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.

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