Alaska Pioneers

Grassy rise as possible site for the Empty Chair Memorial in Capital School Park.

Roger and Karleen Grummett took our Empty Chair PowerPoint to a meeting of over 50 Pioneers of Alaska Friday night in Juneau. Roger addressed the gathering and Karleen managed the PowerPoint. Committee member Marie Darlin also attended.

Included in the PowerPoint is the video we have posted on this page of Alice Tanaka Hikido describing her experiences during her family’s internment at Minidoka and their subsequent return to Juneau. She also details how her family was supported in their efforts to begin their lives anew by members of the Juneau community. If you are interested in her story, just scroll down and listen to Alice narrate her family’s experiences in the video entitled “In the Same Boat.” As Karleen reported, “We heard oohs and aahs, sad ones and interested ones as Alice spoke on the video, as well as throughout the presentation. People were especially happy to see Alice’s current family photos.”

The Grummetts’ presentation must have been very successful as the Pioneers pledged $2,000 dollars to the Empty Chair Project to be allocated at the beginning of next year. Speaking on behalf of the committee, let me take this opportunity to publically thank the Pioneers for their generous contribution to our efforts. It is truly appreciated.

Possible backdrop for the Empty Chair Memorial.

Artist Visits Juneau


George Schaaf, Peter Reiquam and Marie Darlin survey possible spots for The Empty Chair Memorial in Capital School Park.

Peter Reiquam, the artist who is fabricating The Empty Chair Memorial, along with members of The Empty Chair Steering Committee, walked Capital School Park with Brent Fischer, Director of Parks and Recreation, and George Schaaf, Juneau Parks and Landscape Superintendant, on September 20th. Juneau Empire reporter Melissa Griffiths also attended to record information for a future article once the final site within the park has been approved.

Peter preferred “high ground” for placement of the memorial, a grassy rise near the corner of North Franklin and Fifth streets. The location allows someone seated in the “chair” and facing South to see down the channel where the City Cafe once sat and the docks where the army transport collected the local Japanese internees for their trip to Seattle. Peter also prefers it because of the picturesque Mt. Juneau background and the greenbelt location in the park. In addition, being on a rise not only lends prominence and stature to the memorial, but allows better viewing of it. We are hoping to integrate the committee’s vision for the memorial into future plans for the park prior to the third Capital School Park Master Plan public meeting in October.

Thanks to Roger and Karleen Grummett for housing Peter while he was in Juneau and for hosting a reception to introduce him to the steering committee at their home. In a thank you note to the committee Peter wrote, “The way you have all welcomed me into your circle of friends must be somewhat like the way the Japanese families must have felt on their return to the city. It’s clear there are a lot of caring and compassionate people there and that’s a real comfort. I’m looking forward to working with all of you throughout the life of this project.”

Vintage Chair

A wooden chair from the 30’s or 40’s

Roger Grummett unveiled his newest contribution to our efforts. He brought a small wooden chair, dating from the 30’s or 40’s, home from the family cabin at Lena Point. It was a centerpiece at the reception the Empty Chair Steering Committee gave for Peter Reiquam during his one day visit to Juneau. He came to walk Capital School Park and get a feeling for the community and the spot where the final rendition of the Empty Chair will find its home. The chair was such a hit with Peter that he took it back to Seattle with him to refer to while fabricating his art. It will return to its Juneau home again when the artwork is completed.

Quote of the Day

Here’s a response from Anne Grisham Schultz, a member of the Juneau High School Class of 1958, concerning the memorial itself.

“The chair will be a remarkable addition to the old neighborhood and a long overdue tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Excerpts from Gilnettings by Gil Truitt in the Daily Sitka Sentinel

In May of 2012, Gil Truitt wrote an article for his column “Gilnettings” in the Daily Sitka Sentinel. In it, he tells how he witnessed the evacuation of the Japanese population from Sitka in 1941.

“If one is old enough, December 7, 1941, has different meanings and many memories to many individuals. To many, it meant fear but just the opposite to others. Although quite young at the time, those in my generation wondered why the aggressive nation from across the Pacific dared attack us, the richest and strongest nation in the world. We predicted the war would last no longer than a month. That shows how much or how little we know about just about everything.

To those of us in Sitka, etched forever in our memories was the arrest of a Japanese family that ran and operated the local laundry. It was a big establishment, even for that era. To go back just a few hours of that fateful day, the morning started cold and crisp. Although there was much talk of war, the  big talk among the youngsters was attending the Sunday matinee in the old Coliseum Theater on Lincoln Street. Capacity crowds attended the matinee “show” (as the movies were called) not only on Sunday but Saturday as well. Needless to say, those matinees were popular.

When the matinee ended and everyone departed the theater, it was surprising to find Lincoln Street covered with tons of new snow. However, the big surprise was witnessing the armed contingent of U.S. Marines escorting the family down Lincoln Street, presumably to the dock shack and then to the Japonski Island Naval Base. We never forgot the sadness and shame on the faces of the family. There was much pity and sorrow from those who witnessed an act that was occurring all over the Pacific Coast and Pacific Northwest. Many years later, citizens from all over the country would regret those shameful acts.”

In the article, Truitt makes reference to the Tanaka family and the City Cafe of Juneau.

The City Cafe in 1938

“The Juneau Empire carried a story recently about the Shonosuke Tanaka family who went through the same experience as the Sitka family mentioned at the head of this column. For sadness and perhaps injustice, the stories for both families were the same: confusion and loneliness. However, the Tanaka family remained loyal to this country and did not talk much about experiences in camps in California, Idaho and other places.

