After being abandoned by humans and ultimately reclaimed by the forest, recent thorough archaeological examination has led to the Japanese villages of Yama and Nagaya finally being acknowledged as the priceless historical sites they are.
A small settlement of Japanese immigrants, almost all of whom worked at the nearby Blakely Mill, adjacent settlements Yama and Nagaya were abandoned soon after the mill ceased operations in 1922. Once home to more than 50 small cottage-style houses and some 300 men, women and children, records indicate that by 1925 there was but a single person still living there.
On May 7, the villages were officially added to the National Register of Historic Places, the fourth such site on Bainbridge.
Previously, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation voted unanimously to put the Yama and Nagaya sites on the state Heritage Register of Historic Places, and also nominate them to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C., a nomination which has now been accepted.
The site was never heavily occupied before the Japanese came, and it has not been developed over since then, making it one of — if not the — best preserved Japanese immigrant village sites in the Pacific Northwest, according to E. Floyd Aranyosi of Olympic College’s Department of Anthropology, director of the recently-completed multi-year summertime Yama Project field school.
The initial residents of Yama were among the first Japanese immigrants to the area, he said. The village was divided into two sections, one for young men and bachelor workers (Nagaya) and the other for families with children (Yama).
The Japanese brought with them many possessions and customs from their homeland, making the village relics a unique blend of Old and New World artifacts, some of the finest of which will be on display as part of the new exhibit at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum starting in June: “Yama & Nagaya: A Pioneer Community.”
The new exhibit opens Friday, June 15, and all are invited to attend the subsequent gala opening reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28 at the museum.
Bainbridge Island also maintains its own local historic register, and the Bainbridge Island Historic Preservation Commission has scheduled a presentation from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 7 at city hall, to celebrate the sites’ addition to the register, as well as commemorate all other places of distinction on Bainbridge. Owners of historic properties will be presented with new plaques that state the site’s name and year of original construction.
According to Aranyosi’s study of the sites, “Yama, Washington: A Brief Narrative and Introduction,” the initial labor force at Blakely Sawmill was nearly exclusively of European ancestry; from Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Belgium, among other places. But, by the 1870s, growth of the timber industry and a decline in railroad construction led to an influx of Chinese laborers at the mill. By 1877, labor disputes and rampant anti-Chinese sentiment among the Anglo-Americans forced away many Chinese workers. Then, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented the mill from hiring Chinese workers at all.
The first Japanese settlers began arriving in the Pacific Northwest in 1888-89. The 1889 Census lists 35 Japanese men residing in Port Blakely, most of whom were reportedly employed at the mill. Most arrived without passports, and were thus not recorded by name.
According to Aranyosi, residential areas around the mill were heavily segregated by ethnicity, with about 25 Japanese men living together in one place called Nagaya. This shared living space was likely a kind of bunkhouse, he wrote, or barracks-style building, “long house” being the English translation of the Japanese word Nagaya.
Several Japanese settlements (known as Nihonmachi) existed on the West Coast by the late 19th century, Nagaya being the northern most portion of Port Blakely’s Nihonmachi, located on the area’s lower slopes, near the mill’s pond. The adjacent area, constructed later for women and families, Yama, is named for the Japanese word mountain, and is located south from Nagaya, on a rather steep slope.
Most of the workers at Nagaya reportedly intended to only stay in America long enough to earn sufficient funds with which to buy property in Japan. They referred to themselves as “watiridori,” or “birds of passage.”
Researchers have worked for years to uncover Yama’s hidden past.
The city of Bainbridge Island transferred ownership of the property to the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park & Recreation District, and the first serious scientific assessments of the site were done in the early 1990s, Aranyosi said, when several archaeologists came, did a surface survey and recommended that the site be protected and receive further examination.
More recently, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, in partnership with the parks district, reached out to Olympic College for a more thorough survey and excavation of the Yama site.
The Yama Project and Archaeological Field School taught students the principles of site survey, proper recording of provenience, artifact recovery, laboratory analysis, cataloging, curation and preparation of materials for museum exhibits, Aranyosi said.
It was a rare opportunity for community college students, the teacher said, and rarer still was the opportunity to have so perfect a site to sink a shovel. Despite nearly rampant development of the surrounding area in the wake of the mill closure, he said Yama “remained untouched.”
“Yama was the one neighborhood in the entire surrounding mill complex that did not get destroyed by subsequent development and that’s largely because it’s on such a steep slope,” he said. “It was not particularly appealing property for construction.”
It was a good enough base, though, on which to build a community.
“The preservation here is absolutely incredible,” Aranyosi said during the 2016 summertime excavation. “We’re finding pieces of shoe leather on the surface. Rick [Chandler] found an oil crayon used in the lumber industry to write on lumber, to write sizes. Things like that usually do not last on the surface up here because the soil tends to be quite acidic.
“I was quite surprised at the quality of preservation at this site.”