Japantown Was Due for a Landmark

The city is working to preserve the Panama Hotel. But the tiny neighborhood has already embraced its legacy.

By Allecia Vermillion September 9, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

The city is working to confer landmark protections on the historic single room occupancy hotel in Japantown.

Jan Johnson was an unlikely steward for the Panama Hotel. Back in 1985, the building’s longtime owner, Takashi Hori, handed the deed and his hefty ring of keys over to the young artist who’d taken a shine to the neighborhood. Johnson had zero Japanese heritage—and zero experience maintaining a creaky single-occupancy hotel built in 1910. But for several decades, she’s managed to protect a powerful symbol of a neighborhood whose history looms large, even if its boundaries don’t.

This year, Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board conferred official city landmark status on the Panama Hotel. The distinction includes Hashidate Yu, the communal bathhouse, or sento, frozen in time in the Panama’s basement.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this designation is that it didn’t happen sooner. A certificate on the wall offers commendation from Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. The National Park Service named the Panama a national historic landmark back in 2006, the highest such honor there is. “Unfortunately that doesn’t come with any protection for preservation,” says Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle, which shepherded the subsequent city landmark application.

A teahouse Johnson opened on the hotel’s street level decades ago still serves selections from around the world. Upstairs, the halls have hardly changed since Sabro Ozasa, the region’s first Asian American architect, designed the five-story building. The sento beneath it is the last one intact on the West Coast. They’ve endured by the grace of two single-minded caretakers; Hori’s bristling key ring still clinks at Johnson’s waist as she walks the building in her tall black boots, fixing sinks and checking on guests.

Panama Hotel owner Jan Johnson displays a trove of Japantown artifacts throughout the building.

She installed a plexiglass square in the teahouse’s fir floorboards so visitors can see into the basement. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, Japanese Americans on the West Coast had to pack what they could before the army incarcerated them in camps. Takashi Hori and his family let friends and neighbors store their personal belongings in the bottom level of the Panama until their return. Many never did. 

In 2017, the National Trust for Historic Preservation catalogued more than 7,500 objects of historical significance, from comic books to socks to 1940s-era rice cookers, the hotel has managed to safeguard. But after World War II, the Nihonmachi, or Japantown, could never recover its once-thriving status. The official area comprises just a handful of blocks, part of the broader Chinatown–International District. Today many of its windows remain boarded. 

Nevertheless, business owners in Japantown proper have begun to differentiate themselves, as neighboring Little Saigon and Chinatown do. A nascent festival celebrates local institutions like Maneki, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. Around the corner, boutiques like Kobo and Sairen on Jackson Street reinforce Japanese American–owned retail on the block where the Higo Variety Store once anchored a street of flourishing Nihonmachi businesses.

Tour buses still come to see the building that plays a pivotal (if fictional) role in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Today Marin Caccam and her brother, Sho, run Tsukushinbo, the restaurant their parents founded here in 1994. This fall they’ll turn it into two side-by-side eateries—a sushi counter and casual onigiri spot—doing their part to uphold Japantown’s history as they shape the neighborhood’s future. Caccam urges other Japanese restaurant owners around the city to consider opening here too. 

The city council should make the Panama’s landmark status official later this year, but it’s already a monument in literary circles. One afternoon, an English language class from Seattle Central gathered in the teahouse to discuss Jamie Ford’s novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The book came out in 2009, but fans still come to see the real hotel where Ford’s fictitious characters arrange for their final meeting as Nihonmachi residents prepare for wartime imprisonment. 

 “This wasn’t in my schoolbooks,” Johnson tells the visiting students. The Panama helped save the Nihonmachi’s stories until the rest of the world caught up. 

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