home‎ > ‎

Seward Park Torii Story

In 1934, Seattle revived the Golden Potlatch celebration (the ancestor of today’s Seafair) that had been suspended by World War I. While the pre-war Potlatches celebrated the wealth of the Klondike Gold Rush, the 1934 celebration billed itself as the International Potlatch, promoting international trade. The Potlatch committee was eager to involve the Japanese community to help promote Seattle as the “Gateway to the Orient”. The Seattle Japanese Chamber of Commerce welcomed a chance to participate, creating a float and providing Japanese folk dancers. They also sponsored a torii (Shinto gate) that was displayed on University Street between 4th and 5th Avenues in “Orient Square” (University Plaza, a former park-like median in the street). 

Design sketch of Potlatch Torii by A. K. Arai, 1934, UW Libraries, Special Collections

The design sketch for the torii was made by Kichio Allen Arai (also known as A. K. Arai). For his sketch of the Potlatch torii he received $2.00. The construction of the torii was supervised by Kichisaburo Ishimitsu. Delivery of the lumber, valued at $46.71, to the “Japanese school house” suggests that the torii was assembled at the Japanese Language School. Ishimitsu received $78.20 for his carpentry services. The torii was painted with an equal mix of oxide red and vermillion, with the top lintel (kasagi) painted black. The torii bore the inscription “Seattle – America’s Gateway to the Orient” on a sign suspended from the torii crosspiece (nuki). The total cost of the torii was about $172, with many donors giving gifts from ten cents up to $20 from the Japanese Business Association.

After the Potlatch, the torii was disassembled and donated to the city to be relocated to Seward Park on the north side of the small Japanese-style entrance circle garden, where it was re-assembled the following year on concrete supports that are still visible. The hanging sign apparently did not accompany it to the park, since it is missing in all photos of the torii.

Seward Park torii, shortly after installation, 1935, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

The Seward Park torii was modeled after the famous O-torii (Grand Gate) or ‘floating torii’ offshore from Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, and was built without nails. Torii (literally,‘bird perches’) mark the entrances to the sacred spaces encompassed by Shinto shrines. Some think that they once served to attract roosters to honor the sun goddess Amaterasu. Since Shinto shrines typically mark outstanding natural places or celebrate nature in naturalistic gardens, the Seward Park torii could be viewed as having marked the entire Bailey peninsula as a sacred natural space, in the same way that the O-torii marks the entire island of Miyajima as sacred.  However, the Seward Park torii was never associated with any shrine, and its purpose as a symbol of intercultural friendship was distinctly secular.

Arinoura O-torii, Miyajima, JapanPhoto by Lizabeth Coller

Monica Sone describes the pride of the Japanese-American community in Seward Park in the 1930s in her book Nisei Daughter. When visitors from Japan arrived, 
"Always the sight-seeing party was escorted to Seward Park on the southern point of the lake. Here was a bit of oriental heaven which the Seattle Japanese had helped to create…. On these tours the local Japanese waved their arms about with the grand air of real estate barons as if they were saying, “We, too, have a beautiful Oriental garden, complete with torii,” while the courteous Japanese guests permitted themselves to be fascinated. Although they had seen acres of lovelier landscaping in Japan the sailors gazed and opened their mouths in astonishment. They said Seward Park was, indeed, one of the most gorgeous they had ever seen."

Cherry Blossoms, Ray Atkeson, 1949

The torii became an icon and gathering place. The annual Rainier District Pow-Wow, begun in 1934 just before the installation of the torii, took place in the meadow in front of the torii, usually with the stage placed in front of the torii, so that it served as the backdrop of the Pow-Wow. The Pow-Wow continued until 1992. Generations of participants remember the torii.

                                                       Rainier District Pow-Wow, girls' running race, 1950, courtesy of John L. O'Brien family

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Berne Jacobsen wrote to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer decrying the “mockery” the war had made of the Japanese gifts. Despite strong anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, the torii remained in the park throughout the war. By 1948, Park Maintenance Superintendent Roland Koepf noted an “advanced stage of decay” in the torii (although it is not evident in photos from 1949 and 1962), and recommended rebuilding it. Plans for reconstruction of the torii were made in 1954, with the note that a park visitor had reported a flying squirrel nest (more likely an eastern gray squirrel nest) in one of the central columns. However, there is no indication in park records including annual reports or in the Seattle Times archives that the reconstruction was ever carried out. 

Sketch for re-construction, 1954, Seattle Municipal Archives 

By 1962 the torii’s red paint had faded to brownish, and a new coat of red was requested by a citizen. The Municipal Arts Commission, noting that torii in Japan are allowed to weather naturally, recommended against re-painting it. 

Photo submitted by citizen, 1962, Seattle Municipal Archives

The torii was dismantled sometime between 1985 and 1986, presumably because nearly 40 years after it was first noted, the “advanced stage of decay” had made the torii a hazard. A Parks employee, cognizant of the cultural significance of the torii, rescued some of the lumber and kept it in his back yard until the Friends of Seward Park arranged for it to be donated to the Wing Luke Museum in 2012. The concrete supports of the torii are still visible among the yews and other trees surviving from 1934. 

Torii remnant, 2012

The choice of the torii, which dominated the park entrance for 50 years, as the emblem of the Seward Park Centennial in 2011 has led to renewed interest in this park icon and to calls for its restoration. In 2012 the Friends of Seward Park obtained a Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund grant to plan its restoration. They hired Murase Associates, landscape architects, to develop a design with public input.  Based on this input, Murase Associates, working with the Japanese architectural firm Takumi Company, developed a final design. The Friends will seek additional grants and do fundraising to finance the construction of the final design. 

The Architect
Kichio Allen Arai was one of Seattle’s first Asian architects. Arai had recently returned from graduate school at Harvard when he made the torii sketch. He faced the difficulty of trying to start a career during the Great Depression. Racial prejudice meant most Nikkei got jobs within their own community, but that community was diminishing as Japanese-Americans left the area in search of jobs. Arai had previously designed the Nichiren Buddhist Church, and he subsequently designed the Yakima Buddhist Bussei Kaikan in Wapato, and then the Seattle Buddhist Church before his career was interrupted again by incarceration during World War II. Post-war he worked for local firms, and designed the Idaho-Ontario Buddhist Temple in Ontario, Oregon and the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn. He died in 1966.

The Carpenter
Kichisaburo Ishimitsu had worked as an oyster opener before establishing himself as a carpenter. Because he was Japanese, he was unable to join a union, but was picketed by union members for not joining, and his house was seriously vandalized after his son got in an argument with two union members. While incarcerated at Minidoka during World War II, his tools were stolen, but he managed to re-establish his contracting business, K. Ishimitsu and Sons, in the Rainier Valley for many decades. Ishimitsu and Sons assembled the Japanese Teahouse, a gift from Tokyo, in the Arboretum’s Japanese Garden. Ishimitsu died in 1993 at age 105.