The judo training room at 1414 South Weller Street is filled with blue mats, many windows, wood floors. But a section of flooring is different from the rest. A sink stood there once, volunteer Mara Kage tells me—it was part of a kitchen, used by Japanese American families after World War II and during resettlement. After the wartime incarceration, the building became, for a time, known as “Hunt Hotel”: a temporary housing facility for four years for more than 25 families. The flooring change in the judo room floor is a detail, but it marks an important part of the building’s history that’s now being told by Unsettled/Resettled: Seattle’s Hunt Hotel, a new exhibit at the Northwest Nikkei Museum in the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington (JCCCW).
Kage and I are walking around on the soft, dark wooden floors of the JCCCW. Our walk includes stops at 10 illustrations, each one at a different point in the building. Outside the judo room, for example, there’s a beautiful paper cut illustration of the room’s former life by local artist Aki Sogabe. Titled “Communal Kitchen,” it’s filled with women and children cooking, baking, doing laundry. Near the illustrations there are also brief recollections by former residents, speaking of their time in the building. One of the most poignant pieces of the testimonials is Shokichi Tokita’s: “[Our] parents pushed two cots together to make a double bed, we hung sheets as partitions … it really was just like an extension of camp.” Sogabe’s paper illustrations are vibrant and awash with color, which brings a sepia “older” history closer to the present.
Eventually my tour guide and I come to a long hallway, which I remember from previous events as a connection between buildings—but this time I see it’s filled with the Hunt Hotel exhibit: display boards, pictures, text, even a few display cases. The display tells of the building’s post-wartime history: how different classrooms for the Japanese Language School were turned into apartments, for example. There are panels about moving in, about living conditions, about life after living at the Hunt Hotel. A few small display cases hold carefully preserved mementos: a single tax document filled out by Genji Mihara, the manager of the Hunt Hotel; cigar boxes, a few wartime-era toys. Most of Mihara’s paperwork related to the Hotel was destroyed in a 1976 fire; the edges of the tax document are still slightly charred.
Finally, we pause before Sogabe’s illustration of a lone Issei man, a resident who took his own life while at the Hotel. I find out more about him from Elisa Law, curator of the exhibit. She is speaking of the stories which moved her the most during her research. “I think during the course of this research I fell most in love with Masakazu “William” Koshiyama. He lived at the Hunt Hotel from 1945 until 1959, for 14 years. He was the last tenant of the Hunt Hotel until he took his own life at the age of 76.
“I became fascinated by this Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) man who had had no family, who had found shelter at this temporary hostel for so long,” says Elisa Law, who was brought on as Project Manager in 2016. “I asked every former resident what they remembered about him to try and piece together his story … I think I have spent so much time imagining his life (he would complain about other tenants of Camp Minidoka smoking in the barracks, that it made him unable to sleep) and his experience during World War II (he adamantly refused to go anywhere but back to Seattle after the incarceration camps were shut down. He represents in a very real way to me, the forgotten Issei bachelor men who lost everything during WWII and who did not have children to take care of them or to remember their struggles. The only physical evidence of William, or of many of these Issei bachelors, are signatures on federal documents that are saved in public records. If I ever saw a photo of William, I think I would have a good cry.”
Unsettled/Resettled is the culmination of several years of work, begun in 2009 by then-interim JCCCW director Bif Brigman and then continued by a team of intern and JCCCW staff members, including Laura Araki and Stephen Kitajo. “I knew,” says Brigman, “[that] the trauma of camp didn’t end when the camps closed.”
Grants from 4Culture and the National Parks Japanese American Confinement Sites program helped to support the research, documentation, and display. A community team of former Hotel residents, local Japanese American history specialists, and museum professionals helped the JCCCW staff to develop and display the exhibit and catalog materials.
“I hope that visitors [can] come away with a new appreciation of the resilience of the Japanese American community in the face of adversity,” says Law. “That the struggles and losses of the Issei generation not be forgotten and that the importance of community (whether that be a Language School, a church or a neighborhood) is understood.”
Run by volunteers, the Northwest Nikkei Museum at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington is open between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Admission is free. To schedule a tour, e-mail [email protected] or call (206) 568-7114. The exhibit catalog, ‘Unsettled/Resettled: Seattle’s Hunt Hotel,’ should be available in May 2016 by contacting the JCCCW, and will contain all of the exhibit text as well as all of Sogabe’s illustrations. Part of the exhibit remains at the JCCCW, but part of the exhibit is scheduled to travel to the University of Washington, the JANM in Los Angeles, and the Oregon Nikkei Endowment. The exhibit’s traveling schedule, when finalized, will be available on the webpage www.jcccw.org/hunthotel.