BY IRENE SHIGAKI
Kakuzo Kawakami was born on October 3, 1875, to an impoverished family of tenant farmers in Mie-ken Japan. At the early age of ten, he left his home and family to become a carpentry apprentice in Wakayama-ken. Kakuzo soon realized that there may be more opportunities for him in America and began to save money in earnest for the trip to the States. Since he was the third of four sons, Kakuzo was able to pursue this dream by entrusting the care of his parents to his oldest brother.
When enough money was saved, Kakuzo returned to Mie-Ken to inform his family of his plans. Unfortunately, his father had an eye condition that required medical attention; Kakuzo offered his saving to his parents to help cover medical expenses and began to save once again for his trip to America. After an additional two to three years of hard work and frugal living, he had once again accumulated the money needed for his trip. In 1899, at the age of 23, he left Japan and his family for North America with hopes of better opportunities.
Kakuzo worked as a journeyman carpenter with a bamboo-ware maker in San Francisco, when he was offered a position in Seattle with the Furuya Company. Mr. Masajiro Furuya provided more than employment, he was an important formative influence on the impressionable Kakuzo: he was introduced to Christianity and he adopted the Furuya dress code that included a black tie and white shirt for formal occasions–a practice that he followed for the rest of his life. The young and enthusiastic Kakuzo thrived under the disciplined, yet supportive tutelage of Mr. Furuya and his capable “Furuya men.”
As time passed, Kakuzo’s family expressed concern that he was not yet married and offered to find a wife for him. Wishing to find his own bride, Kakuzo turned for advice to his “senpai”–his senior–Mr. Ayao Hattori, a prominent figure at the Furuya Company. Mr. Hattori introduced Kakuzo to the Nitoh family of Tokyo–Yoshiyuki Nitoh had been a samurai, but became a Christian minister during the Meiji era. Kakuzo returned to Japan to marry their daughter Yamako in 1907.
Back in Seattle, Kakuzo learned of opportunities in hotel management, a career path that suited him well. Over the span of some fifty years he managed a series of nine hotels in the Pioneer Square/International District of Seattle. These were not upscale establishments, but were single occupancy rooms providing housing primarily for male laborers, a niche in the Seattle economy that many Japanese businessmen were to fill.
After the untimely death of his wife in 1913, Kakuzo married her younger sister Fukuko–a common practice in Japan to insure that extended family members were cared for. Fukuko gave birth to two children who died in infancy while Kakuzo managed the Union Hotel at 3rd Avenue and Washington St. The family quarters at the back of the hotel overlooked the railroad tracks. Their kindly, Caucasian, woman physician advised them to move away from this unhealthy environment. Unable to rent a house in the social climate of 1919, Kakuzo was deeply affected by the discrimination directed toward Japanese. Instead, he purchased a house at Ingersoll Place in the name of his new infant daughter, since alien land laws excluded Japanese immigrants from owning property. The locality proved to be congenial with helpful neighbors. Next door to the Kawakami’s lived a family of German immigrants, who were particularly kind. The wife taught Fukuko many household skills including dressing chickens, making sauerkraut, baking, and wine-making. The Kawakami’s third born daughter Yukiko flourished and was soon joined by two younger brothers–Iwao and Toshio.
By the onset of World War II, Kakuzo managed and owned the Tacoma Hotel at 9th Avenue and Jackson St. together with a partner. The four-story hotel had 206 rooms.
Both Kakuzo and Fukuko Kawakami became naturalized American citizens in 1953, when citizenship rights were first made available to those of Japanese ancestry.
By the early 1960’s, the Tacoma Hotel was destroyed to make way for the freeway that passed through the International District. Kakuzo was then able to enjoy full retirement until his death at age 89 in 1964.