Heartbreak Hotel

Japanese artifacts left in a Seattle basement freeze a moment in time.

SEATTLE—At the bottom of a worn wood staircase of the 1910 Panama Hotel, owner Jan Johnson unlocks a thick door, pushes it open on creaking hinges, and switches on a single bulb to light a jam-packed underground storage room. A narrow path winds between large black trunks stacked high overhead and many rows deep. Smaller suitcases, some yellow and some blue, bear stickers from foreign ports: Admiral Oriental Lines via Seattle. Yokohama. Tokyo. A 1941 Sears Roebuck order form juts from a box beside a 1941 issue of Physical Culture magazine. Someone has painted a family's name, Shimizu, in large white letters on one trunk. Johnson, a painter, photographer, and dress designer, is also the curator and interpreter of this uncommon time capsule of American history—possessions left behind by Japanese-Americans forced by the United States government from their homes after Pearl Harbor.

Stepping into Johnson's cellar is a little like entering Miss Havisham's room in Dickens' Great Expectations, a place where time has stopped, in the Panama's case at a moment when one immigrant group straddled two cultures. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass expulsion of 110,000 West Coast Japanese to inland internment camps. With only eight days' notice to sort out their affairs, Seattle's entire Japanese community was incarcerated in April 1942. Internees could take what they could carry with them. All else was discarded or left behind in places like the basement of the Panama Hotel.

Prior to the war, the Panama stood in the heart of the city's Nihonmachi, or Japantown, which was second in size among this country's Japanese communities only to Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. A large emigration of Japan's peasant class, discouraged by their homeland's stiff taxes in the late 19th century, embraced the promise of the American West. By World War II, some 8,000 first-generation (Issei) and second-generation (Nisei) Japanese had settled between Fourth and Seventh avenues, restricted by local law to an area where they could hold property and sticking together to support their own. "The neighborhood was like a little piece of Japan," says Ed Suguro, a 63-year-old Nisei who would often ride the ferry to Seattle from his parents' home in Bellevue, Wash. "It was an extended family in its way." Located at the community's center, the Panama was the first home to thousands of immigrant Japanese.

"The week when we were told to leave, a friend heard that I had a large basement," says Takashi Hori, the 81-year-old former owner of the Panama. "'Could you keep things for me?' he asked. Then another person called on me, one after the other. A great number of people in the hotel stored their things there." 

When peace returned, the War Relocation Authority encouraged Japanese- Americans to spread out and assimilate. "Many [trunk owners] did not come back to Seattle," says Hori, who was imprisoned at the Minidoka camp in Idaho. "Some did come back and claimed their things, and others no longer wanted them and asked me to get rid of them."

Because possession of items considered "too Japanese" could lead to suspicion and arrest in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack, many families discarded items that divulged ethnicity. Finding traces of Japanese ancestry in the Panama's cellar requires searching. On the shelves of a wooden cabinet are things that might be found among any grandfather's effects: 55-year-old partially filled bottles of Colman's Mustard, C.L. Ointment, and Aqua Velva. Stacked on trunks are American magazines, flags, and tourist literature. But digging uncovers a black kimono beside an embroidered Mount Rainier pillow; a mochitsuki, or rice-pounding drum, next to a large wood hammer; a 1942 copy of the North American Times printed in English on its cover pages and in Japanese within.

The Panama resembles the Times: American on the outside, Japanese inside. The brick facade barely suggests the ancestry of its designer, Sabro Ovasa, Seattle's first Japanese-American architect. But inside, the rooms have their original silk curtains and no closets. The spirit of Japan is subtle, almost hidden. "I think Japanese immigrants intentionally withheld expressions of ethnicity in order to hold off anti-Japanese sentiments in America," says Gail Dubrow, a professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington and coauthor of a forthcoming book on Japanese sites in America's West.

Deeper inside the hotel, in a basement room near the storage, is the Hashidate-Yu Bathhouse. Once popular but boarded up in the 1950s, it is now the only known surviving urban Japanese bathhouse in the United States. Unfaded painted advertisements on the bathhouse's interior walls tout Japanese businesses, such as Hikida Furniture and Cascade Soda, that no longer exist. The floor gently slopes to a single drain.

Johnson long admired the Panama from her art studio across the street. She had watched the few remnants of the once-thriving Japanese community fade or fall in the '70s and '80s, and, determined to spare the Panama a similar fate, she bought it from Hori in 1985. In the 1930s, Johnson's father, son of a Scandinavian immigrant, had "hopped a freight train from the Midwest to Seattle with nothing in his pocket and no idea of what he wanted," she says. "I could identify with anyone who came to this country with nothing but hope."

Considering the trunks a potential nuisance, Hori offered to remove them from the basement. Johnson insisted that the trunks be kept in place. "What could be more powerful than seeing these belongings in their original setting?" she asks. "You're experiencing American history. Some people have told me that I should donate them to a museum, but I don't understand that thinking."

For more than 10 years, Johnson has operated the basement and bathhouse as a private museum where she can impart the history of internment to schoolchildren and to people who ask. She also manages the hotel as an affordable home for itinerant workers from nations as distant as Korea and South Africa. In the spring of 1998, she began converting a storefront in her building directly above the cellars into two bare-bones rooms of brick and wood. One room she hopes to use as a coffeehouse decorated with pictures of prewar Nihonmachi. The other room she envisions as a museum about Seattle's Japanese-American community, providing books and computers linked to sites related to Japanese-American history. She plans to host lectures and symposia and to open the cellar and bathhouse this summer to the general public.

Seattle's Norio Mitsuoka wrote in his book Nisei Odyssey that "the evacuation was like a great fire that consumed much of [our] past." Recent efforts are salvaging that history. Two years ago, the Seattle-based Densho Project began recording oral histories of hundreds of Nisei, and David Takami's 1998 book Divided Destiny has provided a readable and comprehensive history of Seattle's Japanese-Americans. Through her curatorship, Johnson seems determined to return the possessions abandoned in the Panama to their rightful owners and inheritors at a time when internment history is rising in public consciousness.

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