Oregon Cultural Trust

Japanese American Museum’s ‘Because of Bill’: An audacious life to learn from

An exhibit tells the extaordinary tale of businessman and civic leader Bill Naito, who lived through anti-Japanese fervor and made Portland a better city at a key time in its growth.

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Portland businessman and civic leader Bill Naito, second from right, led with an optimism that belied the anti-Japanese American sentiment that he and his family experienced. Photo courtesy OSU Press.
Portland businessman and civic leader Bill Naito, second from right, led with an optimism that belied the anti-Japanese American sentiment that he and his family experienced. Photo courtesy OSU Press.

Twenty-eight years after his death in 1996, the legacy of Bill Naito has been getting a big boost.

In March, a biography of the developer, businessman and civic leader, Portland’s Audacious Champion (written by his granddaughter, Erica Naito Campbell), was published by Oregon State University Press. In May arrived an accompanying exhibit at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (which he helped found), Because of Bill: William Sumio Naito’s Legacy in Portland. And just over a year from now will be the 100th anniversary of his birth, sure to bring another celebration.

It’s not every property developer who earns such accolades and appreciation. Even Portland’s most successful building owners are focused mostly on accruing rental and sales income. At best, they might erect a beautiful building or two, or boast environmentally sustainable technologies and techniques.

And of course we’re living in an era where another property developer, though elected to the highest office eight years ago and perhaps to be returned to power later this year, has been twice impeached, stands accused of inciting a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol, and was convicted on 34 felony charges of falsifying business documents to cover up hush money payments to a porn star.

Bill Naito, by contrast, was anything but a towering narcissist.

Civic Leader, Architectural Savior

A wall-mounted panel in the "Because of Bill" exhibit, suggesting the key role Naito played in saving and renovating classic Portland buildings. Photo: Brian Libby
A wall-mounted panel in the “Because of Bill” exhibit, suggesting the key role Naito played in saving and renovating classic Portland buildings. Photo: Brian Libby

Though Naito (1925-1996) could have easily afforded it, his wardrobe was noted for a decided lack of expensive tailored suits. He proudly drove an unglamorous car. He showed great empathy toward the homeless and addiction-plagued people on the streets of Old Town, where Naito and his brother, Bob, owned several buildings. A Portland native born to Japanese-immigrant parents, he earned economics degrees from Reed College and the University of Chicago, at the latter even studying under renowned economist Milton Friedman (spiritual father of Reaganomics), and helped build the family business from a modest import-and-curio shop into a group of businesses and a robust real-estate portfolio.

Yet he was at heart a civic leader, keen to save demolition-threatened historic buildings, imagine waterfront greenspaces, and plant street trees. A succession of mayors and City Council members called Naito by his first name, and listened to his constant ideas about how to make the city better.

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For starters, the Because of Bill exhibit is worth seeing because in a modest array of wall-mounted panels, it tells Naito’s extraordinary story succinctly, and with many charming details: that he inspired future longtime U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer to start wearing bow ties, that he introduced the tall tale of the Shanghai Tunnels, that he was the impetus for Pioneer Courthouse Square’s Christmas tree tradition, that he enabled the founding of Saturday Market, and that he kept a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey at his hopelessly cluttered desk (which has been recreated at the museum).

Another wall-mounted panel in "Because of Bill," extolling his role in helping to build a better Portland while reclaiming the best of its past. Photo: Brian Libby
Another wall-mounted panel in “Because of Bill,” extolling his role in helping to build a better Portland while reclaiming the best of its past. Photo: Brian Libby

Which is to say nothing of Bill Naito’s unparalleled architectural legacy. He and Bob Naito are almost singlehandedly responsible for saving the city’s most exceptional collection of historic buildings: Nineteenth century gems of the cast-iron era, resplendent with classical details, conceived in a time when Oregon enjoyed newfound wealth as America’s largest wheat and timber producer, and Portland transformed from a muddy, modest frontier town into an ambitious metropolis.

But a half-century later, in the first few decades after World War II, the so-called Greatest Generation had turned its attention from liberating Europe and Asia from fascist tyranny to leveling whole multi-block swaths of poor and immigrant-residing neighborhoods. The cast-iron beauties of Old Town (then known as Skid Road) and its waterfront industrial buildings were being demolished one after the other, often for parking lots and highways: a perception of progress that has not aged well.

Bill Naito and his staff behind his cluttered desk at Norcrest China Company, where his business and civic successes began. Photo courtesy OSU Press.
Bill Naito and his staff behind his cluttered desk at Norcrest China Company, where his business and civic successes began. Photo courtesy OSU Press.

