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May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. In celebration Kenai Fjords National Park pays tribute to Harry Kawabe, a Japanese immigrant who made Seward his home in the first half of the 20th century. A successful business man, Harry and his wife Tomo, generously helped to educate numerous children. This legacy continues through the Kawabe Memorial Fund which awards an annual scholarship to a graduating Seward High School student.
Article written by Katherine Ringsmuth, NPS Historian
In hard times sparked by the Great Depression and World War II, one might think that intolerance and racism would have been more apparent in Seward.But it appears that the contrary occurred.Even though relations between
Harry Sotaro Kawabe was born near
In 1916, Kawabe bought a lot on
Throughout the 1930s Kawabe invested in a gold mining operation near Moose Pass and several Seward businesses, included the Bank of Seward, Kawabe's Gift Store and Alaska Furs, the Seward Hardware Company, the Place Hotel and Bar, Moose Bar and Liquor Store, The Marathon Café and Seward Grill, and the O.K. and Miller Barbershop Company.His holdings prompted the local newspaper to declare Kawabe "one of the large property owners of the town."He also invested in real estate, including the laundry buildings, the Northern Apartments, and Dreamland Hall.One of Kawabe's properties is owned today by the National Park Service.In 1939, W.T. Yasutake sold two lots to Kawabe, who later built a housed used as a rental on the site.
On November 24, 1941, fire swept through downtown Seward, destroying much of the commercial district.Resident John Paulsteiner witnessed the disaster, and later explained that the local fire department made a significant effort to save Kawabe's property."When the big fire started in 1941," wrote Paulsteiner, "Kawabe owned a small house below the Seward Hotel. When the fire jumped cross the alley to engulf the Seward Hotel, the firefighters put a cable around Kawabe's house and dragged it down the street near the Railroad Depot at the time of the fire."
A few weeks after the devastating 1941 fire,
I dreaded the task. Accompanied by men from the provost marshal's office, I arrived at the laundry building in the early evening darkness. I found the proprietor whom as in the boiler room stoking the fire. He was alone. We stood in semi-darkness, the only light being the reflection from the firebox. I told him what had to be done. He sighed, hesitated, and then asked to go upstairs.
Tomo Kawabe, wide-eyed, met us at the top of the stairs. Her husband looked at her wordlessly and began collecting a few personal belongings. She turned and rushed to the kitchen. In an apparent state of shock, she hastily opened and heated cans of food and began to set the dining table. Catching my eye, she kept motioning to the table with her hands, "You must eat," she seemed to be pleading.
I asked her to stop. Tight-throated, I could not have swallowed the food—any food—at that time. Nevertheless, she continued almost frantically to motion to the laden table. I had to turn by back to her.
It was finally time to go. Her stoical husband walked down the stairs without a backward glance. Tomo Kawabe, one hand over her mouth, looked after him through the dim stair light."Don't worry," I remember saying helplessly, "you'll see him soon," I had no idea that she really would.Whether she believed me, I didn't to know. She just stood there and gave no sign that she even heard me."
Forty-eight hours later the government took the four other Japanese men in Seward, all of whom were connected to Kawabe's laundry, to
In the years after Kawabe left, Seward endured its own hardships, particularly the Good Friday earthquake in 1964 that led to an economic downturn from which the town never fully recovered. Like the town of
Ronald Inouye, "Harry Sotaro Kawabe: Issei Businessman of Seward and Seattle," published in Alaska History in 1990.
John Paulsteiner, Seward, Alaska: The Sinful Town on Resurrection Bay, published in 1975.
Mary J. Barry, Seward: A History of the
Last updated: April 14, 2015