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Nihonmachi Alley (#5)

Nihonmachi Alley is located on the north side of Jackson Street between 6th and Maynard Avenues. It features murals of four landmark businesses that undauntedly continued upon the families returning from incarceration: Kokusai Theatre, Maneki Restaurant, Sagamiya Confectionary and Uwajimaya Grocers.

The murals in Nihonmachi Alley are a collaborative effort between Friends of Japantown Seattle and local Japanese artist Amy Nikaitani. Across the alley, artist Erin Shigaki showcases larger-than-life historic photos under the banner, “Never Again Is Now.” In this space, history meets art to invite you to explore the often unseen community treasures in Japantown and reflect on the meaning of the past for today.

Images

A tour led by the Wing Luke Museum gathers in Nihonmachi Alley.

Alabastro Photography. Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum.

Video

Artist and community activist Erin Shigaki speaks about Japanese incarceration during World War II, the historical “othering” of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, and what it means to find home. Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum.

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Kokusai Theater

Originally called the Atlas Theatre, the movie house located on Maynard and Jackson was founded in 1918 by a benshi (silent film narrator) to show Japanese films. Kokusai means international, and the cinema lived up to its name showing Japanese, Chinese and Filipino films. The theatre was one of the few places audiences could view Asian actors playing heroes and in leading roles. Owned by the Kitamuras, the entire family, including the children, worked at the theatre, taking breaks in shifts at Tai Tung restaurant down the street.

Maneki Restaurant

Opened in 1904 at 6th and Washington, the original building resembled a three-story Japanese castle, seated up to 500 people, and was a popular location for weddings, funerals and visiting dignitaries. Local history says Takeo Miki, who went on to serve as Japan’s Prime Minister from 1974-76, was employed as a dishwasher here during his college days at the University of Washington. After World War II, the restaurant moved to 6th and Main, where Maneki continues to be a popular destination under the ownership of Jean Nakayama.

Sagamiya Confectionary

Sagamiya Confectionary opened in 1900, named after Unosuke and Take Shibata’s hometown, Sagami. From the corner of 5th and Main, the scent of mochi and senbei enticed the neighborhood. This little shop gained global attention during the 1909 World’s Fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, where Sagamiya was given an award for their traditional rice-based treat. When Take retired to Japan, she left the business to her nephew and his wife. Partnering with his cousins, they expanded Sagamiya to offer stationery, books, magazines and a soda machine. Sagamiya reopened after the War, delivering its beloved sweets for another three decades, finally closing in 1978.

Uwajimaya Grocers

Fujimatsu and Sadako Moriguchi started Uwajimaya in 1928, selling fishcakes and other Japanese staples out of the back of a truck in Tacoma, Washington. After the incarceration, they opened their first store at 4th and Main, adding imported gifts and food from Japan so local Japanese families could prepare traditional dishes. Fujimatsu seized the opportunity to host a kiosk at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle and introduced his offerings to a wider audience. He died shortly after, never to witness the results of his efforts as his stores gained popularity in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, the specialty supermarket has moved twice within the neighborhood, ultimately establishing its flagship store at 6th and Weller in 2000.

Stories

Amy Nikaitani

“I’m really surprised that all of a sudden that my artwork is becoming – you know, my drawings of buildings and things are things that I just did for Christmas cards and stuff. And all of a sudden (laughter), it’s going to be on a mural.” – Amy Nikaitani

Although Amy Nikaitani only more recently moved to the Chinatown-International District, settling into senior housing on Yesler Way in 2008, she is no stranger to the neighborhood. Born in 1923, Nikaitani took her first breath in an area hotel. In the 1980s, she would spend time once again among the storefronts and hotels here, drawing elevation views not from photographs but directly from the buildings themselves.

Nikaitani moved to Kent when she was five years old and graduated from Kent Senior High School in 1941. Although her high school did not have an art teacher, Nikaitani drew figures of people on her own, a lifelong passion started in grade school. After graduation, though discouraged by her father from entering art school, Nikaitani enrolled in a costume design school with figure drawing classes her favorite. Her studies were cut short however by the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II. Evacuated to Wyoming, Nikaitani continued drawing, embellishing letters to soldiers overseas with her figures. Married in 1944, she returned to Seattle in 1946 to raise her family. No matter her stage in life, she has always returned to art, whether studying advertising art and then contemporary graphics, working at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair drawing portraits, serving as a supervisor in Boeing’s graphics department, or attending local drawing sessions twice a month.

Amy Nikaitani celebrates installation of her murals in Nihonmachi Alley, 2018.

Amy Nikaitani celebrates installation of her murals in Nihonmachi Alley, 2018.

Amy Nikaitani celebrates installation of her murals in Nihonmachi Alley, 2018.

Erin Shigaki

“I’m really grateful that my grandmothers decided to talk to me about the incarceration. When I was first curious about it, I was writing an 8th grade history paper. Looking back, I know they didn’t give me a lot of emotional content but they still sat down and told me about how their lives were uprooted.” – Erin Shigaki

Erin Shigaki’s family had a house on King Street and 16th where they lived before World War II in the late 1930s. Her family belonged to the Japanese American Episcopal Church on the same block as the house, and her great grandfather helped build the Seattle Japanese Language School building down the street.

When the War broke out, Erin’s family was incarcerated like the other 125,000 Japanese American families living on the West Coast. They were looked upon by their neighbors with suspicion, stripped of their rights as American citizens, and uprooted from their homes and communities.

Unlike many Japanese American families, Erin grew up hearing stories about the incarceration from her grandmothers, and it would go on to influence her work as an artist. These stories inspired Erin’s work as an artist, exploring issues that communities of color face, and the similarities of what’s happened historically to what is happening now.

“The prejudice and fear of Asian Americans that was present during WWII is just rhyming so strongly with the stuff happening today with migrant detention and the increased xenophobia and hatefulness directed toward our community during the COVID crisis. It drives me to continue to tell our story and to keep putting my art out there.”

“I feel like the ‘forever foreigner’ sentiment just sticks with us. It hurts me so much to see this playing out right now in the global pandemic, where once again, when it’s not convenient for us to be American, we’re foreign, and seen as the cause of something terrible.

But I feel driven to shine a light on our story so that history stops repeating itself and to celebrate the resilience of our ancestors. To know that we have come through trauma and endured as immigrants. Despite poverty, redlining, and being rounded up en masse, we find joy, protect our culture, and persist. If we can talk about history and educate people through our work, that is invaluable. People learn in different ways, and art provides a visual window and a way in to these stories.”