HANFORD — Naomi Tagawa is celebrating her 99th birthday Saturday and rather than accepting gifts, she wants to give one back to Hanford.
In honor of Tagawa’s birthday, the China Alley Preservation Society is organizing “Save the Laundry Building Project.” Tagawa and her family owned the Kings Hand Laundry, 214 N. Green St., since 1916 and she’ll be wishing for its restoration as she blows out her candles Saturday.
“We’ll work on turning [the laundry building] into something that preserves the laundry building, preserves her family’s history and preserves the legacy of the Japanese community,” Steve Banister of the China Alley Preservation Society said.
The land was originally purchased in the early 1900s by her parents, Sakutaro (George) and Tazu after emigrating from Japan, for one gold coin worth $600.
The historic business needs a foundation and repairs to the porch, which are the main goals of “phase one” of the planned restoration. Currently, the century-old building rests on the ground and the outer walls are deteriorating where they meet what is currently soggy, muddy ground.
The China Alley Preservation Society and the First Presbyterian Church – Tagawa is a member – are hoping to raise $100,000 through donations from the community before Tagawa’s 100th birthday.
“She’s loved by the community so there’s been an outpouring of birthday wishes and an outpouring of support for this project,” Arianne Wing of the China Alley Preservation Society said.
The birthday celebration is scheduled for 2-5 p.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church, 340 N. Irwin St. Those interested can also donate by contacting the China Alley Preservation Society Laundry Building Project, P.O. Box 728, Hanford, CA, 93232.
Tagawa said that, for a few years, she had been wanting turn the building into a place where local artists and writers can meet, an idea which will come to fruition when the project is completed. But that will only be part of it.
The restored museum will feature the work of renowned artist Henry Sugimoto, a Hanford native and Tagawa’s brother-in-law. Sugimoto’s art, much of which portrayed his experience in Japanese internment camps during World War II, is now a part of Smithsonian collections. He died in 1990.
The building will also serve as a museum capturing in time Tagawa’s laundry service as it was during its many decades of operation.
“It was not too much of a change,” Tagawa said of the laundry business and the methods and equipment used from the time she took it over in 1962 to the time the business closed its doors in 2015.
Tagawa continued working at the laundry building into her 90s.
“I washed regularly and starched and hand-ironed [clothes] and [customers] liked the way I did the work so they didn’t want me to quit,” she said.
However, after breaking a hip while tending to her garden, Tagawa was forced into an early retirement — at the age of 95.
Tagawa, who graduated from Hanford High School in 1938, studied fencing at a dojo on White Street, near 7th Street. It was when she was walking home from the dojo one night that she began to realize that the lives of her and her family would soon “change completely,” as she put it.
“While walking home from practice, Caucasian people would say, ‘what are you doing – preparing for war?’ and we said, ‘no, what are you talking about?’ And then Pearl Harbor happened,” she said.
Japanese American citizens weren’t allowed to be outside their homes after 8 p.m. or drive further than 35 miles from their homes in the wake of the attack that lured America into World War II. Despite being citizens of the United States, those of Japanese descent also had to turn in shortwave radios and any weapons they may own.
In May of 1942, about six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Tagawa and her family were forced to leave their home, their business and most of their belongings as they were sent to be held, along with many other local families, at the Fresno Assembly Center. In October of that year, they were sent to Jerome Relocation Center and Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas.
About 100 families from Kings County joined the 16,000 Japanese-Americans in the internment camps. Those who did not own land, homes or businesses back home simply didn't return at the end of the war, instead opting to start new lives in other parts of the country.
Family friends took care of the Tagawa home for three years until Naomi and her family were allowed to return to Hanford.
“It’s taken a little bit to convince her that she has a life that’s interesting enough to make the laundry building a place to preserve this history. She’s rather humble,” friend Darlene Keast said. “I’d go to her house and she’d have old trunks and she’d say, ‘Oh I have to get rid of that,’ and I’d tell her, ‘no, that’s going in the museum.’”
Keast and Tagawa are friends through the Presbyterian Church. Shortly after coming to Hanford, Tagawa’s Buddhist father converted to the religion.
She she still volunteers her time by answering phones at the church once a week.
“I’d like to sing in the choir, too, but they get up too early. They rehearse at 8 o’clock and I just can’t get going,” she joked.
Tagawa also spends her time by eating lunch daily at the Superior Dairy downtown, where she has her own seat.
“She can see all of the city park and the courthouse and can watch all of the activity. I think that’s what keeps her going is to see all the young families and everybody enjoying their ice cream,” Keast said.
Tagawa agreed and said that one thing she likes most about visiting Superior Dairy every day is meeting new people, including two young women from Los Angeles on a recent lunch trip.
“I asked them where they were going from here and they said, ‘we just came for the ice cream’ and they went right back to Los Angeles,” she said, laughing. “I just couldn’t believe it.”