In honor of American Archives Month, we feature a guest post from Densho Digitization Tech, Christen Greenhill Robichaud. In this essay, Robichaud details her team’s work on an exciting new collection that contains more than a century of Seattle Nikkei history. 

The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple (SBBT) has been an integral part of Seattle’s Nikkei community since it was founded in 1901. Over the last century, they have amassed an extensive archive of photographs, documents, textiles, and physical objects that cover everything from Obon to the forced removal during WWII. Densho and the SBBT Archives have been working together to preserve and exhibit the Temple’s collections — and we’re excited to announce that now you can view this fascinating archive in the Densho Digital Repository.

Beginning in 2018, Densho’s Micah Merryman and Caitlin Oiye Coon worked with the SBBT Archives to index hundreds of boxes on their shelves. One of our discoveries was a collection of costumes, wigs, backdrops, and scripts for shibai (drama) performances. These elaborate costumes and stage designs were used in productions at the Nippon Kan Theater, organized by members of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple and other local groups. SBBT Archives and Densho collaborated with the Wing Luke Museum to preserve the hand-made items after decades of storage in steamer trunks. The Shibai: Seattle Japanese American Theater Collection is now available at the Wing Luke Museum for future generations. 

Shibai performance at the Nippon Kan Theater with shamisen players on raised platform.
Shibai performance at the Nippon Kan Theater with shamisen players on raised platform. April 1927. Photo courtesy of Mark Yuasa.
A red cotton vest from a shibai performance, featuring a gold embroidery spider with glass eyes.
A red cotton vest from a shibai performance, featuring a gold embroidery spider with glass eyes. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Betsuin Archives Committee.
 Gojikai shibai performers gather at one of their last performances, Issei Nite, in 1983.
Gojikai shibai performers gather at one of their last performances, Issei Nite, in 1983. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Betsuin Archives Committee.

After completing the index, Densho and the SBBT Archives received a grant from 4Culture to digitize some of the oldest and most fragile items to share with King County residents. In 2019, Caitlin Oiye Coon and Christen Greenhill Robichaud began the work of locating, digitizing, and cataloging materials for Densho’s digital repository. After years of hard work, five collections are now available to the public on Densho’s website. 

The Community Collection

The Community Collection consists of materials related to the Seattle area and the Japanese American community on the West Coast. 

Men stand outside the Japanese Togo Employment Agency, c. 1930.
Men stand outside the Japanese Togo Employment Agency, c. 1930. Photo courtesy of the Community Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.
 A man holds two babies in his arms, c. 1930.
A man holds two babies in his arms, c. 1930. Photo courtesy of the Community Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.
Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple members pose around a Japanese Fishing Tackle Dealers Association float.
Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple members pose around a Japanese Fishing Tackle Dealers Association float. Photo courtesy of the Community Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.

The World War II Collection

The World War II Collection highlights the crucial role the Temple played during mass removal and the role its members played in the concentration camps.

A membership list for the Minidoka Consumers Co-op. As in other camps, Japanese Americans at Minidoka formed a cooperative store to make toiletries and other personal items available to their fellow incarcerees.
A membership list for the Minidoka Consumers Co-op. As in other camps, Japanese Americans at Minidoka formed a cooperative store to make toiletries and other personal items available to their fellow incarcerees. Courtesy of the World War II Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.
A letter from Yukiko Fujii to W. D. Hile, District Attorney, about obtaining a release for her husband, Yoshito Fujii, from the custody of U.S. Immigration, dated January 22, 1942.
A letter from Yukiko Fujii to W. D. Hile, District Attorney, about obtaining a release for her husband, Yoshito Fujii, from the custody of U.S. Immigration, dated January 22, 1942. Courtesy of the World War II Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.
 The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple stored items for many members while they were incarcerated during WWII. Pictured here is a storage list for Mrs. N. Tsu Tsumoto.
The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple stored items for many members while they were incarcerated during WWII. Pictured here is a storage list for Mrs. N. Tsu Tsumoto. Courtesy of the World War II Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.

The Conventions Collection

The Conventions Collection showcases photographs of Buddhist conventions held regularly on the West Coast.

 The 1st National Young Buddhist Association and 3rd California Young Buddhist League convention in San Francisco in 1939.
The 1st National Young Buddhist Association and 3rd California Young Buddhist League convention in San Francisco in 1939. Photo courtesy of the Conventions Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.
Group photo of National Young Buddhist convention attendees, c. 1940.
Group photo of National Young Buddhist convention attendees, c. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Conventions Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives.

The Temple History and Records Collection

The Temple History and Records Collection preserves materials related to the founding of the Temple and the construction of the current Temple building at 1427 S. Main Street.

Two men hold American and Japanese flags at the front of a procession moving the Seattle Buddhist Betsuin Temple’s butsudan in 1933.
Two men hold flags at the front of a procession moving the Seattle Buddhist Betsuin Temple’s butsudan in 1933. Photo courtesy of the Temple History and Records Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple.
Workers and building materials at the construction site of the Betsuin’s second (and current) location at 1427 Main Street in Seattle. January 26, 1941.
Building materials at the construction site of the Betsuin’s second (and current) location at 1427 Main Street in Seattle. January 26, 1941. Photo courtesy of the Temple History and Records Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple.

The Temple Organizations and Events Collection

The Temple Organizations and Events Collection highlights events hosted by Temple’s numerous social clubs.

Group photograph of the Drum and Bugle Corps and All-Girl Color Guard outside the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, c. 1965.
Group photograph of the Drum and Bugle Corps and All-Girl Color Guard outside the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, c. 1965. Photo courtesy of the Temple Organizations and Events Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple. 
New Kibei group at Kendo Hall (now the Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall), c. 1941-42. Reverend Terao of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple is seated in the front row, second from left.
New Kibei group at Kendo Hall (now the Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall), c. 1941-42. Reverend Terao of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple is seated in the front row, second from left. Photo courtesy of the Temple Organizations and Events Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple. 
Women perform at Bon Odori outside the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, c. 1965.
Women perform at Bon Odori outside the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, c. 1965. Photo courtesy of the Temple Organizations and Events Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple. 

Densho’s collaboration with the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple Archives is ongoing, so check back regularly for additions to these collections!

By Christen Greenhill Robichaud, Densho Digitization Tech

[Header image: Street view of the newly constructed Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple in 1965. Courtesy of the Temple History and Records Collection, Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple.]

This project was supported, in part, by 4Culture of King County.