September 2003: Preserving Seattle's Japantown
By Trevor Griffey

In 1973, Asian American activists teamed up with city landmarks staff to create a Special Review District which still regulates changes to the historic fabric of Seattle's well known and well liked International District (also known as the ID). The protective ordinance promised to "promote, preserve and perpetuate the cultural, economic, historical and otherwise beneficial qualities of the area, particularly the features derived from its Asian heritage."

But in 1980, when the district was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, the focus was the neighborhood's Chinatown. Most of the neighborhood's Nihonmachi, or Japantown, was left out of the nomination. The reasoning seemed simple enough. Much of what had once been Seattle's Japantown was gone.

Preservationists in the 1970s and 1980s were aware of the neighborhood's Japanese history, and to their credit consciously included a few of its key remaining buildings in the district nomination. But the historic district nomination also claimed that the area's "large expanses of nonhistoric open space" -- otherwise known as vacant lots -- had too significantly altered Japantown's layout for much of it to be listed in the Seattle Chinatown National Register Historic District.

Almost twenty years later, Gail Dubrow, Director of the Preservation Planning and Design Program at the University of Washington, is more optimistic about preserving Japanese American history in the International District.

While acknowledging what was lost, she also notes that "Seattle's Japantown is the most intact Japanese American district in the United States."

In her view, Japantown's historic buildings serve as more than isolated remnants of a once vibrant neighborhood.

With proper planning, Dubrow and others suggest, these buildings could anchor comprehensive preservation efforts that would honor the neighborhood's history while guiding its redevelopment.

Earlier this year (2003), on June 7th, Dubrow and roughly 30 Japanese and International District community leaders, preservationists, architects, and city officials met to discuss specific strategies for preserving and revitalizing Seattle's Japantown.

A draft of their charrette's recommendations for the neighborhood, Restoring a Sense of Place in Seattle's Nihonmachi, is available on City Design's website for public comment until November 1st. Their findings, revised to reflect public input, will be issued in a final report by the end of the year.

Though their report's recommendations will be voluntary, the sponsors hope that their advocacy will "educate Seattleites about the significance of the place while building a constituency for preservation-oriented public and private investment."

The Rise and Fall of Seattle's Nihonmachi

Seattle's Japantown grew with the immigration of Japanese laborers in the late 19th and early 20th century who sought economic opportunity in the United States at a time when the nation had recently banned Chinese immigration.

Japanese laborers soon found themselves increasingly under similarly racist immigration constraints -- first in 1907 when the U.S. government pressured Japan to prohibit emigration of all but the wives and families of Japanese men already in the U.S., and then in 1924 with systematic race-based immigration restrictions passed by the U.S. government.

Yet Seattle's Japanese community continued to grow, as picture bride immigrants and second generation families settled in Seattle's racially segregated south end of downtown to create their own social and economic universe.

Main Street between 4th and 7th Streets was the main spine of Seattle's Japantown, with 6th and Main as its social and economic hub. But the neighborhood's residences and businesses extended as far east as 14th Avenue, with an additional number of important businesses stretching south to Dearborn. This neighborhood became diverse tapestry of homes, churches, grocery stores, theaters, language schools, hotels, restaurants, bathhouses, and other businesses interweaving with the edges of other Seattle communities nearby.

Seattle's Japanese American population reached its peak in the early 1930s with a population of roughly 8500, but it didn't last.

Seattle's Japanese population decreased to about 7,000 during the Depression. The construction of the Yesler Terrace public housing project in 1940 demolished the eastern half of Japantown. Not long after, internment brought the district's wholesale collapse.

"While the district has continued to be the home to a Pan-Asian community," the draft charrette claims, "the historic fabric of Seattle's Japanese American community has never regained the sense of identity and vitality that it enjoyed before the war."

Immediately following World War II, Japanese cultural practices were stigmatized in the United States, and the combined effects of suburbanization, the construction of I-5, and urban renewal decimated the buildings that once housed the heart of Seattle's Japanese community. To some extant, Japantown's hardships were shared with the rest of the International District, which saw 40 of its hotels close and its population drop from 5000 to 1300 people between 1950 and 1978.

Many Japantowns in other cities shared a similar fate to Seattle's. But through a combination of a number of factors Seattle's Japantown is more intact than others in the West. Benign neglect, the remarkable architectural character of existing buildings, and increased community scrutiny of land use applications through a Special Review District created in 1973 all contributed to the architectural integrity of the district.

In Tacoma, for instance, almost all the neighborhood's buildings are gone, and its remaining language school faces demolition from University of Washington expansion plans.

Growing Public Awareness

The current initiative to retell this history and preserve Seattle's Japantown grows out of 10 years of increased attention to Seattle's Japanese heritage in academic history, public history, and individual public and private preservation efforts.

In addition to the number of exhibits it has sponsored that related to the history of people of Japanese ancestry in the Northwest, the Wing Luke Asian Art museum published Divided Destiny: A history of Japanese Americans in Seattle in 1998.

Over the course of the past decade, Professor Dubrow has been promoting a mix of public and academic history projects related to the preservation of sites of Asian heritage in Washington state. That work culminated with the 2002 publication of Sento at Sixth and Main, a study of selected sites of Japanese heritage in Seattle and throughout the West.

