Photo Essay: Early Nikkei Excursions to Mt. Rainier

On a clear day, the 14,411-foot peak of Mt. Rainier looms large on Seattle’s southern horizon. The glacial mountain has played a major role in the lives of people living in the region for centuries. Long before settlers arrived, Indigenous peoples called it home and, to many, it remains a sacred place. Early Japanese immigrants living in the region also regarded it with great respect, dubbing it “Tacoma Fuji” because it reminded them of Japan.

The history of the mountain as a recreation site coincided with the arrival of thousands of Japanese Americans in the region. Mt. Rainier was designated the nation’s fifth national park in 1899, and Northwest Nikkei joined hordes of other visitors to hike, picnic, photograph, and explore the mountain’s new network of pathways and roads.

Excursions to the mountain were especially popular among a budding group of talented Japanese American photographers, many of whom were pioneering members of the Seattle Camera Club. As David F. Martin and Nicolette Bromberg write in Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club, two prominent members of this pioneering camera club, Dr. Kyo Koike and Iwao Matsushita, would often climb the mountain together and it “served as a spiritual wellspring for them.”

Koike often referred to Mt. Rainier as “the holy mountain.” He explained, “When I go out for my photographic trips, I see the mountain from anywhere in the vicinity of the city of Seattle. The snow cap is similar in the form to our holy Mount Fuji, so we Japanese often call it Tacoma Fuji.” This reverence was clear in his writing about a severe storm he encountered while resting at 10,000 feet. He came out of his tent and “looking back, there stood the holy peak of Mt Rainier…just before our face there was a sea of clouds, the top of the Tatoosh Range appearing and disappearing like sunken rocks amidst dashing waves.”

As the photos collected here illustrate, Koike was not alone in finding inspiration and joy on the rocky slopes of Mt. Rainier.

The Young People’s Club, or Seinenkai, brought together people in their twenties from North Seattle for social, cultural, and recreational activities, such as this one to Mt. Rainier. (L to R): Kiyoshi Tada, Alice Funai, Tak Nakawatase, Lily Yasui, Ko Abe, Mich Shimomura, Tadashi Kumagai, Stamy Kumagai, Hiroshi Yahagi, Kaz Tada. Courtesy of the Tanagis Family Collection.

Willie Maebori and Frank Natsuhara taking photos at Mount Rainier National Park, 1930s. Courtesy of Natsuhara Family Collection.

Mrs. Terada and her grandchildren at Sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park, 1930s. Courtesy of Natsuhara Family Collection.

Caption from photo album: “1940 / Snow / Mr. Hikida / Pearl Hikida / Rosie Terashima / Sis and Mrs. Hikida / at Mt. Rainier Washington,” courtesy of the Umeyo Sakagami Collection.

Mimbu family outing to Mt. Rainier, 1930. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Toyo Mimbu, Kan Maeda, and Frank Ouchi enjoy an outing to Mt. Rainier, c. 1927-28. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Couple on Mt. Rainier, c. 1940s. Courtesy of the Umeyo Sakagami Collection.

Kinnosuke Yanagihara hiking Mt. Rainier, c. 1930s. Courtesy of the Yanagihara Collection.

Kinnosuke Yanagihara and a friend at the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, c. 1930s. Courtesy of the Yanagihara Collection.

Hikers on Mt. Rainier, c. 1920s-30s. Courtesy of Eiichi Yamashita Collection.

Photographer on Mt. Rainier, July 27, 1930. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Group outing to Mt. Rainier. Toyo & Teruzo Mimbu, Kan Maeda, c. 1927-28. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Mt. Rainier outing organized by the Seinenkai, or Young People’s Club. (L to R): Tak Nakawatase, Lily Yasui, Ko Abe, Tadashi Kumagai. Courtesy of the Tanagi Family Collection.

Issei hiking on Mt. Rainier, July 27, 1930. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Mimbu, Ouchi, Maeda family outing to Mt. Rainier, c. 1927-28. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

Masaharu Kuroiwa of Boy Scout Troop 55 cooking a meal during an excursion to Mount Rainier, c. 1930. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

Toyo Mimbu, Frank Ouchi hiking Mt. Rainier, c. 1920s. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications and Public Engagement Director

Header photo: Two Issei men near Gibraltar Rock on Mt. Rainier, August 1920. Courtesy of the Tamura Family Collection.

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