Capitol Hill Historical Society | American Sutra book launch at Elliott Bay and remembering the Koba family of Capitol Hill

Normally the story of the period of illegal incarceration of Japanese Americans is told as if they were homogeneous and of one voice. In fact, beyond obvious differences like living in the country or the city, or being American citizens or not, there were other discreet groups within the population of ethnic Japanese in America. An event this week at Elliott Bay Book Co. is a reminder of this diversity and one Capitol Hill family and its apartment building’s place in this history.

On Thursday, February 14 Elliott Bay is hosting a book launch event for Duncan Ryūken Williams’s book American Sutra. It’s the history of Japanese American Buddhists during World War Two.

Williams tells us that the largest group — and the least understood by other Americans — was the Buddhists. The racial discrimination we’re familiar with was not the whole story. It was exacerbated by religious discrimination as well. Buddhists were the focus of early FBI raids, their leaders were subject to separate imprisonment, and their religious activity was often suppressed.

The experience in the camps was quite different for Buddhists and Christians. American Sutra chronicles those differences and describes that many aspects of American Buddhist practices were forced to change during the war.

Mukashi Mukashi (long ago)

Seattle’s Buddhist temples and their community are discussed by Williams along with other West Coast cities and Hawaii.

To learn more about Seattle specifically, find yourself a copy of Ronald Magden’s Mukashi Mukashi ($25 via email to office@seattlebetsuin.com), which made it into Williams’ end notes and bibliography. It is the history of one of the two Japanese temples in Seattle in 1941.

As expected, most of the people named in Mukashi Mukashi were living around Yesler on First Hill or the Central District prior to incarceration. But one example of a Capitol Hill family is prominently featured.

The Koba family’s story and the racism that they faced on returning from the war was given several pages. The story focuses on the apartment building, Halmar Apartments, that they owned and lived in at 13th and Denny. The Kobas owned the Halmar into the 1960s.

Halmar Apartments at 13th and Denny, owned by Koba family of Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple from 1940s to 1960s (Rob Ketcherside)

But the Kobas weren’t the only Japanese family on Capitol Hill, and they weren’t the only Buddhists. The Imayanagita family ran a grocery called Progressive Grocery at John and Thomas where Julia’s is today.

The Imayanagitas were mentioned in this CHS Re:Take, with an as-yet-unfulfilled promise that you’ll hear more about them. Also there was the Nitta family who ran a grocery at Pine and Boylston called Green Grocery and lived around the corner. An article about the Nittas will run in the history pages of CHS soon. All three of these families were members of Seattle Betsuin.

Duncan Ryūken Williams called Mukashi Mukashi “one of the most well-researched social histories in the study of American Buddhism.” Apparently he set out to one-up Magden, because a full quarter of American Sutra is rich endnotes, highlighting just how well researched his own book is.

American Sutra is Williams’ fifth book about Buddhist history, and expertly fills the gap of American Buddhism social history during the pivotal years of World War Two. If you are interested in this relatively unexplored area of 20th century history and a better understanding of what families like the Kobas experienced, stop into Elliott Bay Thursday night.


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