By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Nisei fall down seven times; rise up again. In Rainier’s shadow, sacred torii beckons like Mount Fuji; welcome sight after our release from World War II desert prisons. Cherry blossoms flutter like snow” – Larry Matsuda’s dedication for a bench at the new torii (bench not completed)
Once upon a time, a Japanese couple married in Seattle. The man came from a small town in Japan. The woman was born on Vashon Island and grew up on a strawberry farm in Tacoma. Their family, no longer in Seattle, wasn’t sure why, as part of their last wishes upon their passing, Ryokichi and Kazue Yamazi asked that their ashes be strewn upon Lake Washington.
“I know that they frequented Seward Park a lot,” April Hattori, their granddaughter, told the Asian Weekly. After a visit to Seattle to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps, Hattori understood. “They started their lives in Seattle as married people. It was a beautiful beginning for them.”
That beginning included a torii that used to stand in Seward Park and was removed in the 1980s. That beginning turned into internment during World War II, which took “a big chunk out of their lives,” and then a full life raising a family and running a store in Chicago.
“They epitomized kindness, humility, and generosity,” said Hattori. “They worked hard all their lives.” She wondered how she could pay them tribute. It happened that the Friends of Seward Park, along with other community members, had already embarked on a mission to rebuild a torii.
Hattori and her family decided to make a donation to the fundraising efforts, which in total benefited from the financial support of over 300 donors. On April 2, a new torii was dedicated, marking a “full circle” for Hattori and her family, who attended, and for the community where the park, its torii, its cherry trees, and Lake Washington have been a part of the residents’ lives for generations.
“Come ashore, my friends,” said Chief Seattle, ancestor to Ken Workman, Duwamish tribal council member who welcomed guests at the dedication ceremony. “You are
welcome here on this ancient land.” The torii is a symbol of welcome, and while it may have a religious meaning, it is just as often used as a symbol of a gateway. And just like the former gate, the new torii, made from Pacific Northwestern basalt and red cedar, also represents a place to relax.
State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, speaking at the celebration, called the torii a “jewel of the Park’s history.” She remembered, “like so many generations of South End kids,” spending “countless hours and days within the sentinel shadow of the Seward Park torii, the original, playing in the lake, attending summer camps, and learning how to drive”—that last comment elicited laughter. Until the original torii was removed, she hadn’t thought about its significance. The feeling, she said, was of being “bereft” because “something meaningful to me and my history, the physical evidence of my memories” was eliminated. That was why, Santos continued, “this is such a joyous occasion for me” and surely the same for long-time residents.
The original torii was built in 1934 as a part of a potlatch, a native tradition that, as Friends of Seward Park President Paul Talbert described it, was “misappropriated to promote tourism and trade”—the forerunner of Seafair. At that time, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce hired Kichio Allen Arai, whose son, Jerry, attended the April 2 event, to design a torii. With the help of Kichisaburo Ichimitsu, whose family are still contractors in Seattle today, the torii was erected at the Japanese Language School. The design, for which Arai was paid $2, was modeled in part after the famous “floating torii” in Miyajima, Japan. It was later reassembled in Seward Park.
Only seven years later, as Talbert chronicled, this “gift of friendship” was “repaid” by the incarceration of Japanese citizens. It happened that the date of the celebration for the new torii, chosen randomly, and delayed due to COVID-19 (the torii has been finished since 2020), took place 80 years after the seizing of Bainbridge Island Japanese residents to take to the camps. Larry Matsuda, a local poet who was born in Camp Minidoka and grew up in the South End, admitted, “There isn’t a day that goes by that [the incarceration] doesn’t cross my mind.”
The park has been a welcoming place of respite since that harrowing time. To Santos, the torii was a “statement that our immigrant forebears recognized that they were here to stay…[to say] that this is now our home, too.” Santos compared the crowd to the same diverse group she used to play with during “kenjinkai’s” at the park, parties that provided a day where people could forget “how hard it is just to live” and enjoy themselves.
“There is no place on Earth more beautiful than Seattle in the spring,” proclaimed Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who asked, what does the torii represent, really? He jokingly followed with, “Let me give you the right answer,” then clarified that the torii, for him, celebrates the beauty of Japanese culture, but also what we all share. The new torii, Harrell proposed, would “probably outlive everyone that hears my voice right now…Every time I see this, I’ll think about my Japanese American culture, I’ll think about my African American culture…I’ll think about what we have in common.” Harrell reminded guests that it was important to put away our differences “just for a little while so we can hear one another” and said that what he saw in front of him “right now, this is Seattle at its best…When I talk about #OneSeattle, this is what it’s about.”
The new torii was designed by Murase Associates, with Japanese architectural firm, Takumi Company, and public input. The project includes a donor stone and history stone. In the audience sat Japanese Consul General Inagaki Hisao, and scores of people descended from those original residents of Seattle’s South End. People that came on purpose, and people just wandering by were drawn to the drum beats of Seattle School of Taiko, the Washington Diamonds Drill Team and Drumline, or the lion dancers who culminated the ceremony. A young lady in a traditional Japanese kimono danced to a song about sakura, while, all around, cherry blossoms fell.
“Our new torii, like its predecessor, is intended as a gift of intercultural friendship, that welcomes all the many cultures that come together in Seward Park,” explained Talbert, who recognized that this was an “elusive goal…fraught with the contradictions of racism and ethnic hostility in our country.”
Santos iterated the importance of the “gateway of opportunity that our forebears passed through, giving all of us a foundation and a future which we now store for our children and our grandchildren.”
“It is a connection among all peoples,” said Hattori. “That’s what’s so beautiful about it. A symbol on a broad scale of a connection among all cultures, and it has this special personal meaning because of my grandparents. It’s very profound, particularly in these tumultuous times, where respecting all of humanity is important.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.