Our iPhone Walking Tour of Historic Japantown Portland

japantownpdxWe are pleased to introduce you to Japantown PDX, a free iPhone app that grew out of our work with the Nikkei Legacy Center. The free iOS app documents the vitality of this once thriving “Nihonmachi” and its sudden disappearance in the spring of 1942 when all persons of Japanese ancestry were removed from the West Coast and placed in America’s concentration camps during WWII. In addition to telling Portland’s Japantown story, the app explores the remarkably diverse Old Town neighborhood in tour stops that honor its African American, Chinese and LGBT roots.

App Features
Our goal was to design a user-friendly app suitable for all technical “abilities.” We began by surveying the Nikkei Center’s rich collection of historic photos for location-specific images. The most notable and well-documented became our tour stops. When we had historic exterior shots we photographed the contemporary scene replicating the view. Thus users can watch historic Japantown street life reappear in “then and now” dynamic photographic dissolves. Each stop has multiple historic and contemporary images, text and an audio narration. We had many historic photos that told the story of a vibrant community, but they lacked location. We decided to include them in the app as a “Gallery Section.” The app also allows users to share image content with built in Facebook and Twitter buttons.

Then and Now representation

Then and Now Photo Japantown PDX

We also wanted to weave in an underlying narrative – the story of WWII’s Executive Order 9066, the forced incarceration of the neighborhood’s Japanese Americans first at the “temporary” Portland Assembly Center and eventually at the Minidoka concentration camp located in southern Idaho. While the app is location based, we elected to give it an narrative arc that begins with an opening audio greeting voiced by Jean Matsumoto who grew up in the pre-WWII Japantown. Jean and her family were among over 110,000 Japanese Americans that were removed from the West Coast and incarcerated without trial. The app details other stories of forced relocation and re-population of the the neighborhood after the war and invites users to learn more by exploring the exhibits at the Nikkei Legacy Center in the heart of historic Japantown.

UP Students Explore Nikkei Center Concentration Camp Exhibit
UP Students Explore Nikkei Center Concentration Camp Exhibit

Japantown-PDX-Map-viewAbout the Project Team

This app grew out of a collaboration between our class and the Nikkei Legacy Center. It was one of three curriculum design projects undertaken by students in support of the museum’s educational outreach. For more see  Student Consultants Design Museum Curriculum and Mobile App.

Our class served two roles in the app development – the entire class became our focus group – discussing what they thought needed to be in the app – both from the perspective of user experience and their growing knowledge of the history of Portland’s Japantown. Three student’s worked more directly – narration (Aram Glick), audio recording (Collin Soderberg-Chase) and logo (Samuel TS Kelly). Peter Pappas worked closely with Todd Mayberry to select content and images.

The other key team member was GammaPoint LLC a Portland-based mobile app developer. GammaPoint was interested in designing a user-friendly platform that would allow organizations to develop their own tour apps with a minimum amount of assistance. Our project served as their beta. We worked with GammaPoint on developing the tour design, generating prototypes which were then evaluated by my students and Nikkei Center. For example, we discovered that while we had a wealth of video interviews of former Japantown residents, their file size bloated the app. We used plist files to upload data to GammaPoint and tested their new web-based upload tool. It has now evolved into GammaPoint’s App4Tour which promises to be an affordable way for users to create their own multi-media rich tours with minimum of technical assistance.

Rediscovering Japantown Through Images

Matsubu Laundry

For use with the Nikkei Center Suitcase, I wanted to create a lesson that could be used in upper elementary. This is the age range that most often checks out the suitcases. However, one has to be discerning of what one can discuss with students at that age, and for the most part, I left that up to the person teaching the lesson. Therefore, this lesson focuses more on the changes in physical features. It is a compare and contrast lesson on the past and future. There are elements of history, current day features, discussion and writing. This is a lesson that focuses on Japan town before Japanese Incarceration during World War II. Students will gain an understanding of change over a long period of time as well as some of the causes for that change. Students will also gain some writing practice.

It was very interesting learning about a part of this city’s history. I feel that this lesson can be used and modified across the elementary grades and that it will give a foundation of deeper learning about the situation in the future. Having written several lessons at the third grade level at this point, I believe that this is both appropriate and useful at that grade.This lesson is merely a guide to a deeper lesson. Teachers may chose to modify it as they see fit for their classroom or grade level.

Teacher:                                                                     Location:

Class/Topic: Social Studies

Time: approx. 35 minutes for discussion and some writing time. Might be a good supplement for regular writing lesson.

