Matsuyo Murakami stands in the doorway of her Higo Variety Store on South Weller Street, circa 1912. Her husband Sanzo Murakami first rented a storefront in the Presley Hotel on Weller before moving Higo to Jackson Street in 1932. The couple emigrated from Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture; Higo is the name of a city in the prefecture and Sanzo Murakami’s birthplace. The store was boarded up and cared for by neighbors when the Murakami family was incarcerated. After the war, the three Murakami children operated the store, which lasted for 75 years.
Image courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum.

A Garden Grows in Nihonmachi

Essay by Florangela Davila

A garden grows in Nihonmachi, just off a Jackson Street alley sandwiched between Kaname Izakaya Restaurant and Tiger Tiger Tattoo. Small, simple and sculpted with a wood deck and a wooden slats fence, it represents the resilience of Seattle’s Japanese and Japanese American community.

The small plot once served the Murakami family, who lived and worked in the adjacent Jackson Building. You might know the story of the Murakami’s Higo Variety Store: how it sold life’s essentials to a thriving Japanese community in a bustling Japantown neighborhood; how it was boarded up during the Japanese incarceration of World War II; and how it returned post-war for locals who wanted nothing but to rebuild and return to ordinary life. KOBO at Higo, the retail shop and art gallery, now occupies the longtime five-and-dime. But inside the business stands an exhibit with Murakami family photos and personal items, including the luggage family members carried to the Minidoka internment camp.

Left: The garden is framed in part by a wooden fence that shows the growth, decline and rebirth of Seattle’s Japanese American community, from the arrival of 235 Japanese immigrants by steamship in 1896 through the incarceration in 1942 and up until 2010, when the population neared 8,000. | Right: Detail of the wooden sculptures.
Images courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum.

Seattle’s Japantown now also includes Chiyo’s Garden, named after the second-oldest Murakami daughter who died from tuberculosis in 1937. She was only 22. She and the Murakami family lived in the Jackson Building, a building Sanzo Murakami, in fact, helped build. The family resided above their Higo Variety Store, and through a window Chiyo Murakami would have stared out at this plot of land. The river rocks, a stone lantern, the Daphne and ornamental grasses are new additions for Chiyo’s Garden, a community restoration project by the Wing Luke Museum, the Murakami family and KOBO at Higo that opened this year. But the garden’s Japanese pear tree dates all the way back one century plus, still bearing round crisp fruit in late summer and early fall, its roots refusing to surrender because this patch of dirt is home.

Read the garden at higo by Alan Chong Lau