By Shokichi Tokita
For The North American Post
Mom became quite a businesswoman after Papa passed away in October 1948 after a ten-month illness caused by a severe case of diabetes. It took her a while to adjust and come to the realization that at age 41, she was more than just the mother of eight children, ages 2 to 14. Once she recognized that she was fully in charge, she gradually changed from being wife and mother to head of the family with total responsibility for raising the children as well as providing for their well-being. With not much more than a sixth-grade education in Japan, she attended a couple of years at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School and two years at Broadway High School. (Mom explained to me that there was a special section that was set up for foreigners to attend English-speaking classes, which she compared to a junior high school.) It makes me wonder what her thoughts were at that time.
Over the next several months, Haruko gradually took charge and assumed the responsibilities of head of the family, a role she eventually developed that focused on business. Her assumption was that she would not be able to support her family without a business outlook, so her energy was directed toward that end. It was fortuitous that she grew up at the Wilson Hotel (Haruko’s hotel experience #1) on Dearborn Street, where the Uwajimaya parking lot is now located, helping her father and mother in her younger days (Shokichi Tokita, “The Seattle Uwajimaya Parking Lot,” napost.com, Mar. 2022). She then helped run the Cadillac Hotel (#2) on Second and Jackson not long after marrying Kamekichi Tokita. After the war, she also ran the New Lucky Hotel (#3), located at Maynard and Weller in Chinatown, today called the International District.
Haruko started to reach out to the Japanese business community by joining the Japanese American Hotel and Apartment Association (see Ikuo Shinmasu, Flourishing Japanese Hotel Businesses, napost.com, Aug. 13 & 29, 2022). There, she was able to mingle with those in the same business, to further learn and plan. She became aware that she could purchase and own a business and property, contrary to laws that had precluded Japanese from doing so before World War II. She made a variety of contacts both in business and in government. This became a key element that led to opportunities for additional business ventures.
In the late summer of 1949, one of her new associates from the city advised her of a 50-unit hotel that had gone out of business and would be up for sale shortly. This was the Fremont Hotel (#4) on 6th Avenue between Dearborn and Lane. It was located approximately a block from the New Lucky Hotel, her family’s location at that time. In fact, it was where the Uwajimaya parking lot’s attendant hutch is now. She purchased it as her first business venture, which she turned into an excellent, supplemental income source.
Shortly thereafter, she purchased a third hotel through similar lines of business and contacts. This was the Baranoff Hotel (#5), located at the foot of Yesler, just east of the waterfront. This hotel was considerably smaller than both the New Lucky and the Fremont. It had only 14 rooms but was in much better shape than the first two hotels. Also, it had tenants who were of a much higher class than those at the other two. In fact, it currently houses business offices.
Next came an apartment building in 1955. Haruko purchased the Laurel Apartments (#6) in 1955, located at 22nd Avenue and Main Street. This was the first opportunity for her family to live away from the Chinatown and downtown areas in a more residential atmosphere. It had approximately 25 units situated on two floors with an adjacent garden area outside. It was also closer to the children’s schools: Shizuko was enrolled at Immaculate Conception School, Yasuo and Yuzo at Garfield High School, Yoshiko at Holy Names Academy, Masao and Goro eventually at Seattle Preparatory School and Yaeko later also at Holy Names.
At this point, let me backtrack a little bit to talk about one of the very, very high points in Haruko’s life. She was well-aware of the various exclusions the Japanese people in America were subjected to by U.S., state and local governments. They were denied citizenship, land ownership, jobs, and various other liberties. However, after WWII and the gradual assimilation of the Japanese in America, the U.S. government, under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, decided to allow the Japanese as well as other immigrants in America to become naturalized citizens in 1953.
After the law was enacted, Haruko was one of the first to start attending classes to learn about the examination each applicant was required to pass to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. After attending classes, she took the exam and without any fanfare or notoriety, she passed! So, on November 16, 1953, she was awarded a naturalization certificate of US citizenship.
This was one of Haruko’s happiest moments. She was quite emphatic and was supremely excited about this accomplishment. She would excitedly talk about her citizenship from time to time and was genuinely pleased at acquiring it. When complimented in later years, primarily about raising eight children by herself, without any welfare assistance, she would explain in Japanese:
“Amerika dake de dekimashita. Nihon dewa dekinakata.”
“Only in America was this possible… I could not have done it in Japan.”
This was why she was so proud and happy about becoming a U.S. citizen.
Editor’s notes. Haruko was a rare “Issei 1.5,” who immigrated to the US with her parents at age 12 in 1919 (“The Uwajimaya Parking Lot,” napost.com). Thus, she possessed one key advantage over other Issei hotel owners: she arrived young enough to more easily pick up English as a second language. This learning capacity falls rapidly after age 18. Nonetheless, her lifetime accomplishments remain impressive.