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The heart of Toppenish Buddhist Church still beats in Spokane

Every day after school in first grade, Dave Sakamoto walked from Garfield Elementary in Toppenish to the Buddhist church on the corner of South Fir Street and Washington Avenue.

It wasn’t far, only a few blocks south, and Sakamoto didn’t make the trip alone. His brother Ben, older by a year, two young uncles and other Nisei — children born in the U.S. to immigrants from Japan — also headed to the white wood-frame building for an hour or more of Japanese language school.

They came from elementary schools, from Toppenish junior high and high schools, walking up the wide steps to the front porch and through the double doors of the rectangular building at 601 Washington Ave.

“Mostly it was the very basic language and the very simple reading — the real simple stuff,” Sakamoto, 82, recalled of the lessons in the foyer.

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In the years before World War II, three cities in Yakima County featured thriving Japanese communities, each with Buddhist churches also housing Japanese language schools. Along with the Yakima Buddhist Church in Wapato — the largest of the three — and the church in Toppenish, Buddhists in Yakima rented space at 202 1/2 E. Chestnut St.

The spiritual and social hearts of members’ communities, the churches closed in the spring of 1942, before 1,017 Yakima Valley residents of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming because of Executive Order 9066.

Signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, the order forced approximately 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry into 10 remote prison camps until the end of World War II.

Only about 10 percent of Valley Japanese residents returned, most to Wapato, where the Yakima Buddhist Church still holds services and a popular sukiyaki dinner every March. But the Japanese communities in Yakima and Toppenish never recovered, nearly disappearing from local history as former residents settled in cities far away.

“Nobody came back to Toppenish,” said Eddie Iseri, 89, of Zillah.

The Toppenish Buddhist Church never reopened. The building sold in 1948, its golden altar and accompanying scroll with the reverent Japanese inscription “Namu Amida Butsu” already gone.

But it lives on in another way. When people gather at the Spokane Buddhist Temple, they see an altar given with sadness but also love by members of a church that would never reopen to those founding a new temple.

“I thought it was really incredibly nice” of the church to donate the altar and scroll to Spokane, said longtime member June Yugawa, 79. He remembers how both were saved from a fire in April 1992.

The Toppenish Buddhist Church was established in 1930 when members paid $800 for a house and a lot. The Japanese population of the Lower Valley town had grown substantially since 1905, when Kishiro Sakai led a group of about 40 men from Hawaii to work in the Satus Nursery, according to “Profile: Yakima Valley Japanese Community, 1973.”

Many of those men stayed to establish farms around Toppenish, the booklet notes. As the town’s Japanese population increased, new businesses served it. Diazo Hirai opened a grocery store in Toppenish in 1910 and later, the Cross Hotel at 411 S. Toppenish Ave.

Others eventually included a barbershop, the Kamemoto Kamegi Grocery at 16 W. First Ave., Mrs. Uyeda Suma’s grocery store at 214 W. First Ave. and the Eagle Hand Laundry at 14 W. First Ave. And members of the Japanese community ran a couple of restaurants across the street from the current police station, Sakamoto said.

Around 1935, about 160 people of Japanese ancestry were living in Toppenish, while nearby Wapato had the largest Japanese population then at about 500. Around 120 lived in Yakima.

“At one time, there were Japanese students in almost every class of the Toppenish school system,” Roy Snyder recalled in an article in “Toppenish from Sagebrush to 1997.”

After members established the church there, a man from Yakima donated $5,000 for its shrine, Iseri said. Parents funded the Japanese instructor’s salary by paying a certain amount per student.

An undated negative in the Yakima Valley Museum shows 40 people — all children of various ages except for three women, one toddler and one man — standing in front of the Toppenish Buddhist Church around 1938.

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This photo showing students in the Japanese school at the Toppenish Buddhist Church is a large undated negative in the Fern Studio collection of the Yakima Valley Museum archives. That Toppenish photo studio closed years ago. This photo shows the Rev. Tessho Matsumoto, his wife and young son, who was born in 1937. Matsumoto was "the top reverend" in the area at the time, according to Moses Lake resident Marjorie Konishi Hattori, who grew up in Toppenish. The Rev. Shizuo Kai led the Toppenish church. He and his wife, Kimi, also lived in the building with their family. They left the Yakima Valley in 1941. (Courtesy Yakima Valley Museum)

Two of the adults are the Rev. Tessho Matsumoto and his wife Miye, who holds their son, Yukio, born in 1937.

“This brings back a lot of memories. ... Look at all these people,” said Marjorie Konishi Hattori, 88, a Toppenish native who moved to Moses Lake as a teen after Heart Mountain.

She quickly identified three siblings in the photo. “This is Joe, and (Ichiro); we always called him Ich, or Ichie. This is my sister Yuri,” she said.

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Marjorie Konishi Hattori, 88, of Moses Lake was 13 when her family had to go to Heart Mountain. (TAMMY AYER/Yakima Herald-Republic)

Their parents, Fusakichi “Frank” and Tomi Fujimoto Konishi, met while working in the hop fields around Toppenish. They farmed land leased from the Yakama Nation and had eight children — Kiyo, Joe, Yuri, Miyo, Ich, Marjorie, Fumi and Sueko, known as Janice.

The kids took the bus into town for public school and got a ride home after Japanese school, Hattori said. When they and members of the Valley’s Japanese community learned in May 1942 they would soon be forced to leave, they had to quickly sell or make arrangements to store their property.

“We all had to leave our homes, because we were told to leave. So we all stayed there at the church, the (Hide family) and us,” Hattori said.

Kiyo married Ned Osumi that spring. After Heart Mountain closed, they left for Spokane; Ned then got a job working for farmer and state legislator Frank “Tub” Hansen of Moses Lake. The rest of the family joined them there.

“The prejudice — you really had to be careful what you did,” Hattori said. “It was kind of hard after the war; I had three (Caucasian friends); these three girls were good to me. They took me in.”

Hattori was 13 when she and her family went to Heart Mountain, and her sister Miyo had just graduated from Toppenish High School, though she and her fellow graduates of Japanese ancestry couldn’t participate in ceremonies.

“My art teacher sent my diploma with a rose. We were living in the church then,” said Miyo Konishi Koba, 93, who lives near Hattori and has run Frank’s Market next door for 65 years. Husband Frank died nine years ago.

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Miyo Konishi Koba, 93, of Moses Lake, Wash. (TAMMY AYER/Yakima Herald-Republic)

“They had curfew when I graduated. There were about seven of us that sat in the cafeteria while they practiced their commencement. We weren’t allowed to participate; graduation was in the evening,” Koba said.

“We were in wartime hysteria ... at the time we were certainly not a threat,” she said.

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