father — Kyusuke Tsubakihara — runs his barbershop business on Main Street. He, too, with a fresh mind decided to make a living with a pair of hair clippers. He is currently attending MBC as well.

(3) Michie (age 19) is the daughter of Masadome Shimokon, who owns Union Hotel on Washington Street. Having a realistic view on life, which is a rather rare trait in a young female, she thought that even as a Nisei, getting vocational training would come in handy in the future within the Japanese community. She studied at MBC and recently graduated. She wants to either work at a barbershop soon or open her own shop. A Nisei daughter becoming a barber – what a delight.

(4) Frank, who is the son of farmer Gokichi Tanikawa in Kent, is also a Nisei who plans to become a barber and went to MBC. He has already received his diploma and is currently preparing to open his own shop.”

“Hokubei Shunjyu — The Nisei Barbers” by Ichiro Hanazono (Mar. 9, 1939)

President of Hokubei Jijisha (North American Times Co.) Sumiyoshi Arima (under the pseudonym Ichiro Hanazono) commented in the column “Hokubei Shunjyu” (North American Spring and Autumn) about Nisei barbers.

“The barbershop business has played an important role in the development of our community. We could say that these days, though, its presence owes much to a mere habit from the past with no new apprentices or people opening their shops. This doesn’t mean, however, that the future of the business is marginal. I believe that it has enough potential to grow, if one can start with new equipment and new skills. It is a business suited to the Japanese. Nisei jobs will not forever be limited to driving trucks. I had the most fun reading the story about the emergence of Nisei barbers among the recent articles in ‘The North American Times.’”

We should remember that there were some Nisei who decided to take over the barbershops that the Issei had built up with so much hard work. This is how the Japanese barbershop business developed in Seattle; it took advantage of some cultural features unique to the Japanese. We can see from the articles of “The North American Times” that the Japanese Barbershop Committee, led by Chuzaburo Ito, was the one that supported its development, with dedication and effort despite persistent discrimination from their Caucasian peers and the anti-Japanese movement.

In the next part, I will introduce some articles about the Japanese hotel business, which also thrived in Seattle.


References

“Hokubei Nenkan” (North American Yearbook), Hokubei Jijisha, 1913.

Kojiro Takeuchi, “History of Japanese Immigrants in the Northwestern United States,” Taihoku Nippo-sha, 1929.

Kazuo Ito, “Hokubei Hyakunen Zakura” (100-Year Cherry Blossoms in North America), Nichibou Shuppan, 1969.

The Japanese version of this article is at: napost.com/ja/north-american-times-vol6/

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Ikuo Shinmasu retired in 2015 from Air Liquide Ltd., then researched his grandfather who migrated to Seattle. He shared his findings through the series, “Yoemon Shinmasu – My Grandfather’s Life in Seattle,” in the NAP and in Discover Nikkei in Japanese and English during 2019-2020. He lives in Zushi, Kanagawa, with his wife and son.