Photo depicting a crowd gathering around a switching box with bright-pink and "chibi" art on it.

‘Hai! Japantown 2021’: Honoring the Past and Reviving the Present

by Sharon Ho Chang

There are still a couple of weeks left to enjoy the fifth annual “Hai! Japantown,” a 20-day summer festival celebrating Seattle’s historic Nihonmachi or Japantown. The festival offers a unique and important opportunity to learn about and support the revival of what was once the West Coast’s second-largest Japanese American community.

“‘Hai! Japantown’ is important because it shows that the spirit of Japantown is still alive,” said Lei Ann Shiramizu, former co-owner of Momo, a cornerstone of Seattle’s Japantown, which just closed last September after 13 years. She has been involved in “Hai! Japantown” from the start (in fact she and her husband named it) and is helping manage social media and the calendar of events for this year’s festival.

“It’s like the Japanese saying, you know, ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight.’ Even during this very, very challenging year, the businesses have managed to stay alive. And not only that, they have continued to thrive because we have some of the small businesses taken over by the next generation … that has infused these businesses or these spaces with young energy and new ideas and it’s wonderful.”

Photo depicting an artistic wooden fence with a vintage photo of Japanese Americans on a wall between it. A golden frog with Japanese calligraphy characters on its belly sits on the wall beside the photo.
Nihonmachi fence and art in Chiyo’s Garden. Artist Erin Shigaki. Photo courtesy of Hai! Japantown.

Seattle’s Nihonmachi (historic Japantown) — established in the 1900s despite considerable anti-Asian racism at the time — is located within a 15-block area in the Chinatown-International District (CID). It includes landmarks like the century-old Panama Hotel, the Higo Variety Store building, which is still owned by a relative of the original owners, and Maneki, Seattle’s oldest Japanese restaurant. With the second-largest Japanese American community on the West Coast, Seattle’s pre-WWII Nihonmachi was once a bustling, booming, and lively place. 

But the mass incarceration of around 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war dealt Seattle’s Nihonmachi a terrible blow. When the U.S. government forced the city’s Japanese American community to leave their businesses and communities behind to live in prison camps, the historic district was almost completely wiped out. Most Japanese Americans were not able to maintain their businesses while imprisoned, and after the war, most did not try. 

For a long time post-WWII, said Shiramizu, the district became a shadow of itself, sleepy and mostly forgotten. Shiramizu, originally from Hawai‘i, went to the University of Washington and arrived in the neighborhood in 2004 to work as a freelance writer. “At the time it was more a collection of small and good but greasy-spoon kind of restaurants with the exception of Maneki,” she said. 

Then, in 2007, Shiramizu and her husband, Tom Kleifgen, opened a clothing, jewelry, and home goods store called Momo in the former Hugo Variety Store building that had been taken over by Paul Murakami. “He [Paul] was put at the helm of the Jackson building at the same time that I became the first tenant,” said Shiramizu. “And when he and I cleared out the Hugo Variety Store, I told him that he’d been handed a big responsibility of keeping Japantown alive and he took it seriously … It was after that that Japantown started peeking its head out again after being dormant for so many years.”

A slow but steady revival of the historic district began at long last. Nowadays, the area is called simply Japantown (not Nihonmachi). “Hai! Japantown,” literally meaning “Yes! Japantown,” was launched in 2017 through the efforts of invested community members, including Shiramizu, Murakami, Jan Johnson, owner of the Panama Hotel, and Cassie Chin of the Wing Luke Museum. 

“We managed to get a small neighborhood celebration going, recognizing Japantown, combining the new and old,” said Shiramizu. “We wanted people to recognize that there was a Japantown before, an ordinary Nihonmachi … and tie it back, of course, to World War II when the Japanese were interned. You know, we wanted people to remember all of that while celebrating all of the new.” 

Photo depicting a crowd of people gathered in an alleyway listening to a female-presenting individual speaking into a microphone in front of a wall with architectural art.
Pre-COVID-19, Amy Nikatani’s art in Nihonmachi Alley. Photo courtesy of Hai! Japantown.

Despite the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic, “Hai! Japantown” has continued in-person consecutively for the last half decade. The festival used to be a small, one day celebration, but last year shifted into a longer format. Pre-COVID-19, Shiramizu said, “Hai! Japantown” was a crowded, popular street festival. “You saw people dressed up in yukata and there’s music and entertainment and everything was in a concentrated space.” During COVID-19, she said, the longer-length format allows attendees “to explore the neighborhood more at your leisure and learn at your own pace.” 

This year’s “Hai! Japantown” began Monday, Aug. 9, and extends through Sunday, Aug. 29. You’ll find a full list of participating businesses here. Festival-goers can visit many historic sites like the Nippon Kan Theatre and meeting hall (now a courier office), Kobe Terrace Park with its Stone Lantern gifted by sister-city Kobe, as well as the terraced Danny Woo Community Garden founded in 1975. 

Special activities are planned on Thursdays through Sundays. Upcoming festival highlights include the DaDaDa Annual Archival Sale in Chiyo’s Garden starting this Friday, Aug. 20, an outdoor screening of Raya and the Last Dragon at Hing Hay Park on Saturday, Aug. 21, and an Itsumono Jazz Singer showcase, CID food walk as well as an outdoor guided Japanese American Remembrance Trail Tour at the end of the month.

“Of course we will never reach the force of what Japantown was pre-World War II,” said Shiramizu, “but at least we’re trying to keep that memory alive.”

Follow Seattle Japantown’s Instagram and Facebook accounts for the most up-to-date festival announcements.

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Higo Variety Store as “Hugo” Variety Store. This article was updated on 08/20/2021 with the correct spelling.

Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫 Tiunn Hiáu-lûn is an award-winning Taiwanese American author, photographer, and activist. She is managing editor at the South Seattle Emerald and lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.

📸 Featured Image: Enfu switching box art with Japantown signage. (Photo: Alan Alabastro, courtesy of Hai! Japantown)

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