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Nippon Kan (#17)

Also known as: Astor Hotel

“It was a cultural center. It was a place where you could see the different arts, the dance programs from Japan as well as programs that were developed in the community itself…. It was a nice place for the community to have a place to go.” – May Sasaki

Built in 1909, the Nippon Kan soon became the cultural center for Seattle’s Japanese American community. The stage hosted international stars of traditional Japanese theater performances, along with local dance groups. The hall was filled with social gatherings marked by noisy children running down the aisles and with formal, quiet performances that held audiences still in their seats, hanging on a dancer’s every move.

The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II forced the Nippon Kan to board up its doors. The building stayed dark for many years. But the memories and echoes did not fade away. After the wounds of war began to heal, the Nippon Kan again glowed as a gathering place. Community meetings were held there. The stage offered a platform for actors telling the story of the incarceration and of the difficult journey back to belonging.

Nearly 100 years later the theatre’s original curtain now hangs in the Wing Luke Museum’s Tateuchi Story Theatre (waypoint #1). Painted with advertisements of community businesses from earlier times, it is a precious visual history of the community.

Images

First generation Japanese Americans (Issei) outside of the Astor Hotel, which housed the Nippon Kan.

Wing Luke Museum Collection.

Stock certificate for the Nippon Kan Company, issued 1917.

Wing Luke Museum Collection.

Artist Anna Edelman reimagines an early dancer at the Nippon Kan in full, resplendent color.

By artist Anna Edelman. YouthCAN, Wing Luke Museum.

Stories

May Sasaki

Since May Sasaki was so young, she mostly stayed on the side stage (hanamichi) of the Nippon Kan. This narrow stage that leads to the main stage allowed for a lot of performers to be on stage – with the main characters in the central stage and lesser characters lined up on the side stage.

“It was a good way for my mother to have me go for [dance] lessons during the time when she was busy… Although I was only about three years old, they at least give you the basics. I remember sitting there, and you have to sit on your feet which is very uncomfortable… They would just teach me a few words to be able to say at the beginning. Because I was three years old, you know, there is just so much you can learn…. And they would dress me up with the costumes, and then usually I played a boy’s role. You just sit there and do things. You just copy what the other people did.”

Community members in the Mimasu Kai practiced year-round at the Nippon Kan for their annual production.

“The name of the group was Mimasu Kai. That was led by Mr. and Mrs. Nakamura. There were several dance groups in Seattle. Hatsune Kai and Mimasu Kai were the largest groups. The Hatsune Kai was different from the Mimasu Kai because they would do just the classical dancing. But we did the classical plays, and it would be like opera – where you actually have stories and everything.”

The Mimasu Kai remained intact during World War II, though now performing behind barbed wire in a U.S. concentration camp,

“We continued [in Minidoka]. That’s where I did many of the dances…. We did the different stories as it goes, depending on what parts were available. Somehow [our teacher] was able to get all the costumes to the camp.”

After the War, May Sasaki’s family – with father Henry Saiji Nakamura, mother Yoshie, brothers George and Jim, and stepsister Chiyo – moved to the Astor Hotel and tried to save its Nippon Kan.

“The place we lived in Seattle [after the War] was what we knew as temporary. But it was so much better than camp. After a while, I longed for a nice house that you envisioned from the movies. My dad said he would find us a place that we could afford…. We moved to what was called the Astor Hotel – that was the old Nippon Kan building. I must say, when I first saw that dilapidated brick building, my heart sank…. I was so upset – in my dreams I was thinking of a nice home…. The stage area was still as bad as it was then. We were trying to clean up at least the dust and everything else…. [My dad] saw the value of the stage so he was trying – now this is a worthy effort by my dad – to make the theatre come back again. He wanted to remodel but he couldn’t get enough people interested. He went from people to people he knew, and he asked if they would be willing to contribute towards the renovation of the hotel. And I remember he was so disappointed that he wasn’t able to do it. But that wasn’t the right time. All of the people who had any money were trying to eke out a living for themselves. But he thought, well, maybe someday.”

The Nakamuras eventually sold the building to Seattle architect Edward Burke and his wife Betty who took up the remodel efforts and restored the Nippon Kan to its role as a cultural center. In 2005 it was sold again and converted into office space.

May Sasaki poses for the camera (right).

Mimasu Kai at the Nippon Kan, April 17, 1927.

Before the War, Henry Saiji Nakamura first owned a small grocery store in the University District and then one in Japantown. After the War, he moved his family to the Astor Hotel. He is pictured here with his family. (left to right) Wife Yoshie, daughter May, son George, Henry, son Jim and stepdaughter Chiyo.