Grade Level: 3-5                                                       Date:


This lesson would be a basic overview of how things have changed in what used to be Japantown (and is now partly Chinatown) and what might have caused physical features as well as themes and ideas to change. To do this, students will look at old images; find similarities and differences to their own experiences and time. Then students will discuss and write about these themes. This is a lesson on the general Japanese-American experience before Japanese Incarceration occurred during WWII.


  1. Students will gain a familiarity with how and why things change over time.
  2. Students will be able to discuss things stay the same across time and how things change.


Students will be gaining knowledge of how to work with images and documents as well as gaining familiarity over their own community as it was in the past and how it is now. This will also give them experience in finding similarities and differences as well as some writing skills.

More: Download Incarceration Lesson PDF version of the complete lesson (81kb)

Image Credit: http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/oregon_nikkei_legacy_center/

Nikkei Legacy Center – The Japanese-American Incarceration: Was it Constitutional?

For the Museum in a Suitcase project for the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, I wanted to create a lesson plan that encompassed the cultural experience during the time of Pearl Harbor and Incarceration of Japanese-Americans as well as discussing the question of whether it was Constitutional or not. It is a unique story that lends itself well to the study of marginalized communities throughout American History. This lesson is adapted primarily from OPB’s The Fillmore Neighborhoods and Japanese-American Internment Lesson. The following lesson plan can be utilized in any social studies classroom studying the Constitution for a lively role-play or those American Studies classrooms investigating what really happened to the Japanese-Americans after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Enjoy!

For a PDF of the whole lesson plan, click here (File size 161 KB).
Japanese Ancestry Internment Order

Overview of the Japanese-American Incarceration Experience: What would it feel like to have family and friends rounded up and ‘deported’ because of their race? In this lesson, students will gain a sense of what the experience may have been like for Japanese-Americans from Portland, Oregon’s Japantown during World War II. This lesson would fit it reasonably well with students who have already studied WWII, the bombing at Pearl Harbor, and constitutional history.

Goal: To analyze the Japanese-American experience of leaving their homes for years of incarceration. To observe and analyze the photographs and newspaper articles that describe this experience. To interpret the incarceration policy as constitutional or not.


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.



  1. Students will be able to analyze photographs and newspaper clippings from the time period in which Japanese-Americans were incarcerated.
  2. Students will be able to write a reflection that explains the experience of these Americans making connections from prior knowledge, experience, images analyzed.
  3. Students will be able to interpret the U.S. Constitution to uphold or reject the incarceration policy; discuss the constitutional issues in conflict during this time (habeas corpus, treason, equality before the law, citizen rights, search and seizure).

Time: Approximately 2 hours

Now and Then: Comparing life in old Japantown to students’ lives today


Japanese Community Queens Court, 1931.

Writing lesson plans for elementary students was simple. The kids lack the cognitive development of secondary students, so one does not have to bother with exploring abstract ideas. Instead, the lessons can be more basic and focus on developing skills students will rely upon as they progress through school and life. I had two goals when writing my lessons: don’t bore the students, and let them create something.

The Lessons
Both lessons were designed to be used in conjunction with the photographs included the Nikkei Center’s traveling suitcases. One lesson is targeted at lower elementary, the other at upper. Both lessons challenge students to analyze what they see in the photographs, make connections between the past and their lives, and create a product demonstrating their understanding. Overviews of the lessons and links to PDFs are provided below.

Lower Elementary:
This lesson offers students a chance to develop their critical thinking skills and make connections between their community and the Japanese community that existed in Portland in the first half of the 20th century. Students will draw where they live, examine the photographs in the suitcase, create a second drawing depicting life in Japantown, and finish by comparing their two pieces and presenting their findings to the class.

Comparing Community

Upper Elementary:
In this lesson students will explore how personal experience can vary based on the community in which you live. Students will imagine they live in Portland’s old Japantown. They will examine the photographs in the suitcase to develop an interpretation of life there during the early 20th century. Using what they learned, students will write a letter to a friend describing their life in Japantown.

Letter to a Friend

Image credit:  These girls are the Japanese Community Queens Court, voted for by the Japanese community, 1931. From left: Emi Somekawa, Frances Maeda, Fumie Marumoto (queen), Chizuko Inouye, and Takako Saito. The queen and princesses ride on the Japanese community’s float in the Rose Festival floral parade.

Oregon Nikkei Endowment on Flickr