Memorial stones help Seattle archeologist uncover the life of a Japanese immigrant | KNKX

Memorial stones help Seattle archeologist uncover the life of a Japanese immigrant

Jan 11, 2019


A large stone, covered in brambles, in the backyard of a house set to be torn down in Seattle’s International District was Paula Johnson Burke’s first introduction to a man named Shinjiro Honda.

Burke is an archeologist in Seattle. Her job is to essentially collect pieces of objects and documents to see what story they tell about our past.

If there is any big dig in the region, such as a tunnel for light rail or a giant pit for the foundation of a new building, Burke and her colleagues are on the lookout for buried objects that might shed some light on how people lived here in the past.

The stone weighed more than 100 pounds. It was in its natural state — a script in Japanese kanji on one side, a message carved in English on the other. It said "This is the grave of Shinjiro Honda.”

Burke needed to find out if there was a body, or ashes, buried underneath this stone. She contacted the daughter of the man who owned the house who told Burke, “No, it was just a memorial stone to honor my dad’s poetry teacher.”

There weren’t any remains under the rock, but Burke wanted to know more. Who was this man who taught poetry and who inspired someone to go through the trouble of erecting and carving a stone in his name? She started looking through old census records and learned that during World War II, Honda was sent to the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Powell, Wyoming.

“They are an interpretive center now and they interpret the history of the Japanese internment during World War II, and they also had a stone. It was carved on three portions of the rock,” Burke said.

A Japanese poetry society that had formed at the camp erected this rock in Honda’s honor. There also was a poem carved into the stone, but it was too weathered to read.

“I was really starting to become a little more interested in 'who is this guy?' What is up with all of these stones?” Burke said.

If you were to cross paths with Shinjiro Honda in Seattle back in the 1930s, you would have encountered a middle-aged man who, at first glance, was part of the workforce that kept hotels and wealthy households running.

“I’m sure they saw a servant,” Burke said, “He worked as a cook in a hotel, he worked as a cook in a private home for many years. Shinjiro Honda most likely worked six days a week.”

But as the stones revealed, there was much more than cooking for wealthy white people going on in this man’s life. In fact, Burke discovered a third stone dedicated to Honda. It’s in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery. His remains are not here either, but a poem that he wrote is etched into the rock, in Japanese. In English is says, “To live, that is good, but to die, released from care, is that not good too?”

As Burke dug more into Honda’s past, another life started to come into focus. Outside of his service jobs, Honda was a highly respected artist in the Japanese immigrant community. He was a master of a type of poetry called senryu. It’s pronounced Sen-DYU. It’s similar to haiku in that it’s short: three lines and 17 syllables.

“There were poems of using chopsticks in a forked world. Just very evocative images of contrasting what it’s like to be a foreigner in another land,” Burke said.

In the 1930s, Shinjiro Honda was one of the organizers of a senryu poetry symposium in Seattle. Poems from this event were published in Japan as an anthology. Burke tracked down one copy of this book at the University of Washington Special Collections Library, which is where we met up with Wakae McClean, a native Japanese speaker.

A librarian produced a small green book. Inside the book, each page looks like a grid filled with kanji, katakana and hiragana. Each row is one brief poem. Some pages have as many as 12 poems.   

The book’s prologue tells the story when these Japanese writers first met and how the seryu poetry group grew during the 1920s and early 1930s. According to the prologue, this group was the first of its kind in North America. Some poets corresponded from as far away as the territory of Alaska. As Wakae MacLean read through this tiny script, she gave a translation of what the writers were really trying to do with their poetry: creating Japanese art in their new, foreign home.

“We really wanted to have Japanese culture in the dessert of North America,” MacLean read.

MacLean said these men and women likely didn’t have access to many Japanese books or newspapers. She said, “When you are thirsty you want to drink.”

For Burke, there are still many unanswered questions she would love to find the answers to. She hopes to locate the house where he lived and worked, in The Highlands.

“Just to be in a space I knew he had been in, that would be amazing," Burke said. "I have lots of questions. I think I will keep chipping away at this one for awhile because it really took hold of me. There are just so many bittersweet things about this story."

Shinjiro Honda died Sept. 3, 1942, at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, at 65 years old. He died of esophageal cancer only three days after arriving at the camp. His remains are not under the stone in Wyoming.

Burke hopes to visit the interpretive center in Wyoming someday.There, she would like to find out more about Shinjiro Honda's only child. He had a daughter. If Burke can find her or family members who knew her, then the location of Honda's final resting place might finally be known.

Paula Johnson Burke first wrote about Sjinjiro Honda for the Seattle Review of Books. Here is a link to her original story and research.