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East Meets West, Past Meets Present in Seattle

David Weinberg

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Panama Neon
(David Weinberg)
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This weekend finds us in Seattle's Japantown, at the Panama Hotel, which is more than just a place to get a room for the night. The Panama has been around for more than a century and is a national historic landmark. It was home to Japanese migrant workers and families who arrived in the United States at the turn of the century. It is now a place where locals can chat over tea and Japanese confections, and it literally comes with its own emotional baggage. Weekend America contributor David Weinberg went to Nihonmachi (the locals' name for Seattle's Japantown), and brought us this story for our summer travel series.

A couple years ago, I saw the neon sign above the entrance to the Panama Hotel, wandered in, and ended up living there for four months. The Panama Hotel is like that: when you go there, you never know what might happen. Even the current owner, Jan Johnson, didn't expect to end up there.

Johnson was an artist living next door to the Panama, when then-owner Takahashi Hori told her that he was selling it one day. She offered to buy it from him on a whim, "'Cause I just wanted to save it for history and keep it alive and pass it on to the future," she explains.

"'Oh, I already have seven bona fide offers, Jan,' Mr. Hori said. And I said, 'I don't care' and he started to laugh, and said, 'Make me an offer.' So, I just offered him what he wanted and then there was, like, ten months of tea and talk, and here we are."

The Panama Hotel is a six-story brick building that overlooks the Puget Sound. It was constructed in 1910 by Seattle's first Japanese-American architect, and designed as a working man's hotel for Japanese immigrants who'd come to work in the Pacific Northwest as loggers, farmers and fisherman.

Behind its wooden doors, Johnson has turned the hotel in to a living museum, where travelers can mingle with each other and with pieces from the past. A working teahouse on the first floor is decorated with the history of Japantown. Old black and white photographs line brick walls.

Johnson is piecing together a map of Seattle's original Japantown when I visit. She'd invited a group of men from the old neighborhood to help her. She unrolls her map and the old men gather round, pointing to familiar places.

"Well, this was Main Street. Sixth and Main was the center of the so-called Ghetto," a man named Joe says, "we all had ghetto living or ghetto past. Remember, I said 142 Hotels were held by Japanese people."

Eddie Sano, another member of the group, used to work below the Panama in a Japanese bathhouse that his parents owned. I ask him to take me down there and show me what's left of it. Two ladies sitting at a table next to us overhear this request and ask to come along as well. These kind of impromptu encounters happen often at the hotel, which is exactly what Johnson was hoping for.

"The stairs are very rickety and so, go down sideways. Don't step on the edges of anything," Johnson says as she leads us to the entrance of the old bathhouse.

The walls are covered with old advertisements in Japanese. Sano leads us past a row of small wooden lockers, one of which still has a hat and tie hanging inside.

The women from the teahouse hang on to Sano's every word and pepper him with questions:

"Did you rinse off over here and then go into the bath?"

"Well, we had little pans like this, and you would scoop the water and bring it out here and sit and wash up," he answers.

The Panama's basement is a massive labyrinth of passageways. Johnson takes me down a hallway leading to a locked door, where she discovered historic and sad remnants from hotel's past. She produces a ring of keys and holds them to the light, trying to find the right one. "I had purchased the building, but I didn't get a key to this 'til six months later," she says.

She pulls on a string that dangles from an exposed light bulb, flooding the cavernous room with light. Initially, it resembles any old storage unit with old trunks, household items, and furniture haphazardly piled up in it.
Johnson opens an old suitcase resting on one of the trunks: "This piece I love. The little brown suitcase with all the travel stickers on it. It has a lot of old cigar boxes with little treasures in it--fishing items and lures paints, little paint tools and things. Obviously, this person was a fisherman artist type."

The story behind this abandoned stuff dates back to 1941.

A 40s-era news reel explains what happened: "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor Hawaii by air, the president has just announced."

Residents of Japantown were told that they would be sent to internment camps, and allowed to take only one suitcase with them, within days of the attack. Around this time, a man approached Takashi Hori and asked a favor.

"[He] came over and said, 'You've got a basement, could I store my stuff there?' I said, 'All right. Go ahead.' He put it in and he told his friend about it and from word of mouth, it just spread to different people. All wanted to store their baggage here. Nobody knew how long we would be gone, but they all expected to come back and claim their baggage. But some did and some didn't."

