By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Built to resemble a Buddhist monastery, the interior of the Panama Hotel shines with dark, thousand-year-old wood that has been preserved for over a century.
Appreciating such features, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board on Dec. 1 voted unanimously to nominate the hotel, including its interior, to become a designated landmark site.
“This will give another layer of protection” from developers, said Betty Lau, a community leader, who supported the nomination.
But in granting nomination of the site, the board was acknowledging more than just the pristine beauty of the building, although they repeatedly praised its current owner, Jan Johnson, for preserving it.
Through an hour-long presentation, they reviewed what the hotel had meant to different people at different times throughout its long history, including 8,500 ordinary objects that had been left behind in its basement by people of Japanese ancestry as they headed for concentration camps.
In each phase of its existence, the importance of the hotel to the Japanese American community, and later to those interested in its heritage, was defined to a large extent by the unjust laws that oppressed the community, making the hotel a place of refuge and a cultural mecca.
It served as one of the few bathhouses—culturally-significant sites—when Japanese immigrants were forced out of Seattle by exclusionary laws in the 1920s. It became a repository for trunks, suitcases, and furniture when 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated starting in 1942. After World War II, it became the last vestige of a Japantown that had been largely destroyed.
And today, it is slated to become a Japanese American museum to preserve a lost moment in time.
By 1910, when the Panama Hotel was built, the population of Japanese immigrants and their children exceeded that of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. This was because anti-immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, had been primarily aimed at Chinese.
During this period, the hotel’s six storefront spaces housed businesses that offered repositories of Japanese culture, including a bookstore, a grocery, and later a news outlet. But by the early 1920s, oppressive laws against land ownership by people of Japanese ancestry began to be ratcheted up.
Initially, Japanese immigrant farmers had found creative ways around laws restricting them from owning land, such as putting the land in the name of a child born here or a white proxy. But new laws made this impossible. This accounted for a draining of the population out of Seattle to far flung regions around the state for farming or other industries.
But the bathhouse in the basement of the hotel provided a necessary communal hub to which members of the community would return regularly. During this period, there were only 10 Japanese bathhouses in North America. According to schematics of the basement, the bathhouse was divided into a separate section for men and for women and children.
During its early years, the hotel also provided lodging to newly-arrived immigrants who needed single rooms in a familiar environment. The hotel has 102 hotel rooms. It also had a laundry in its basement.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 creating “exclusion zones” that effectively forced anyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast into concentration camps.
The owners of the hotel, Sanjiro and Toyo Hori, before they were incarcerated, opened up the basement of the hotel as a repository for people’s belongings that they could not take with them.
Since the order spelled out what families and individuals could carry, people had to make last-minute decisions about what was worthwhile to preserve.
“Not surprisingly, shock, scared, worried, and confused were most characteristic of the emotions” experienced by people at this time, according to a team of psychologists who conducted interviews with 30 survivors, as recorded in “Recollections of historical injustice: A qualitative investigation of emotions in Japanese American incarceration memories,” a chapter in the book, “Qualitative Strategies for Ethnocultural Research.”
Later, during their time imprisoned in places such as Minidoka, Idaho, the emotions would turn to fatalism.
But at the time, the items they selected to store in the basement included things that seemed to hint at a desire to prove their identity as Americans.
Besides the ordinary items of teapots, bowls, and rice cookers, there was a large selection of things that reflected absorption in American society, even if the society had worked hard to prevent that from happening.
There was a collection of American flags, a voters pamphlet, a list of requirements for graduation at a local high school, a Coca-Cola advertisement, and a brocaded image of Mount Rainier, among many others.
By the time the war was over, however, Japantown had been abandoned for years and was never able to recover. Few, if any, survivors of the camps came to reclaim their belongings despite the hotel owners’ repeated efforts to find them (decades later, the current owner, Johnson, would get a federal grant to catalog the 8,500 items left behind).
In 1954, the owner died and his son took over management.
But by then, it was too late. The decline of Japantown had worsened. The bathhouse stopped operating in the 1960s.
As the years passed and demographics changed, the population of Japanese Americans was scattered even further, some to the Eastside, some even further.
In 1985, Jan Johnson, a local art connoisseur, bought the hotel. Speaking at the meeting of the Landmark Preservation Board, she said that the upper stories of the hotel still operate as a hotel. But it is the internal aesthetics that mean the most to her.
“Each day, the light and shadows coming in through the upper story windows illuminates a different piece of art,” she said.
Board members universally praised her for keeping the hotel safe during a time of massive gentrification.
Board member Russell Conway noted the hotel had been designated a national landmark in 2006.
“That was a proud moment for the city of Seattle and for Jan to have preserved it when those greedy developers would have put stucco on it and built condominiums,” he said.
Another board member, Harriett Wasserman, illustrating the evolution of the hotel into popular consciousness, said her book group read a New York Times best-selling novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” based on the hotel, and had them gone to the hotel’s tea house to discuss the novel.
Xiaolin Duan, a historian of the history of material culture at North Carolina State University, called this the “transformation of individual memory into collective memory.”
Johnson plans to further such a transformation by making the hotel into a Japanese American museum. Some of the items stored in the basement have been loaned to the Ellis Island Museum and the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles.
But such a venture is feasible. In fact, a wildly popular and emotionally evocative exhibit that toured several continents might provide a model, said Wu Hung, a professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.
Starting in 2005, a Chinese artist constructed a giant art exhibit out of all the ordinary items his mother had amassed during her long and difficult life. In the exhibit, called “Waste Not,” which was curated by Wu, the mother sat among all her accumulated possessions and told visitors stories about their significance.
“People need vehicles to preserve and activate memory. We hear echoes of history in decayed buildings, worn photographs, torn letters, distressed objects, resounding melodies, and recurring dreams,” wrote Wu as part of the exhibition.
Spectators viewing the ordinary objects were moved to tears.
Karen Yoshitomi, the head of the Japanese Culture Community Center of Washington, said the Panama Hotel is “one of the last vestiges of what was Niohnmachi,” or Japantown.
“There is an opportunity to tell a broader story not only about the Panama Hotel but about the broader Japanese community,” she said.
The board will tour the hotel before making a final vote on the nomination on Jan. 19, 2022.