Idaho History

20th century brought new respect for Japanese in Idaho

Idaho Japanese help Japan defeat the Russians in 1904.
Idaho Japanese help Japan defeat the Russians in 1904. Provided by Arthur Hart

“Hastening to Defend Japan,” read an Idaho Statesman headline on Jan. 3, 1904. “Hundreds have quit Idaho jobs in the past day or two to take passage home. Many fought in the Chinese war and want to fight the Russians. The patriotism of the Japanese is superb.” The paper expressed concern about what the railroads would do about construction and maintenance of rail lines all over Idaho if too many Japanese workers left, concluding that crews would have to be reduced in size.

The Russo-Japanese War did not actually start until more than a month later, on Feb. 8, 1904, when Japan’s navy launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in China. The Russian fleet was decimated, and later destroyed by Admiral Heihachiro Togo. The Statesman reported in March 1904: “Joseph Motatake, who is employed at the Banquet saloon as a porter, has received a summons to join his artillery company in the Japanese army. He will leave Boise tomorrow and sail from Seattle next Thursday. Mototake, who is a quiet and industrious young man, is delighted at the opportunity to serve his country.”

The Emmett Index was intrigued in November 1905 by watching Japanese carpenters at work remodeling rooms in the Emmett Hotel for a new restaurant. “Their manner of working is a curiosity as well as some of their tools. In sawing they pull their saws toward them instead of pushing as most carpenters do. The plane is used in the same way. Their saws have thin blades about the same length and width as a corn knife and they have long handles as big around as broomsticks. The teeth are set toward the handles. The little men are quick as chain lightning and are good workmen.” Other news items from Emmett that year mentioned hiring Japanese gardeners and the opening of a Japanese laundry on First Street.

Japanese restaurants have been popular in Idaho for a long time, although their menus in the early years were more American than Japanese. In March 1898, this ad appeared in the Statesman: “Wanted — By a good experienced first class Japanese cook, a situation in hotel either in city or country.” In July a Japanese cook in Boise named Joe Yam was fined $7 in police court for riding his bicycle at night without a light. Another Statesman ad from 1901 read: “Wanted — by a young Japanese cook, situation in boarding house or family, city or county. Call 111 Seventh Street.” In 1902 Henry Aoki had a restaurant at that same address, and young Japanese boys ran ads in the paper looking for work as cook’s helpers or dishwashers.

Boise city directories list these Japanese who owned or worked in restaurants: In 1905 Tom Kawanaka owned and ran the Oriental restaurant at 115-117 N. 7th St. (today’s Capitol Boulevard), and Charles and Tom Odo worked at the Boston Lunch; in 1909 Joseph Kato was a waiter at John Ota’s Restaurant at 202 S. 10th St. Joseph Kiyama ran the New York Restaurant at 115 N. 7th. The directory doesn’t list the names of those who worked at the Togo Restaurant at 109 S. 10th.

There were Japanese restaurants in most towns across Southern Idaho. When H.K. Taniguchi and T. Tashimaru bought the Gooding Restaurant in 1910, the local paper said: “There is not now a single white restaurant in town. The new proprietors are clean, neat and nice appearing young fellows and have had considerable restaurant experience.” Attitudes toward the Japanese had certainly changed in less than 20 years.

By 1916 there were Japanese restaurants in Ashton, Boise, Buhl, Caldwell, Idaho Falls, McCammon, Minidoka, Parma, Payette, Pocatello, Preston, Rigby, Rupert, Twin Falls, Weiser and Wendell. In that same year Japanese ran pool and billiard halls in Blackfoot, Boise, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Twin Falls.

The 1941 relocation of all West Coast Japanese-Americans to virtual prison camps in the arid U.S. interior, like the one near Minidoka, was a tragedy to be recalled in a later column.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email