But the Naitos saw lasting economic and cultural value where others saw targets for the wrecking ball, and thanks to their investments, historic architecture such as 1880’s Italianate style Merchant’s Hotel, 1883’s Gothic style Bickel Block, 1884’s Merchants Hotel and 1911’s Albers Brothers Milling Company buildings were saved. And it wasn’t just in Old Town where Bill Naito’s preservationist legacy lies; so too was the circa-1910 Olds, Wortman and King department store building downtown renovated into The Galleria, helping to turn the tide of disinvestment and launch the central city’s rebirth in the 1970s.

Proving Them Wrong

Naito always kept a copy of 1942's Executive Order 9066, which authorized the wartime incarceration of innocent Japanese American citizens, in his office. A copy also is posted in the Japanese American Museum of Oregon's "Because of Bill" exhibit. Photo: Brian Libby
Naito always kept a copy of 1942’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the wartime incarceration of innocent Japanese American citizens, in his office. A copy also is posted in the Japanese American Museum of Oregon’s “Because of Bill” exhibit. Photo: Brian Libby

Because of Bill is also worth seeing for its darker narrative thread: an uncomfortable truth we must perennially confront. For all Naito’s optimism and civic leadership, he had a chip on his shoulder, and justifiably so. Prominently displayed beside his messy desk in the family’s Norcrest China offices was a copy of Executive Order 9066, issued under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, authorizing forced removal and incarceration of innocent Japanese-American civilians for the duration of World War II.

Though having relatives in Utah open their doors allowed the Naito family to avoid the incarceration at West Coast relocation camps in California and Idaho that thousands of other Japanese American citizens faced, they were still forced out of Oregon, and the scar tissue formed accordingly. The subtitle of Erica Naito-Campbell’s book is How Bill Naito Overcame Anti-Japanese Hate and Became an Intrepid Civic Leader, and the accompanying Japanese American Museum of Oregon exhibit displays the order, too.

“Every time you sat down for a meeting with Bill Naito, you saw it [a copy of the executive order]. It was not subtle,” Naito-Campbell told me in a 2019 interview, while working on Portland’s Audacious Champion. “He would never point it out to you. I consider this part of the way Portland handles race. They don’t like it if you aggressively talk about race. They shut down. They need something like my grandfather who will talk about it frankly if you bring it up to him. If someone saw it and said what’s that poster, he would tell you. He would talk about what it was like as a high schooler to experience that level of institutionalized degradation. That’s how he kept it fresh in his mind, that that was what was driving him: that at one point this city said, ‘We don’t want you,’ and now you’re in this shitty warehouse, grateful to meet with me.”

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Striving for success in Portland following his World War II service in the U.S. Army and his college and graduate-school studies, Bill Naito was not out for revenge. Putting in so much extra time on various planning committees and civic boards without pay, enabling so many other citizens from fellow entrepreneurs to charitable leaders to local artists, could not have come from a place of anger. Yet wartime subjugation clearly did motivate Bill Naito: to be somebody after having been excluded.

Contemporary Relevance

"In crisis there is opportunity": Naito was known for his notoriously cluttered desk (including a bottle of Jack Daniel's) from which he created success out of a chaos that often resembled his city's struggles. The museum's "Because of Bill" exhibit re-creates Naito's desk as it so often looked. Photo: Brian Libby
“In crisis there is opportunity”: Naito was known for his notoriously cluttered desk (including a bottle of Jack Daniel’s) from which he created success out of a chaos that often resembled his city’s struggles. The museum’s “Because of Bill” exhibit re-creates Naito’s desk as it so often looked. Photo: Brian Libby

The Because of Bill exhibit also comes at an opportune time, not unlike the era that in which Naito made his name. Today downtown and Old Town need investment and optimism that looks beyond struggle and fear, just as Bill Naito encountered these places in the mid-20th century.

Before entering the Japanese American Museum of Oregon in Old Town to see Because of Bill, I parked my car on Northwest Flanders Street beside a sidewalk encampment of homeless people. I thought of something else that Erica Naito-Campbell told me in that 2019 interview.

“All his time there [at the present-day White Stag building, where Norcrest was headquartered], he’s dealing with homeless people. They’re just everywhere,” she said. “The thing that was unique about him: I never heard him say one negative thing about them ever. He never said, ‘These damn homeless people.’ His economic background was Milton Friedman; he was actually his mentor at the University of Chicago. Friedman had a very radical economic view of the world, in which free market solves everything. One of the upsides was that there was never moral judgment. Everything had an economic reason. You never said ‘you’re homeless because you’re morally defunct.’”

As much as downtown and Old Town have faced very real challenges—homelessness, vacant storefronts, empty office buildings—perhaps an even greater problem has been a wave of negativity and fear, paradoxically coming most from people who rarely enter the city center.