The Tanaka family owned and operated the City Cafe on South Franklin Street. According to the Juneau Empire, the family owned it 35 years before internment and 15 years after. The restaurant was named “Star Cafe” when it was established in 1912. The City Cafe was an institution in the Capital City and was always considered to be a “Working Man’s Restaurant” but was popular with customers from all walks of life:  Governors; politicians; tourists; and street people. All that was lost when Shonosuke Tanaka was removed from Juneau. From all reports, the Tanaka family was not “rounded up” on December 7 as was the Sitka family. However, by April 1942 all Japanese Americans were gone.

John Tanaka was a Senior and was scheduled for graduation in the spring of 1942. Since the town was aware of what was happening to those of Japanese descent, JSD scheduled a special graduation for John. A packed Juneau High School gymnasium witnessed the ceremony as a way of showing their respect and love for John. Vern Metcalfe, sportswriter, described the event many years later as emotional, and heart rendering. He put finis on the story with “There was not a dry eye in the packed gymnasium.”

According to the recent article in the Empire, John was well liked and was to be the class valedictorian, but when the ceremony for the Juneau High School Class of 1942 began, where Tanaka would have sat was an empty chair.  A.B. Phillips, school superintendent, praised and complimented John, talking about his citizenship, contributions to the school and academic achievements. Years later citizens continued to express gratitude for the act of kindness displayed by the superintendent. The empty chair story was confirmed recently by Marie Darlin, a family friend.

Mary Tanaka Abo was two years old when the family was sent to an internment camp and five years of age when the family returned to Juneau. She has no memories of the internment but knows quite a bit of what occurred from stories from the older family members. Mary and the family did not talk much about the experience of being away from Juneau. When the family returned, the first order of business was to re-open the City Cafe. The family succeeded with the help of the Messerschmidt Bakery and Katsutaro “Slicker” Komatsubura of Petersburg. Shortly after the re-opening, Shonosuke, “Slicker” and Taguchi formed a partnership. Business flourished, much to the surprise of Tanaka who exclaimed, “They all returned!” in reference to all the old customers. A few years later and according to two different sources, the restaurant was given to Sam. He and brother Gim became legends with reputations that stretched from one end of Southeast to the next.

When Sam and Gim retired from the cafe, Sam said by far the best and most favorite customer, barring none, was Governor Bill Egan. And he added, “But that did not stop me from telling him how to run the State!”  The cafe was popular with athletic teams around Southeast and Sam always had an answer and remedy for all the reasons for the team losing. If they won, they were told, “You guys are lucky. You lucked out again!” A 1995 Juneau Empire stated, “Gim cooked and Sam was the talk show host.”

The old building was demolished to make way for the rebuilding of that area of South Franklin Street. The institution is gone and the void has not been filled.”

Gastineau Heritage News – The Empty Chair at Fifth and Seward by Jean Kline

Below is an article from the August 2012  Gastineau Heritage News, a publication of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society.  It is titled “The Empty Chair at Fifth and Seward” by Jean Kline.

The Tanaka family story, and similar accounts of other Japanese-Americans, has led a local group to commemorate those who were rounded up and shipped south early in World War II.

In 1900, Shonosuke Tanaka immigrated to America from his home in rural Japan. After some railroad and domestic work, he headed for Cordova and then to Juneau, arriving here about 1907. By 1912, he opened the City Cafe, a 24-hour “workingman’s restaurant,” noted for its willingness to extend credit to those down on their luck.

In 1922, Shonosuke went back to Japan to marry Nobu Fujita. They returned to their home in Juneau. The couple had five children, who over the years were all responsible for tasks at the cafe.

According to daughter Alice Tanaka Hikido, the outbreak of World War II dramatically changed the destiny of the Tanakas. Because of their Japanese ancestry, Shonosuke Tanaka and other Japan-born men were arrested by Federal marshals and shipped to an internment camp in New Mexico in early 1942. Wife Nobu and the children were instructed to close their affairs and to prepare to also be interned.

Eldest son John, a well-liked Juneau High School senior who was to be the valedictorian of his class, took on the responsibility of closing the City Cafe. He was assisted by Mike Monagle, a Juneau attorney. At the graduation of the Juneau High School Class of 1942, an empty chair sat where John Tanaka would have been seated.

In 2010, Margie Alstead Shackelford and her sister, Karleen Alstead Grummett, heard about the Tanakas’ internment days from their friend Mary Tanaka Abo. The two sisters decided to move forward on a memorial to honor those Japanese-Americans who were taken from their community.

They have since formed The Empty Chair Commmittee with the assistance of Mary Tanaka Abo. With the support of the City and Borough of Juneau and many friends, they have engaged a Seattle-based artist and sculptor, Peter Reiquam. The memorial is to be located in the Juneau Capital School Park, the former site of several Juneau schools. It is apparent that this committee and its ultimate goal have wide support.

The Juneau Community Foundation has assisted the committee and will provide the vehicle to collect donations and disburse funds. At this time, more than $10,000 for the $40,000 project has been pledged. A website is being designed to keep supporters informed.

Donations for this memorial project would be very welcome. Checks or money orders can be written and sent to Juneau Community Foundation, 350 North Franklin Street, Suite 4, Juneau, Alaska 99801. Please make reference to the Empty Chair Project on the memo line. If you wish to donate using a credit card through the Community Foundation’s website:  www.juneaucf.org, please add two percent of your donation to cover the PayPal transaction.

For those of you who would like to become a member of the Historical Society and receive their newsy periodical, you can write to Gastineau Channel Historical Society, P.O.Box 21264, Juneau, Alaska, 99802.  It’s $20 per individual and $25 per familty.