Mr. Hori and his family placed their own belongings in the basement and leased the building to a property management company. For the next three and a half years they lived in an internment camp in the desert of Idaho.

Japantown was never be the same after the war. Only half of its Japanese residents returned to Seattle. Most of the old hotels have been gutted and converted into low-income housing, and many of the old shops were razed to make way for high-rise condos and parking lots.

The Panama stands pretty much the same as it did before the war. Mr. Hori left the abandoned luggage behind the locked door and tried to put the past behind him.

Johnson, however, wants people to understand what the interned families went through. She cut a hole in the floor of the teahouse and replaced it with glass when she discovered the trunks. She did this to enable visitors to see into the basement where the trunks and suitcases sit frozen in time.

"By having the hole in the floor, I didn't have to be here and talk about it every day," she says. "Plus when you talk about it, somehow you project your impressions on people. So, I thought if they could see it without my talking, they could feel their own impressions as to what happened here."

The project has not been easy for Johnson. She did all the work on her own while running the hotel, and not everyone agrees with how she handled the artifacts.

"I was criticized at first for not taking it all out of here and putting it in the basement of some museum, but...the trunks don't have any significance in some museum. They have more significance where it happened and the story that's here, with the building. It's like when I went to Athens and found out I had to go to London to see the Greek ruins. I thought that just doesn't even fit for me. You go to Athens to see the Greek ruins, not London. So, I thought that was never going to happen here."

We stand on the sidewalk in front of the tea house after our tour. The two women from the bathhouse repeatedly thank Sano and can't stop talking about how lucky they were to have been there at the right time. I want to tell them that these moments happen all the time at the Panama. Instead, I watch Sano take a drag off his cigarette and look up the hill to Main St.

"That used to be a dirt road" he says. "Things sure have changed."

  • Music Bridge:
    Horror Water
    Artist: Jimi Tenor meets Kabu Kabu
    CD: Joystone (Ubiquity)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Ray Johnson

    From Mercer Island, WA, 04/10/2011

    What a treasure! the tea room with those beautifull fir floors, the warm vibe of old Japan Town, the compelling and sad story of what happened to the "neighborhood" in the spring of 1942...wonderfully told by the owner Jan Johnson. What a find!!

    By gwen applington

    From IL, 06/09/2010

    Will be visiting the Panama hotel this summer. Learned about it from reading Jamie Ford's novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

    By Susan Sullivan

    From Aurora, CO, 08/10/2008

    What a wonderful story! It captures the spirit and the history of the Panama Hotel so beautifully. Like Jan Johnson, the owner, and author David Weinberg remind us, we need to remember and honor those who were forced to leave their possessions and homes behind when sent away to internment camps. Thank you, Mr. Weinberg for a beautiful story!

    By r.w. angel

    From Christmas valley, OR, 08/09/2008

    this was a really great subject, i wish more time were devoted to this type of topic, there are so many "insignificant" places in the us that go unnoticed. did you know that there is a swimming pool on bourbon street?
    the house of the rising sun was for boys, not girls? in fact new orleans itself is a treasure trove of little details that escape the general public, and "fat city" is just one of the hundreds of places in the us that have oddities well worth discovering.
    this interview was very good, i appreciated the way the person being interviewed was given most of the mike time. this is great journalism, entertainment.
    i should add that the subject is one that deserved to be heard about, i think lots of folks know the japanese were interred (an unfortunate euphemism for imprisoned.), but i don't think too many know the details of life for those unfortunate american citizens.
    we hear lots of stuff @ blacks & jews, but we don't hear a whole lot @ other groups. many of today's majority groups were at on time minorities, and there a many tales to be told from their perspective as well.
    keep up the good work, your show is fresh, so much of public radio has become jaded and cliche, some of it is ought right redundant. right now i'm taking a break from weekday radio for just those reasons. even some of the weekend stuff is morbid,and if examined in the proper light, regressive. i can get plenty of that everywhere else, so when it comes to public radio, i pass.
    anyway, just wanted you to know i enjoyed the show, and i'm looking forward to the next edition.
    oh yeah, i like the audience participation/interaction angle too, good idea, very contemporary.
    r.w. angel

    By Jeanne Symons

    From Stockton, 08/09/2008

    Happy to hear Jan (the owner) is keeping the "treasures" in the basement there. Provenance is very important and she is honoring that tradition/practice.

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