In retrospect: John Kichitaro Tabusa, an early adventurer

By Art Chin

Editor’s note: In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we’re running this story written by Art Chin, who painstakingly researched the history of an early Issei in the Pacific Northwest.

The Tabusa family portrait, with the Tabusa daughters as adults (Photos provided by Art Chin)

Sunrise on Truk Islands

During the 1890s, small groups of young Japanese adventurists sailed in small schooners to the Micro­nesian islands in the South Pacific to set up Japanese trading companies. For glory, profit, and adventure, they helped foster the spirit of Japanese expansion­ism to compete with the profiteering and colonial aspirations of European and American powers.

Many of these young Japanese adventurists, some of samurai lineage, established their trading stores in the Truk (Chuuk) Islands. One such pioneer was Kichitaro Tabusa, who negotiated land contracts.

Tabusa was born on Nov. 12, 1875, in the small, scenic port town of Onomichi in Hiroshima-ken, within the Seto Inland Sea area. Having learned the English language at an early age, something that was of great value throughout his life, Tabusa was a crew member translator and negotiator.

According to archival documents from 1898 and 1899, Tabusa negotiated the acquisition of a num­ber of parcels on the southern part of Troas (Tolass) Island. They included deeds for parcels in villages with a lifetime agreement written in English be­tween Tabusa and the various chieftains.

In 1899, Spanish control in the region waned. The Spaniards sold their colonial rights to the Germans, who were antagonistic toward Japanese traders.

According to historical references, Tabusa’s firm, the Hiki Trading South Seas Company, was sus­pected by German colonial authorities of running guns and liquor to the Truk Islanders. In January 1901, as the entire Japanese community of Truk — some 14 traders and planters — celebrated the new year, a German warship appeared offshore on Meon Island. The German colonial governor and soldiers surrounded the building, and they found liquor and weapons on the premises. The governor ordered all the Japanese to be placed under arrest. Days later, the Japanese were expelled from the island.

During this period, Tabusa returned home.

John Kichitaro Tabusa's baseball team, the Yamatos from the Camp at Selleck

An immigrant’s journey to Selleck, Wash.

Back home, Tabusa explored his options for further adventure and economic gain. Lines of re­cruitment and immigration to the Pacific North­west were open.

The Oriental Trading Company of Seattle was among several brokers that recruited labor with branch offices in Hiroshima and Wakayama Pre­fectures. Established in 1989, it was a railroad com­pany network with cross links to mining and lum­ber contractors in the Puget Sound area. Japanese immigrants to Washington state increased dramatically in the 1900s, when many Issei were employed as contract workers in the timber industry. In 1901, 2,685 Japanese men, 20 percent of Washington’s Japanese population, worked in mills.

Tabusa immigrated through the Seattle dock aboard the M.S. Minnesota on March 21, 1906. For practical purposes, he adopted the name “John.” What transpired in this period of his life is unknown. However, records indicate that he came on as a sawmill foreman at the Selleck Lumber Mill.

To offset labor shortages, Japanese workmen were brought to the mill at lower wages. Like many other historic Wash­ington mill towns, Selleck had a section known as “Japan Town” or “the Camp at Selleck,” where Japanese bachelors and families lived and were seperate from other ethnic groups. The Japanese were given a cleared area on the out­skirts of Selleck to build their homes, probably before 1910.

Tabusa was an avid baseball fan and participated with con­siderable pride. The Japanese camp had a baseball team called the Yamatos, which played Japanese baseball teams from nearby mill towns Barneston and Eatonville. They even com­peted with Japanese teams from Seattle and Tacoma.

“The Camp at Selleck” was sprawled informally alongside the mill, fanning out alongside the railroad tracks. Many of the Japanese workers lived in one of three boarding hous­es, which were built around a central bath house and cook house. Families lived in separate houses. They even built a Japanese language school, although Japanese children at­tended the American public school in Selleck as well.

It has been noted that between 1910 and 1920, 12 Japanese families, including 24 children, lived in Selleck. Tabusa and his wife, Matsuyo (Yokome), started a family with two daugh­ters, Florence (Shizue) and Laura (Harue), born in 1914 and 1916, respectively. The following year, the Tabusa family left the area and resettled in Seattle. The mill town fell on hard times during the Great Depression and finally closed its doors in 1937. It is now a King County Historic Preservation site.

The Hotel Niagara, a hotel Tabusa operated from 1920 to 1923

Business success in Seattle

With prospects for a better family life due to Seattle’s developed Japanese community, the Tabusa family found a new home and urban lifestyle.

In 1910, the Nijon-machi (Japan town) in Seattle was centered on Sixth and South Main Street. The area extend­ed from Yesler Way to South King Street and from Fifth and Seventh Avenues. It included all the economic, social, and political institutions found in an “immigrant ghetto.” It adjoined the Chinatown area and was in close proximity to the King Street train station and the major shipping docks.

The Japanese population at that time was reported to be 6,127, according to the U.S. Census. Tacoma had 1,018 Japanese Americans. According to the 1920 U.S. Census report, Tabusa was a “hotelman.” By 1918, he had already joined the Japanese Association of North America and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, both housed in Seattle. According to the 1919 Seattle Directory, Tabusa operated the Hotel Niagara and then the Hotel Newport from 1920 to 1923. The following year, he operated Jackson Fruit and Produce, which prompted a career change.

In 1928, Tabusa was listed as a grocer at Lincoln Market at 800 Madison Street. Keeping the same business name, in 1932 and 1933, he opened a grocery store on Green Lake Way and lived nearby on Wallingford Avenue. He later opened another grocery store in the Central area.

His youngest daughter, Laura, graduated from Lincoln High School in 1932. “My father was very funny and smart. He would take pictures of himself and develop them in the [bedroom] closet, a makeshift dark room,” said Laura.

It was documented that Tabusa returned from a trip to Ja­pan with his wife and daughter in 1940. They must have felt the tension in the air. The following December, the Pearl Harbor incident occurred, which led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans the following spring.

Time to say goodbye

In February 1942, Executive Order No. 9066 was an­nounced, authorizing the War Department to remove the Japanese from selected military areas at their discretion, including citizens as well as aliens.

The Tabusa family, along with about 7,000 Seattle and Puy­allup Japanese Issei and nisei, were uprooted and sent by train to Camp Harmony at the Puyallup fairgrounds, where they were temporarily housed from about April to September in 1942. Subsequently, the family was interned at Camp Mini­doka, Ida., along with many others from the Seattle area.

Tabusa died in camp, at the Minidoka Project Hospital, from illness on Nov. 9, 1943. A notice of his death may be found in the Nov. 20, 1943 issue of the camp newspaper, the Minidoka Irrigator, which noted only his name, age, and residential block number. It served as less than a footnote with respect to the quick and tragic end of a colorful life. ♦

Art Chin is a Seattle native with a Master of Arts in Geogra­phy from the University of Washington. He is the co-author (with Doug Chin) of, “Uphill: The Settlement and Diffusion of the Chinese in Seattle,” and author of, “Golden Tassels: A History of the Chinese in Washington,” “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere: The Legacy of the Flying Tiger Line,” and “The Seaboard Saga: A History of Seaboard World Airlines.”

Chin can be reached at

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