By Indunil Usgoda Arachchi
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As a result of her fascination with Japanese culture, 20-year-old Avery George finds a clue about the Panama Hotel, a historic landmark for Japanese American heritage in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not just a Google search, the resident of Ohio packs her kimono collection and other stuff and immediately makes the journey to the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s Japantown (Nihonmachi). That happened in January this year.
“I initially planned to stay just 90 days and leave,” said Avery. “But I didn’t realize how Panama sucks certain people in, I am still here.” She thoughtfully talks about many things related to Japanese culture, ranging from kimonos to the architectural and natural lighting system of the Panama Hotel. There are lots of unique architectural details there that are very Japanese. Avery compared them to the traditional Japanese houses, which were built long ago before having electricity. She showed long hallways and how sunbeams lighted them up, revealing the importance of having painted plaster that bounced light down the hallway.
“I genuinely feel more connection to Seattle and the Nihonmachi than I ever did in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio.”
The youth in the United States with that kind of curiosity and passion for Japanese culture seems like a perfect example of the influence of Japanese culture in the States. We see how they love to take pictures by wearing kimonos and having Japanese sensu or uchiwa fans on hand at Japanese cherry blossoms or other cultural festivals.
“I am not just a kimono collector, I actually wear them,” Avery said, adding that she mostly wears them nowadays to work at Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington‘s (JCCCW) resale shop for Japanese and Japanese-inspired items called the Hosekibako shop. “And also, I do extremely old hairstyles like these dolls,” she said, as she pointed to the dolls that decorated the historic hotel.
She is enthusiastic to talk about and express her interest in the unique values of Japanese culture that influence the United States. But Avery believes that Japanese culture in the United States is still something underground than apparent.
“Before World War II, Nihonmachi actually was extremely larger than now,” Eric P. Co-Curator, Northwest Nikkei Museum, said. “There are some historic buildings still left standing in the Nihonmachi area.” He shows the plots of the Japanese American Remembrance Trail Map, which is based in the International District of Seattle.
Strolling on the historic trail in Nihonmachi makes a kind of reflection of the past and present of the unique Japanese culture and their lives, from early pioneers to the World War II era to community life today. The stories of resilience are hard to find in American history books. Both Japanese and non-Japanese are doing a lot of work to uplift and preserve the remains of Nihonmachi.
“We also have Japantowns in San Francisco and San Jose,” said Maddy Lim, Co-Curator, of Northwest Nikkei Museum, who grew up in California. “Probably, they also have a very similar structure. So, I think the Japantowns, like here and in California, are very similar.”
The unique history of the Japanese in America goes back to the 1940s. According to the National Museum of American History, Japanese immigrants first arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1860s, to work in the sugarcane fields. Many moved to the U.S. mainland and settled in California, Oregon, and Washington. However, according to the National Endowment of the Humanities, the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States was on May 7, 1843. The United States Census Bureau 2021 data estimates there are 760,412 Japanese people in the United States.
From the historical landmarks, artworks, and stories of ancestors to the latest webcomics, such as Tony Moy’s The 4Forty2nd, make steps into the pivotal and poignant history of the Japanese community and also its cultural influence in the United States.
Learning the Japanese language is another instance of the Japanese influence. The Seattle Japanese language school is the oldest Japanese language school in the continental U.S. and it’s been around since 1902. They celebrated 120 years of language school last year and till today, they operate as a Cultural Center and language school.
“We have youth and adult classes, so anyone is welcome to take the classes,” said Lim. She added, “We also have the museum, martial art classes, and Taiko classes.”
Taiko drums and karaoke
“When I started college, taiko was one of the most eye-catching performances at my college’s club fair,” said Doreen Chen. She was born in China and migrated to the United States. She recalled her first Taiko experiences in college life at Wellesley College. It was one of the most eye-catching performances at her college’s club fair. They learned songs primarily through kuchi shōga, which is a method that phonemicizes the sounds of the drums or other percussion instruments. While there were also Western-style music sheets and written documents to supplement their learning, they mostly learned the pieces by orally repeating what their instructor was teaching and mimicking their movements.“I decided to try it out and continued because I enjoyed learning and playing taiko with my peers.”
Seattle Kokon, Seattle Matsuri Taiko, and School of Taiko are some examples of community-based taiko groups in Seattle. Both the University of Washington and Seattle University have their collegiate taiko groups.
Taiko is part of everyday or normal life in Japan. However, in the U.S., taiko definitely carries cultural significance and is representative of Japanese culture. It is introduced and incorporated into people’s lives outside of Japan. Well-known professional taiko players who play and teach taiko, such as Kenny Endo, Isaku Kageyama, and Mark H Rooney, could be considered as best representatives of the Japanese taiko culture in the U.S.
