A view of Nihonmachi Alley from South Jackson • Photo by Tin Pak

A Japantown banner project is in its final stages while a design initiative for improvements to the historic and culturally significant Nihonmachi Alley is underway.

The banners are part of a larger initiative called the Japantown Identity Project (JIP), which includes adding lighting to historical buildings, highlighting signage, and updating artwork in the neighborhood. This project launched in 2021 when the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods awarded a $50,000 grant to the JIP under its Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF) program.

Japantown Neighbors, a volunteer group of community members that includes local business and property owners in the neighborhood, are leading the identity project while a Japantown Banners Advisory Committee (JBAC) was formed to lead the banner updates.

The purpose of the banner initiative, according to a joint statement by both organizations, is to “honor and preserve the Japanese American history of the area, to help develop the neighborhood’s identity, and to geographically define the current Japantown.”

Banner mockup on South Main Street • Courtesy
The Banner Project Map, where new designs will be installed • Courtesy

Through a historical research process and community outreach, the JBAC developed 8-10 banner designs that reflect the rich Japanese history and culture within the neighborhood.

“We had three rounds of design reviews, where the artists would make designs and the committee would review it and give feedback, and then the artists would go back and make new designs,” described Aya Chiong-Bisbee, a graduate student at the University of Washington who is the Project Coordinator and Community Advisory Facilitator for the banner project.

“We shared those designs with the public because we wanted the greater community to also have a say in these banners that will be defining our neighborhood, Japantown. So we did a big community outreach push and reached out to a bunch of different local [Chinatown International District] organizations, as well as Japanese American organizations,” said Aya Chiong-Bisbee.

The group received over 100 responses. With this new feedback, the artists are currently in the final development stages for the new banner designs.

“We’re also just now finalizing the permitting with the City and the ISRD (International Special Review District)… to make sure that the banners are all up to code,” said Aya Chiong-Bisbee.

Once designs are completed and the necessary regulatory offices approve, the printing and installation process is planned for this summer. In total, 50 new banners will be produced and installed on light poles along Yesler Way, South Jackson, South Washington, and South Main Streets, and on Maynard, 5th, 6th, and 7th Avenues.

Red latern pole mockup • Courtesy

Though these banner efforts are in their final stretch, the Nihonmachi Alley design project is just beginning.

The alley, located on the north side of South Jackson between 6th and Maynard Avenues, is a historic landmark in the center of Japantown.

Aya’s mother and KOBO at Higo shop owner Binko Chiong-Bisbee and landlord Paul Murakami, whose family owns the alley’s bordering Jackson Building, were the two main initiators of these alley improvements, driven by concerns over the poor sanitary conditions and safety standards there.

“[Nihonmachi Alley] is like the gateway to Japantown because it’s right there on Jackson,” said Binko Chiong-Bisbee. “We were so upset about what was happening in the alley; so much garbage not being cleaned up, and people defecating.”

Murakami added that the brick paving in the alley is “not very safe to walk on, especially on a wet day and especially for seniors.”

Friends of Japantown, a different community group, received $50,000 through the same City of Seattle NMF program to make their desired changes. They will collaborate with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).

“The goal of this project is to transform Nihonmachi Alley into a safer, community-oriented, and pedestrian-friendly place,” read their joint statement. 

The mural in Nihonmachi Alley • Photo by Tin Pak

This project will build on previous design efforts in the alley such as Chiyo’s Garden.

“It’s a private garden owned by the Murakami family,” said Julie Yuan, Public Realm and Community Coordinator at SCIDpda. “But they also allow community organizations or members to host events there.”

Currently, there are four large informational panels installed by the Wing Luke Museum on the western wall near the South Jackson Street entrance to the alley, displaying images of historic Japanese businesses in the neighborhood such as Kokusai Theatre, which closed in the ‘80s.

The panels face a mural depicting the Minidoka Internment Camp, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII, along with an image that lists the names of Japanese American veterans, including Murakami’s father.

“I’m just here to try to preserve our small piece of Japantown and educate others who are not aware and engage people like you to learn more about it,” said Murakami.

One of the first improvements to the alley is already in place. In designated areas, three outlined sections are now painted with patterns and colors to differentiate where garbage, recycling, and compost should be placed by residents for pick up.

The new trash assortment paintings, designating where local residents should place their garbage, recycling, and compost for pickup • Photo by Tin Pak

“We recently created a trash assortment artwork on the ground to help residents know where to put trash in the alley,” said Yuan.

“[This artwork] was an experimental program that the Department of Transportation actually paid for to try to get people, neighbors, and residents to throw away their garbage in a very organized and neat way,” said Binko Chiong-Bisbee.

It remains to be seen how the current design project will add to or enhance the features already in place as SCIDpda is in the process of collecting applications for design consultants to lead this project — they plan to have one selected by August 1st, 2023.

The entire project is scheduled for completion by May 14th, 2024, when the group plans to finalize a schematic design and plan for improvements to the alley.

Although the banner and Nihonmachi Alley design projects are separate initiatives, the underlying goal of revitalizing and beautifying Japantown remains a shared objective.

“We want to promote the neighborhood because it has gone through very hard times since WWII when all those Japanese Americans were displaced and businesses had to close,” said Binko Chiong-Bisbee. “It’s not as active as the rest of Chinatown… we should promote this small neighborhood because we don’t want it to disappear.” 

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