The story locked in a stone

Several summers ago, an architect contacted me to ask whether I could help with a curious discovery. In the backyard of an almost-hundred-year-old house in Seattle’s Chinatown–International District, hidden under overgrown shrubbery, workers uncovered a yellowish-tan oblong stone. Carved on one side, in English, was “Shinjiro Honda/Died Sept. 3, 1942/Age 65”; on the other was Kanji script that translated to “September 3, 1942/This is the grave of the deceased Shinjiro Honda/Lived 65 years/Shizuoka prefecture, Hamamatsu city.”

Under Washington State law, burial sites are protected from disturbance. The owner of the land needed an archaeologist to evaluate whether the stone did, in fact, mark a burial, so they were at a work stoppage. I was intrigued, and glad to help.

When people ask me “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?”, they usually picture archaeologists dusting off a precious relic or piecing together pottery sherds. The truth is that the coolest things found in my profession are stories: rumrunners on Vashon Island, a Finnish professional wrestler who started a cranberry farm in Grays Harbor County, a White River Valley woman who ran a farm solo from the 1930s through the 1990s. The mystery of a hidden gravestone in the International District.

My archival research began with the details etched on the stone: a name, a date of death, and an age at death. Early records are imperfect; sometimes you need to gather up details and sort them out as you go, seeing what fits and where you are missing pieces of the puzzle. This time I found quite a bit of information right away.

Born in 1877, Shinjiro Honda immigrated to the United States in 1905, just two years before the United States began to slowly close its borders to immigrants like him. Historical records indicated that Honda lived in Tacoma, Yakima, Wapato, and Seattle and worked as a cook, in a hotel, and possibly as a farm laborer. He married a Japanese woman, though I had difficulty confirming her name. Their daughter, Teresa Yoshi Honda, was born in Yakima in 1923. Further research about Shinjiro Honda — listings in city directories, census records, draft records, passenger manifests — revealed the typical details of an immigrant life: mangled spellings of non-English names, frequent changes of address, return trips to his homeland.

By 1930, Shinjiro was widowed (his wife died, likely of tuberculosis, in 1927), and Teresa was boarding at Maryknoll Mission, a Catholic school on Capitol Hill serving mainly Japanese and Filipino students. He worked for many years as a cook for a wealthy family in The Highlands, an exclusive gated community in North Seattle. Teresa graduated from Yakima High School in 1941, while living with family friends who owned the Horse Shoe Pool Room & Restaurant in Yakima’s Japantown.

Shinjiro and Teresa were among those incarcerated during Japanese internment. They were living in Seattle when Executive Order 9066 was issued by Roosevelt in 1942; Teresa was in her freshman year at the University of Washington (you can find her in the 1942 yearbook). They were sent to the Portland Assembly Center — the site of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion — and then on to Heart Mountain Relocation Center near Powell, Wyoming, with other Yakima-area residents.

I spoke to Heart Mountain Interpretive Center archivist Nicole Blechendyn, who graciously delved into the center's records to gather more about Shinjiro and Teresa.

Throughout his incarceration, Shinjiro was very ill with esophageal cancer. War Relocation Authority records show that he was in the hospital the entirety of his time at the Portland Assembly Center and was hospitalized in Seattle and Yakima before his incarceration. I suspect that his wealthy employer was helping him get medical care while Shinjiro was in Seattle, or at least he had greater access to Nikkei doctors ("Nikkei" is an encompassing term for Japanese immigrants and their descendants). The assembly centers were only temporary and solely provided infirmary-level care, so he likely would have been sent to a local hospital in Portland, and separated from Teresa, who was accommodated with the general population — in repurposed livestock pens.

Shinjiro reportedly died two days after arriving at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. The hospital there was likely under-supplied and under-staffed. He was buried in the Heart Mountain cemetery, the second person to die at the newly established camp. At the end of the war, his remains were exhumed and cremated in accordance with Buddhist tradition. His ashes were sent to his daughter in Washington, DC.

“Shinjiro Honda” is a rather common Japanese name, and even with birth and death dates, I hadn't been able to identify a connection between Shinjiro and the house where the stone was found. City directories showed he never lived in the house; maybe his ashes were not, in fact, buried in the backyard, as the Kanji inscription implied? According to the daughter of the former owners, no, it was not a burial site. Her family purchased the house several years after the end of Japanese incarceration, almost a decade after Mr. Honda’s death. In an email to the architect, she described the stone as simply a memorial marker for her father’s poetry teacher.

The detail that Mr. Honda was the former landowner’s poetry teacher gave me another search parameter. This somewhat routine project took a remarkable turn: I learned from a publication by Teruko Kumei, an authority on Japanese migration, that Shinjiro Honda was a leading figure in Japanese-immigrant senryu poetry circles, writing under the pen name “Kaho.”

Senryu (pronounced sennd-YU) is a Japanese poetry style that follows a 17-syllable structure. In Japanese, the poem is often one line or one sentence; in transcription to English, it is often phrased in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. Senryu is wry and witty; it is more about the human experience than the better-known haiku, a form that traditionally recalls nature.

