UW Tacoma approaches fundraising goal for Japanese Language School memorial

University of Washington Tacoma officials announced Tuesday they are close to completing their fundraising goal to build a memorial to...

University of Washington Tacoma officials announced Tuesday they are close to completing their fundraising goal to build a memorial to honor the historic Japanese Language School on the university campus in downtown Tacoma.

The Japanese Language School was constructed in 1922 and expanded in 1926 by the immigrant community as a cultural center. From the 1890s into the 1940s, Tacoma’s “Japan Town” was defined by a wide range of businesses, hotels and homes primarily located between South 11th Street to South 21st Street 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 of Tacoma 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.

The university plans to commission a public sculpture for a memorial to capture the heritage of the historic school. The memorial, to be completed early next year, 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.

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 three years ago.

“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.

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 next year, 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.

“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.”

State funds cannot be used for this 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.

“Gerard Tsutakawa is a distinguished Northwest artist whose work is admired for its refinement and scale,” says Tacoma Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich. “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.”

More information about the project is available online at tacoma.uw.edu/jls.

The University of Washington Tacoma plans to commission a public sculpture for a memorial to capture the heritage of the historic Japanese Language School. The memorial, to be completed early next year, 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. (IMAGE COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON TACOMA)
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