Bill Naito’s life, and particularly his legacy in Old Town and downtown, teach us that in crisis there is opportunity. The series of civic and infrastructural investments Portland made beginning in the 1970s that transformed the city and its fortunes—the Transit Mall, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the MAX light rail line—happened not just paradoxically after the city center had struggled in the 1960s, but because hard times inspired people to act. Though downtown and Old Town are already in better shape than, say, 2021, how might we take advantage of tough times to engender positive change?

Broader Context

The museum's permanent exhibitions tell a broader story about the history and pursuits of Japanese American citizens in Oregon. Photo: Brian Libby
The museum’s permanent exhibitions tell a broader story about the history and pursuits of Japanese American citizens in Oregon. Photo: Brian Libby

As much as Bill Naito’s is a great American story—of business success and architectural vision, of civic leadership and individual mentorship, of overcoming racism and fighting for his country—the Because of Bill exhibit is mostly just a series of explanatory wall panels, save for the recreation of his desk. Once one is at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, equally if not more impressive is the broader story told in the permanent exhibition, with a series of artifacts and accompanying signage, about the larger story of immigration and forming a community here, and even of fighting for the country that had incarcerated their families.

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Emigrating to America in vast numbers beginning in the late 19th century, particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese Americans helped build the American West, working on railroads, farms and in lumber mills.  In the early 20th century they faced massive racism, not just from the very active Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Asiatic Association, but through seemingly mainstream civic organizations like the Portland Chamber of Commerce. They faced institutionalized bigotry in the form of the Alien Land Laws passed in Oregon, Washington and California, which barred Japanese immigrants from owning land—which stood all the way until 1948.

Among the Japanese American Museum of Oregon's permanent exhibitions is a re-creation of a prisoner's room in one of the World War II concentration camps. Photo: Brian Libby
Among the Japanese American Museum of Oregon’s permanent exhibitions is a re-creation of a prisoner’s room in one of the World War II concentration camps. Photo: Brian Libby

Then there were the relocation camps of World War II, which the Japanese Museum recreates in life-size, reconstructing a typical room that would have belonged to a prisoner. It stands across the hallway from an array of service medals won by Arthur Iwasaki—including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star—as part of the US Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American unit during World War II. Iwasaki actually won two of each awards, given to those wounded in battle and for heroic acts in battle. In 1944, Iwasaki’s 442nd also helped rescue the so-called “Lost Battalion,” the 141st Infantry, some 275 soldiers who had been surrounded by German forces, with 211 lives saved, even as the 442nd suffered about 800 casualties. After the war, Iwasaki returned to his hometown of Hillsboro, Oregon and built with his brothers a successful farm and plant nursery, living to the age of 97. But not all were so lucky.

The museum's booklet on Frank Hachiya, who grew up in Hood River County, enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II while his father was in the Minidoka concentration camp, and died from friendly-fire war wounds in January 1945. Photo: Brian Libby
The museum’s booklet on Frank Hachiya, who grew up in Hood River County, enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II while his father was in the Minidoka concentration camp, and died from friendly-fire war wounds in January 1945. Photo: Brian Libby

Iwasaki’s story and that of his fellow veteran, Bill Naito, are just two among countless stories told at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Besides the Because of Bill exhibit and the permanent collection where Iwasaki’s medals are displayed, when buying a ticket to the museum one is offered one in a collection of small chapbooks (or Passbooks, as they’re known here) commemorating other lives. I was given a Passbook about Frank Hachiya, who was born and raised in tiny Odell, Oregon, in Hood River County.

When the United States entered WWII in 1941, Hachiya, then a University of Oregon student, enlisted in the U.S. Army while his father was incarcerated at the Minidoka concentration camp. On December 30, 1944, Hachiya was wounded in action by friendly fire in the Philippines after volunteering to interview a captured Japanese prisoner behind enemy lines. He died on January 3, 1945. About that same time, the Hood River American Legion voted to remove the names of 16 Japanese-American servicemen from the county’s Roll of Honor.

Even so, I think that Bill Naito, while wanting us to remember such stories of both citizen heroism and community disgrace, would remind us to be optimistic, as he was. Whether witnessing the homeless encampments outside the Japanese American Museum these days or anticipating the threat to democracy and decency looming this November, Naito’s story asks us to keep working hard, and to lead by example, even if it necessitates a swig or two of Jack Daniel’s along the way.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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One Response

  1. Thanks Brian. I now live in the Naito apartments, McCormick Pier Condominiums, and my Michigan friends included the children of Minoru Yamasaki, who always came to eat Easter Brunch with us. They must have known each other; they had a lot in common Minoru was the architect of the World Trade Center as you well know.

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