By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
For a man who’s restoring a 100-year-old Japanese theater, Eric Hayashi looks pretty modern. His black hair, seasonably touched with just a little bit of grey, is combed back over his head in what might have been called a pompadour fifty years ago.
Indeed, the only part of his turn-out that resembles anything from the distant past are the black whiskers that sprout along his lower cheekbones, giving him the look of a 19th-century bruiser.
All in all, Hayashi doesn’t look the part of the savior of Nihonmachi—the vanished Japantown of which the theater he’s now restoring was the central life and soul.
I mean, he went to Sammamish High School, Whitman College, and on to Wharton, where a summer internship led him into the clinical trials industry (if you want to enroll in trials for everything from drugs for diabetes to women’s health to vaccines, all you have to do is go to his website).
But there’s a whole world, a history revealed inside the life and soul of Hayashi—a little bit like the fabulous hidden theater inside the exterior of a drab brick office building, which he recently purchased for $10 million.
As we walk down the stairwell, illuminated with fresh manila paint, cream-colored and thickly daubed over the walls and ceiling, one gets a sense of hidden depths—in man and building.
The building—let’s start there, since the concrete is always easier to unpack than the human vessel.
Built in 1909, the Nippon Kan Theater served as the lifeblood of the overseas Japanese community. Children paraded across the stage in traditional costumes, keeping the culture alive. Geishas, in white droll paint twirling parasols and singing, reminded the packed crowds of hundreds of what they were missing back home—perhaps what they had never even seen back home but now, in the midst of thick nostalgia and alienation, could see for the first time.
Musicians, twanging traditional Japanese instruments, sat packing the stage.
The audience—these conjurings all come from old black and white photos displayed in the theater—was tricked out in their best finery—western suits and neckties.
Then, during the early part of the 20th century, as the palace known as the Nippon Kan asserted its ability to pronounce on cultural matters and taste, the Seattle Symphony started practicing and performing there. It became their cultural home.
Eventually, what happened to the Nippon Kan was a reflection of the fate of the Japanese (anyone of Japanese ancestry) in America.
As hundreds of thousands were packed into concentration camps, during World War II, the theater and its environs fell into desuetude.
For decades, it was abandoned, packed inside the brick walls of what came to be an unused building—left to molder and to rust.
Then, a developer bought the property. And lo and behold, he discovered the theater. Not knowing what to do with it—it was like finding the hidden remains of a vast civilization, such as at Pompeii—he eventually brought in a well-known architect, and they sought to explore its significance.
The University of Washington and other institutions studied it, wrote papers, dug out archives, and the theater hosted some cultural events from 1981 until 2005.
After that, it closed—and was buried again behind the walls of an office building.
Then came Eric Hayashi onto the scene.
But to understand what he did and what he’s doing, it’s a little helpful to understand why he’s doing it.
Trauma or classical education?
Hayashi’s parents belong to that little-studied generation of Japanese Americans called “Kibei”—I got this term from the chief architect and author of the Densho Encyclopedia, Brian Niiya, who also teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Kibei, roughly, were those Japanese Americans who were born in the U.S., but for multiple reasons were sent back to Japan for education, and lived there during World War II, thus avoiding the trauma of internment but suffering other, different traumas.
Hayashi’s parents apparently did not talk much about any suffering they endured. But Niiya said they may have endured a lot.
“I’m hesitant to comment, since I don’t know anything about the particulars of Mr. Hayashi’s story. But from your description, it sounds like his parents were Kibei who spent the war years in Japan?” said Niiya in an email to the Asian Weekly. “What I can say is that many Kibei in that situation had very difficult experiences in war-torn Japan, where they often faced suspicion due to their American birth and citizenship and were sometimes resented by family members as additional mouths to feed when food and shelter were hard to come by. If they were adults, their loyalty was often questioned and their avenues for making a living contracted.”
Upon returning to the U.S., after the war, many Kibeis lost their U.S. citizenship because they had been forced into the Japanese military, or just because they had voted in Japanese elections, said Niiya.
Although this doesn’t sound like this was the case with Hayashi’s parents. In fact, some Kibeis worked for U.S. military intelligence during the war, and were instrumental to U.S. success, according to Densho.
In Hayashi’s case, the decision to send his parents to Japan was made by well-established families, wanting the best for their children.
Hayashi’s great step-grandfather was a founder of the Grand Union Laundry in Japantown. His mother’s family was in the shipping business.
Both families wanted their children to have traditional Japanese educations. So both Hayashi’s parents went to elementary school in Japan and stayed all the way through college—among the very top universities in Japan: Waseda for his father and Tokyo Joshi Daigaku (Tokyo Women’s Christian University) for his mother.
This meant, when they came back to the U.S., they were thoroughly formed.
“My parents were very Japanese,” said Hayashi.
As such, they raised Hayashi in a traditional manner, although at the same time, living in Bellevue, he grew up with all the trappings of an all-American kid.
(Both parents went on to get bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.: his father from the University of Washington and his mother from Seattle University).
Hayashi’s purchasing of the theater, and refurbishing it (as we walked through it, contractors were finishing up supports to the walls so it could withstand any manner of earthquakes and natural disasters), was an act of love to honor his parents, both of whom are no longer alive.
Bringing back the past
But Hayashi is keenly on the lookout for any presence of the past. He brings a reporter to the side of the refurbished stage to point to a wall, in which are inscribed names and initials from a century in the past.
He points out a careful reproduction of the stage curtain, which was painted with advertisements for various Japanese businesses.
“You see the cat there, that’s Maneki,” he says, referring to the age-old Sushi and Tempura restaurant that has survived the onslaught of the years, the internment, and the pandemic.
He points out the original lights overhead, scalloped graceful metal curlicues that wrap around light bulbs and give amplitude to the stage.
Then, something embarrassing happens.
This reporter, who had been up since dawn, started to talk about another cultural center where he had worked.
Hayashi took it in stride—and with incredible modesty and aplomb.
“Do you have any advice?” he actually asked this reporter.
Of course, I could not hold back and let forth some blandishments, and blatherskite-like, proceeded to describe how he could start a board of older Japanese Americans to guide the activities.
“This isn’t really my role, as a reporter,” I said—to put it mildly.
But Hayashi was not abashed on my behalf.
“I’m justly trying to get the acoustics right, at this point,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out a direction.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.