In the process of writing that book, Dubrow says, "I realized that there had been very little done to reconnect the pieces" of Seattle's Nihonmachi -- a shame, since people were showing a growing concern over the fate of individual buildings in the district.

The Nippon Kan Theater, at the corner of 7th and Washington, has for some time been the most well-known fragment of the former neighborhood. Built in 1909, its theater space served people of Japanese ancestry before World War II as an important social space for Japanese entertainment and community meetings. It sat unused for nearly forty years, until being rehabilitated in 1978, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Inter*Im's restoration of NP Hotel in 1994 also helped lay a foundation for bringing back some sense of Seattle's Japantown.

But it was the recent efforts of a private developer, Jan Johnson, the owner of the Panama Hotel, that generated the most press, and provided the most concrete example of the economic as well as social benefits of preserving Seattle's Japantown.

Located in the heart of Seattle's Japantown at 6th and Main, the Panama Hotel was one of a number of low-income hotels that catered to itinerant laborers, low wage workers, and new arrivals to the city. In its basement is an intact but unused Japanese bathhouse, Hashidate-Yu, one of two remaining baths among the hundreds that once existed in Japanese communities up and down the West Coast.

Johnson preserved affordable housing in the Panama's upstairs units, and redeveloped its first floor retail into a teahouse. When she went to clean out the building's basement as part of her redevelopment, she discovered boxes of possessions that had been packed, stored, and never reclaimed by Japanese families on the eve of their internment.

That haunting discovery, combined with the Panama Hotel's tasteful renovation, received media coverage and accolades throughout the city at roughly the same time that Dubrow's book put the building's restoration in a greater context. With the publicity the hotel received, the discovery of its artifacts, and the success of its teahouse, it seemed that an even more coordinated effort to revitalize this long-dormant neighborhood could bear significant fruit.

Restoring a Sense of Place

Sixty years after internment, the charrette organizers focus on the Nippon Kan/Astor Hotel, the Panama Hotel, the NP Hotel, The Tokiwa Hotel, The Atlas Theater and Hotel, and Rainier Heat and Power as remaining sites to anchor a cohesive, revitalized district within a district.

All but the Nippon Kan are listed in the Historic District's nomination as primary contributing buildings. The Nippon Kan, though the most prominent of all of them, has been for sale since its owner died in 2002, leaving its fate somewhat uncertain.

In addition to these buildings, charrette organizers point to Kobe Terrace park and Danny Woo gardens- recent Asian heritage-themed additions to the neighborhood -- as having rich potential for contributing spaces to a new district.

Outside the International District, but nearby and still significant to reviving Japanese history in Seattle, are the Japanese Language School- Nihon Go Gakko- the Seattle Buddhist Church, and Pike Place Market, all of which are recognized landmarks by one or a number of agencies.

But remembering and recreating a sense of place means more than preservation of buildings and parks. For the organizers of the current preservation initiative, it also means revitalization through economic development, and confronting head on the aesthetic and economic problems that come from the neighborhood's many vacant lots.

The draft charrette suggests developing both a 24-hour residential community and a possible destination for heritage tourists.

It promotes a mix of new housing; new commercial and retail ventures to serve a denser population such as childcare and entertainment; public tours, and incorporating an independent effort to create a Japanese American community center with the revitalization of the neighborhood.

Street design also plays a prominent role in the charrette's recommendations. Suggestions for redefining the space for residents and visitors include: fuller development of the neighborhood's green streets, prominent signage to advertise the neighborhood's Japanese heritage, and public art.

Some of these and other improvements have already been used with some success to reinvent historic Japantown districts in Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco. All of these efforts benefited from state government support dating back to the late 1970s for historical surveys of racially diverse communities and community redevelopment money to enable preservation on a scale that has been slower to develop in Washington State.

"The activity in the state of California has been an inspiration," Dubrow says. "They've defined heritage broadly -- from preserving the buildings to traditional cultural practices like who is around to pass on confectionery making."

Though off to a relatively late start, the effort to preserve Seattle's Japantown has a number of things going for it.

New investment in the outer edges of the ID has provided increased incentive to plan for managing growth in the core of the district.

The Inter*Im Community Development Association is currently in the midst of shepherding through plans to rethink the ID's streetscapes and map out the implementation of its neighborhood plan. The name that they give to the ID, the "Chinatown, Japantown, Little Saigon -- International District", already indicates a desire to rethink the ID in terms of its discrete ethnic enclaves for planning and economic development purposes.

And while much of historic Japantown may not reside within the ID's historic district, it does reside within a Special Review District through which a motivated community could orient the neighborhood's development along even more preservation-oriented goals.

The movement to preserve and redevelop Japantown is still tentative, with the charrette's recommendations subject to change as a coalition evolves to put some kind of plan into action.

The looming redevelopment of some of the neighborhood's vacant lots means that the window of opportunity for making those plans a reality won't stay open indefinitely. But for now, members of the greater Seattle community have a golden opportunity to given their comments and suggestions on how best to honor Japantown's heritage and bring back some vitality to this long neglected space.

For more information on Seattle's Japantown and other related issues:

City Design's website

Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington:

Inter*im Community Development Association:

City of Seattle's International District Special Review District


San Francisco:

San Jose:

Los Angeles: Little Tokyo which has its own Community Redevelopment Agency.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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