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The fight over Portland’s Yamaguchi Hotel

The fight over Portland’s Yamaguchi Hotel, and the future of Japantown

OPB, March 13, 2023

Demolition of the historic Yamaguchi Hotel, the last building in Portland’s New Chinatown/Japantown district with Japanese-American owners, has already begun. The front windows are gone, and the building is surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The unreinforced brick structure has stood at Northwest 4th Avenue and Glisan Street for about 130 years.

The street level has housed shops and bars. From 1921 to 1941, the Yamaguchi family ran the top two floors of a hotel. Masae Yamaguchi served as a midwife in the area, an important role for a community that had difficulty accessing health care.

The fight over Portland’s Yamaguchi Hotel, and the future of Japantown

“It really is a symbol for a history that has often been forgotten,” said Chisao Hata, with the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, which stands kitty-corner to the old building.

“That is the history of over 300 businesses of Japanese Americans living in this area, of schools and churches and business and markets and stores and watchmakers and barbers – all kinds of community people that really had to live in this area. They didn’t have much choice.”

Racism and redlining made the area one of the only places immigrants could settle in 20th Century Portland.

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of all people of Japanese ancestry — regardless of citizenship — from the West Coast. That effectively gutted Portland’s Japantown.

“This is a population that was forcibly displaced from this area,” said Mark Takiguchi, with the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “About 50% never came back and some that did come back were not welcome.”

That history explains why a conglomeration of architects, historians and Japanese American civic leaders have been fighting the demolition of the Yamaguchi Hotel for years.

“Historic buildings tell stories and hold our histories. These buildings are more than just bricks,” Hata said.