BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Shea Aoki, 90, can remember the heyday of the Alps Hotel. Before World War II, the International District hotel — with the first elevator among hotels in the neighborhood, she claims — was part of Seattle’s thriving Nihonmachi, or “Japantown.”
Living at the hotel with her in-laws Seita and Sei Aoki and husband Jiro, Shea Aoki can run down a long list of names of her Nisei generation who were either born in the hotel, grew up there or spent some time there. Since they managed the 120-room hotel, the Aokis had the luxury of occupying five, with their own bathroom instead of having to use the communal one down the hall. However, as newlyweds, Shea and Jiro lacked their privacy. But that’s the way it was back then, she says. “You live with your in-laws and you honor them.”
Her father-in-law, Seita, was the only son in his family, and by age 17, he wanted to leave his home of Yamaguchi, Japan and explore America. Landing in Seattle in 1887, Seita found the kind of jobs most of his fellow non-English-speaking immigrant Issei had to settle for: physical labor, including work as a cook for the U.S. Coast Guard. And then, as a family history written by the Aoki family states:
“But something was still missing in his life, and when Seita went back to Japan for a visit, he met his future wife and helpmate, Sei, in Osaka. As soon as they returned to the United States the couple began working side by side, and over the years they managed to acquire a number of businesses in Seattle’s Japantown.”
The transition from menial laborers to operators of thriving businesses often occurred when the Issei settled in Nihonmachi — made possible by the Issei pooling money and resources.
“The Issei all helped each other,” Shea Aoki recalls.
Son Jiro Aoki was born in 1911, older brother Taro Aoki in 1910, both at the Alps Hotel. Sister Hannah Aoki was born in 1917 when Sei returned to Japan during an extended visit. Jiro, in a family history he wrote, notes:
“My mother was having a very hard time because she had to care for my older brother who was ill and he needed special services and schools which were very expensive. He developed a progressive blindness which was a stigma at the time and caused my parents great anguish.” Taro was sent to a private school for the blind in Vancouver, Wash. He later had two sons and became an accomplished pianist.
In addition to the Alps Hotel, the Aokis also operated the Atlas Theatre in Nihonmachi (later becoming the Kokusai Theater) and the Lincoln Hotel further north in downtown Seattle. Shea recalls her father-in-law Seita as “business-like, but not aggressive.”
“He stayed in the back,” she says. “He didn’t want to be a leader.” But Seita also believed that Shea did not have to be the typical, stay-at-home wife of the time. He instead encouraged her that she and husband Jiro Aoki “should go places together.”
While Seita managed the hotels, his wife Sei — “very honest” or blunt when she spoke, Shea remembers — performed the housekeeping chores, such as making the beds. The Alps Hotel became the first American home for many new Japanese arriving in Seattle. The hotel’s occupancy would peak in June, just before migrant workers departed for the fish canneries in Alaska; and September, when they returned to Seattle before leaving for agricultural work in California.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Shea recalls standing on the sidewalk outside the Alps Hotel, hearing on radios that the Japanese military had attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. She dashed up the stairs, back to her in-laws. Seita said to his children and daughter-in-law that, in the face of whatever backlash was to come against those of Japanese ancestry, they had to be strong and not be intimidated, or they would be treated like kuro (African Americans).
That night, the FBI came and took Seita to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) center for being a “community leader,” Jiro Aoki wrote.
“As far as we know, what they held against him was his active membership in the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, a philanthropic organization which cared for people in distress. That’s what it says in FBI records.”
Jiro continued: “We lost both hotels when we were sent into the Puyallup center. We got almost nothing for them.
“I went from the Puyallup center to the immigration place in Seattle to act as a translator for my father. He had been held there for four months. They asked questions like: ‘Did you have Japanese flags displayed in the Nippon Hall when they had their programs?’ My father said no. ‘Did you give your oath of allegiance to Japan?’ My father said no, we were going to stay in the United States until his death. Many similar questions were asked.”
In an Aug. 6, 1942 letter from the INS center addressed to his son Jiro Aoki detained at the “Camp Harmony” temporary prison camp on the Puyallup fairgrounds, Seita Aoki wrote:
“According to best available information, it appears that the result of a hearing cannot be expected for several months. I therefore am led to believe that I shall not rejoin you within say 45 days, possibly within three months. Under the circumstances, I think it best that I have all my clothing and personal effects here with me, and so request you will pack my things (especially my Japanese- style night clothes, my overcoat, and some clothes hangers) in a suitcase or two, and arrange to send them here by express or some such way.”
Seita was then incarcerated at Missoula, Mont. After about a year, Seita Aoki joined the Aoki family at the Minidoka camp in southern Idaho. Upon returning to Seattle after the camp closed, Shea Aoki recounts the extended family crammed together in temporary housing at south Seattle’s Holly Park. After many years as an independent businessman, Seito Aoki, feeling useless, depressed and bedridden with high blood pressure, died a “heart broken man” in 1947, according to the Aoki family history.
His wife, Sei, went on to start the Jackson Street Grocery Store in Seattle’s Central Area, assisted by her daughter Hannah and son-in-law Yoshizo Maekawa. Sei Aoki passed away in 1982 at age 94. Shea and Jiro went on to operate their dry cleaning business, Broadway Cleaners, for 28 years. Jiro Aoki passed away in 1984 at the age of 72.