By Shokichi Tokita For The North American Post
So, what about the Uwajimaya parking lot? It seems to me that it’s an ordinary store parking lot. It has a paved parking area with normal parking places marked like thousands of other parking lots. What’s so special about that?
Yes, I agree. It is just an ordinary store parking lot. Just looking at it doesn’t exude much interest does it? The only thing is that that particular parking lot has a long and interesting history for Japanese Americans! The block it occupies is a historical location for JA businesses which provided community income periodically for over 50 years. It was actually, about 67 years, roughly, two-thirds of a century — not continuously, but sporadically over that 67-year period.
Would you like to know how and why? Okay, let me start by backtracking to the early 1920s, when the immigration of Japanese from Japan to the United States was just coming to an end.
My mom, Haruko Suzuki-Tokita, was born in Tokyo on February 14, 1907. In our terms, she was a Valentine’s Day baby. Very little about her childhood is available but her birth mother passed away in her early years. The only information available is that her aunt, a Mrs. Yamamoto of Tokyo, raised her during that period until Haruko’s father, Toshiyuki Suzuki, remarried and brought his new wife, Haru, and Haruko, age 12, to America in 1919.
Not long after settling into life in Seattle, the Suzukis bought the business rights to the Wilson Hotel, located on the north side of South Dearborn Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues South. This was in 1922, about three years after arriving in the U.S. The location also happens to be right in the middle of the south side of the present Uwajimaya parking lot. This hotel provided the Suzuki family, now with two additional children, Koichi Warren, and Toyoko Lillian, a comfortable living until they were placed in a concentration camp in early 1942 by the U.S. government when World War II started. So, it helped the Suzukis for about 20 years.
In the interim, Haruko Suzuki married Kamekichi Tokita in 1932 and became Haruko Tokita. After living on Beacon Hill in a small home for four years, they decided to obtain the business rights to the Cadillac Hotel on lower Jackson Street and moved there in 1936. However, the family was imprisoned in concentration camps starting in 1942. At the end of WWII, in 1945, the Tokita family lived at the old Japanese Language School at 14th and South Weller for two years. That building is now the JCCCW. The Tokitas, now with eight children, required an additional source of income. So, the business rights to the New Lucky Hotel were obtained and the family moved to the hotel, at South Weller and Maynard Avenue South in 1947, about a block from the present Uwajimaya parking lot. However, Kamekichi, the father passed away in 1948 due to a severe case of diabetes. This left Haruko a widow with eight children, ages two to 14.
In 1949, Haruko, by then a businesswoman, obtained the opportunity to purchase the Fremont Hotel located between Lane and Dearborn, on Sixth Avenue South. In spite of objections from her oldest child, she purchased the Fremont Hotel, which provided her with additional income to support her family. That hotel was located on the west side of Sixth Avenue, between Dearborn and Lane, about where the Uwajimaya parking lot attendant’s “hutch” is now. It provided her with additional income for about 25 years, until she sold it to GMC, in about 1974.
During the period Haruko owned the Fremont Hotel, a number of other JA businesses prospered in the “lower Dearborn” area. KCW Furniture was on the next block east mid-block. Dearborn “Cash & Carry” grocery, run by Mits Abe and known informally as “Abe Grocery,” was two blocks east (shown as separate stores in map). Around the corner from that store, the Russell Hotel, operated by Ruth Hayatsu, provided income for her when her husband passed away. There were other JA businesses that were in the vicinity as well, but are now forgotten.
An interesting tidbit of information about the KCW Furniture Store is its name. KCW stood for “Kamihachi Chemical Works.” That bit of interesting information came from Rod Kaseguma, whose father was a longtime employee of the store. The nature of the “chemical business” is unknown.
Since then, Uwajimaya bought the parking lot and the GMC building in late 2000 and converted the building into the huge retail shopping center it is now. So can you see how that parking lot has served JA businesses for two-thirds of a century? It continues to do so, by providing Uwajimaya customers a convenient place to park!