“Karaoke is well-known nowadays everywhere including the United States,” said Takafumi Kug, a student from Japan who studies in the United States.
“A common style for Japanese karaoke is a “box” style. In the U.S., karaoke is commonly available in bars, and people sing in front of strangers or other customers. But in Japan, each karaoke place has lots of rooms to rent, and usually we don’t sing in front of strangers.” He remarked that although there are karaoke bars in Japan that are similar to the American style, they are not as common and they are called ‘snack’ (bars) instead of karaoke.
Karaoke officially originated in Japan around 1971 and it then became popular in the U.S. following the opening of the first karaoke bar in Los Angeles in 1982.
The food and tea culture
“Sushi rice and green tea have a big place in Japanese culture,” said Reina Endo, a Japanese who works in the United States. “It isn’t hard to find Japanese sushi in the United States.” Although it is hard to find the exact Japanese traditional style sushi here, some restaurants, such as Maneki in Seattle’s International District, serve traditional Japanese foods while still following the traditional ways.
“Basically, Japanese have a balanced meal with a few different varieties,” says Reina. “Now you start seeing bento boxes in restaurants here.” She thinks nowadays people who live in the United States also know what bento boxes are. Using bento is a traditional way to carry food with them when they need to eat outside of their homes in Japan. A bento box is a compact container designed to hold a single serving of rice and several side dishes such as grilled fish, fried foods, and steamed, boiled, or cooked vegetables. Nowadays, some Japanese restaurants serve their meals in a bento style, placing the food inside bento boxes.
“So that’s very Japanese. It’s balanced with everything you need for one meal; you get everything.”
Another very popular Japanese noodle dish called ramen is also popular in the U.S. and there are a number of ramen restaurants also in Seattle. There are also many varieties of instant ramen that are also inexpensive and widely available.
In 1955, the first automatic rice cooker for household use was sold in Japan and rice cookers became a very famous utility in kitchens all over the world, including the U.S. It was quickly adopted by older rice-centric communities in South Carolina and Louisiana and by newer countercultural Americans who were increasingly interested in alternate cuisines and culinary practices.
Luis, who has worked at Panama tea house for more than five years, welcomes the customers and serves their orders. He did not promptly only serve the orders from customers, he was also enthusiastic to explain the various types of teas and the historical value of the place as well.
“Genmaicha, Superior Sencha, and Hojicha are Japanese green teas that are popular here,” he said, while showing the labeled glass jars with the tea. “Also, apart from Hojicha Latte and Matcha Latte, there are about 40 kinds of teas from around the world here.”
Customers who order traditional Japanese tea also don’t forget to order Wagashi. Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections that are often served with unsweetened green tea, especially the types made of mochi, anko, and fruit.
“These are handmade by Chef Tokara,” Luis pointed at Wagashi. “She changes her menu every month depending on the seasons. Some customers who love the Japanese traditional style order tea and those sweeteners on the side.” He said they have a variety of customers, not only Japanese Americans and Japanese tourists.
Cherry blossoms (sakura) and festivals
Strolling among the blossoming cherry trees has been a cherished event of spring for more than a century in the U.S. But in the trees’ homeland of Japan, the tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms, known as ‘hanami,’ dates back more than 1,200 years. Hanami is one of the most popular events of spring in Japan.
The planting of cherry trees in the U.S. was a gift of friendship to the people of the United States from the people of Japan. Crowds of people, including families and groups of friends, sit under the cherry blossoms and have picnics.
“For the Seattle cherry blossom and Japanese cultural festival, the JCCCW is one of a number of organizations that belong to the advisory committee or steering committee to plan that event,” Karen Yoshitomi, executive director of the JCCCW, said. “That is sort of like a community event.”
Sakura-Con is another big Japanese-influenced event in the U.S. It is the Northwest’s oldest and largest anime, manga (comics), gaming, and Asian culture convention, hosted by the Asia Northwest Cultural Education Association. Sakura-Con began in 1998 as a small, three-day event in Washington. The convention has grown dramatically over the years in terms of size and mission.
“There were certain aspects of Japanese culture that, I guess, arose from that experience and certainly resilience, and perseverance,” said Yoshitomi. “This is not just work I think, but also a social consciousness as well. That’s what’s different about the Japanese contribution to APA heritage month today. We have a story to tell in terms of immigration, discrimination, and legalized discrimination, but then also about the power of community and people helping out whether it’s within the Japanese community or allies who are non-Japanese.”
Indunil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.