As practiced by Japanese immigrants, senryu was akin to today’s poetry slam: poets dueled with the spoken word, and the audience, often fellow poets, chose a winner. It was an important type of oral history, with many senryu assuming the status of proverbs. For the Issei (first-generation immigrant), senryu provided an outlet to express intense homesickness, worries about Nisei (second-generation immigrant) assimilation, reactions to discrimination, honor in work, and ethnic pride:

Lovely kimono,
I’ve never worn you, and yet
Still air you every summer. (Shoko)

Chopstick customs go
Right with me, throughout my life
In this knife-fork land (Yukiko)

Pioneers! That means
Those who sowed, and left reaping
To sons and grandsons. (Toshiko)

In a few poems by Kaho (Shinjiro) Honda himself, I could see the details I uncovered in my research. For example, this one, written when his daughter was ten:

My dear, put this money
into the pot of the Salvation Army.
Remember the spirit of the holiday. (Kaho)

And this one, written as he faced raising his daughter alone:

Nisei children
Turn parents
Into strayed children. (Kaho)

Senryu is not seen as a high form of poetry in Japanese culture, but for Nikkei throughout Washington, it became an important cultural expression of their ethnic and immigrant identity.

In 1910 or 1912, Shinjiro Honda became the leader of a senryu group in Yakima, the first such society in North America. After his wife's death in 1927, Honda spent over a year in Japan (perhaps to take her cremated remains to her family); when he returned to Seattle, he focused his attention on poetry. In 1929, Honda and Shotei (a pen name) Yoshida co-founded the Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai (Senryu Society of North America) in Seattle. Gosenkai meant the group had no judge; instead, those gathered ranked the poems.

The Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai met weekly up to the time Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 disrupted their lives. The group’s selected poems were published in the senryu section of the Hokubei Jiji Shimbun (North American Times) and later in other newspapers. Shinjiro Honda's efforts to legitimize immigrant senryu were ongoing and significant. According to Dr. Kumei:

As the senryu became popular, Honda sought recognition from authorities in Japan. Leading members of the society started contributing their senryu poems to the Senryu Kiyari Ginsha, one of the leading senryu reading societies in Tokyo. They regularly ranked high enough to obtain full membership and the Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai was recognized as the first branch society of the Kiyari Ginsha in the United States. Yakima Heigen Nihonjin-shi (History of the Japanese People in the Yakima Valley) expressed proudly that their immigrant senryu poets were recognized as equal or superior to senryu poets in Japan.

Honda was the editor of Hokubei Senryu, published in 1935 by Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai; a copy of this 320-page book is held at University of Washington Libraries. It is the first volume of senryu published in the United States. This volume commemorates the fiftieth meeting of Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai — this represents roughly eight meetings per year. The group held an exhibition in Seattle in 1938, organized by Honda.

If I could take a moment to put this in perspective: Shinjiro Honda, a widowed father employed as a live-in cook for a wealthy family in North Seattle, most likely worked six days a week. Yet his achievements would be significant for a full-time writer today: holding weekly meetings of Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai (which I can only assume were in Japantown, an eleven-mile journey from his residence), corresponding extensively with newspapers in the United States and Japan, editing a volume of poetry for publication, and organizing a conference — all while writing his own poetry and teaching numerous students.

Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai is still is active, a tangible legacy. The group is now based in Tacoma, with a membership made up of Japanese-speaking women who arrived here after World War II and married American citizens.

As much as I'd uncovered, I still had a landowner waiting eagerly to resume renovations of their home. Although we concluded that the final resting place of Shinjiro Honda is unidentified, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation recorded the stone as a cemetery based on the Kanji inscription. The landowner agreed to keep the stone in place with no further disturbance, and the stone was returned to its original location under our supervision. That wrapped up the project.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Shinjiro and Teresa. Some of the insights I gained — into their lives, and into the immigrant experience — cracked me wide open. For example, I found a list in governmental records of what Teresa took with her when she left Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 to attend university in Ohio (many young adult Nisei were allowed to leave internment camps to take employment or attend school outside the “exclusion zone”). Among those items were her father’s subscriptions of the North American Times and his Japanese poetry magazines. When Shinjiro and Teresa entered the camp, they were allowed just two suitcases each; poetry was so important to Shinjiro that he prioritized it over household items when packing for incarceration.

That burial stone revealed a man who worked tirelessly to preserve the voices of people seldom included in the history books: poor immigrants enduring separation from family and homeland, suffering discrimination, facing harsh anti-immigrant laws, braving the impact of assimilation on them and their children.

The stone in the International District is not the only commemoration of Shinjiro Honda. Farmers found another, with inscriptions solely in Kanji, in a field near Powell, Wyoming, several years ago. The dark gray column is inscribed with Honda's name, the name of the poetry club that placed it, and an unattributed short poem that is too weathered to translate. It now stands near the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. A third memorial, I learned, is located in the Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle. This stone, a professionally carved polished pink and black granite, is inscribed in Kanji with a poem by Shinjiro himself — a fitting last word:

To live! That is good . . .
But to die, released from care —
Is that not good too?