The long-awaited Olympics are back! The foremost sports competition was put on hold for 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic rendered international travel unsafe. A year later, the games are set to commence on the 23rd of July this year in Tokyo, Japan, and we couldn’t be more excited. Portland’s rich history of Japanese influence in and around the city makes our connection to the Summer Olympics that much more special. From the early beginnings of the city of Portland, iconic attractions in modern-day downtown, to one of the oldest sister city associations in the nation, Japan’s presence in Portland can be felt and experienced by visitors and locals alike. To celebrate, we designed a line of Olympics-inspired merch, featuring iconography inspired from trips Portland Gear took early on in our story, and authentic graphics commemorating this year’s event, releasing this weekend.
Portland’s Japanese history can be traced back to the early 1890’s when landless Japanese farmers sought better wages and employment opportunities than what was to be found in their homeland. Settling near Union Station and Old Town in NW Portland, a majority of Japanese immigrants worked on the railroad system, in canneries, or at farms.
By the turn of the century, nearly three thousand Japanese immigrants had moved to Portland, and over half of them resided in the newly-established Japantown (Nihonmachi), located where present-day Old Town is. Many worked in service industries, but there were a handful of others who opened their own shop or restaurant. In the Buckman neighborhood, the Ota Tofu Company was opened in 1911, and has been described as the oldest standing tofu shop in the entire United States.
Over 100 businesses flourished within an eight-block radius by 1940 - a self-sustaining economy where the Japanese community could receive medical care, buy food, obtain legal assistance, and bank. 50 years after their entrance to the United States, the Japanese-American community found a new place they could call “home”.
Then, in 1945, the Japanese Community were allowed to return to their homes, but found a majority of their belongings missing - including their residences and businesses. However, the Issei’s (first-generation immigrants) spirits prevailed, as Japanese-Americans relocated to other parts of Portland and the suburbs, spreading with them their unique cultural heritage that was newly-informed by the socio-economic landscape of the vibrant 50’s.
The Portland-Japan connection runs deeper. Established in 1958, the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association was formed as a way to highlight the many similarities and differences between the two cities. The association also worked towards promoting Japanese-themed events in and around the city. We even sent one of our iconic Benson bubbler water fountains to Sapporo as a way to further bridge the city's connection. Several Olympic events will be held in Sapporo this year, including the marathon and soccer preliminaries.
One of the best-known collaborations between Portland and Japan is the Portland Japanese Garden. The design of the garden was supervised by internationally-recognized Japanese landscape architect Takuma Tono and Kengo Kuma (who also designed the national stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics). The Portland Japanese Garden features five original gardens within, and was opened to the public in 1967. Additionally, the Kashintei Tea House was imported from Japan and reassembled in 1968. Today, the Japanese Garden sees visit from over 200,000 people annually.
Our Olympics-Inspired collection this year not only commemorates the return of the games, but also highlights important parts of our story as a brand. In 2017, Marcus and Eli took a trip over to Japan in the earlier days of Portland Gear, to participate in pop-up shops and to experience the culture first-hand. Featured on one of our designs this year is the same graphic found on a poster that Marcus and Eli found while in Japan. In addition, our lead designer Jaylen Fast was raised for over half of his life in Nagoya, Japan, and has a deep appreciation for the country as a whole.
For additional reading on the cultural connections between Portland and Japan, refer to this article written by Willamette Week that explores Tokyo and their affinity for the Rose City!