Eric Hayashi cuts a ribbon at the May 23 re-opening celebration for the Nippon Kan Theater. Hayashi is the building’s new owner, and led the restoration of the historic theater located at the top of Kobe Terrace park. Photo by Chetanya Robinson

The Nippon Kan Theater, once a vital performance venue and community center in Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, is restored and open once again as an events space available for rent.

The renovated performance room and stage were showcased in a private re-opening celebration on May 23, where guests from the Chinatown International District community, including prominent Seattle Japanese Americans mingled in the space under artificial trees glowing with pink blossom lights. Guests, dressed in their finest, were treated to cocktails, a ramen bar, and valet service at the top of Kobe Terrace park.

The restoration is the work of Eric Hayashi, President and CEO of Rainier Clinical Research Center and the building’s new owner.

Hayashi, a third generation Japanese American whose parents were brought up in Japan, doesn’t recall going to the Nippon Kan when he was growing up, but he was aware of its significance. When he was looking for buildings to buy for office space, he saw the Nippon Kan building for sale. As he started researching its history, he was struck by its connections to his family background, and excited by what he might do with the building.

In 1908, Japanese American businessmen, including banker Tatsuya Arai and shipper Heiji Okuda, started the Nippon Kan Company. They commissioned architects Thompson & Thompson to design a building that would include retail, a meeting hall, small SRO rooms where new immigrants could stay, and – uniquely for the neighborhood – a 400-seat theater. 

Over the years, the theater hosted films, concerts (the space can accommodate a full orchestra), singers and musicians from Japan, kabuki theater, judo and kendo, and community events and meetings. According to HistoryLink, admission prices were usually on a “pay what you can” basis.

“This was kind of the beating heart of Nihonmachi,” said Hayashi. “I don’t know of anything like that today.”

The Nippon Kan was largely abandoned after the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during WWII.

It was reopened in 1981 after architect Edward Burke bought and renovated the building along with Stroum Enterprises, and some cultural events were held there once again. By 2005, Stroum wanted to sell. InterIm CDA, then led by community leader Bob Santos, was interested in buying the building, but could not match the asking price, and the theater was converted into private offices. 

When Hayashi bought the building a year ago, he decided to restore the theater, which used to be office space. He tore out the cubicles and carpeting and embarked on building improvements, including seismic retrofitting and exterior protections, electrical work, painting, and new wood flooring. 

He worked with the National Register of Historic Places to approve his changes. Hayashi was pleased to see that Burke, the previous owner, had preserved a graffiti wall, and commissioned artwork reproducing the proscenium curtain of the Nippon Kan. The original curtain, covered in painted advertisements for historic Japanese American businesses, is in the WIng Luke Museum’s Tateuchi Story Theatre.

On the restored Nippon Kan stage, old graffiti and signatures are preserved under Lucite, including that of the novelist John Okada, author of No-No Boy, the novel of WWII Japanese American incarceration. 

Frank Abe, a scholar of Okada and creator of the PBS documentary, Conscience and the Constitution on Japanese American organized camp resistance, remembers seeing that signature in the empty Nippon Kan in 1977, and the deep impression it made on him about Seattle and its Japanese American history. 

“Having Nippon Kan still here as a community asset, and now once again accessible to us as a community for rental, is tremendous, a real addition to the community,” Abe said.

Graffiti preserved in the renovated Nippon Kan space. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

Hayashi wants to see the space rented for events and performances. He admits to having no experience in event or theatrical management. “I’ve just been trying to speak with as many people as I can about everything from sound, to lighting, to music, to flooring,” he said. 

The theater’s hardwood flooring, for example, was chosen because it is ideal for orchestral performances, and the natural color oak flooring was chosen for potential kabuki performances.

Hayashi said he has heard countless stories from people who have memories of going to the Nippon Kan or performing there. 

One of the most meaningful was talking with May Sasaki, whose father bought the building after WWII and tried to restore it to its pre-war state, but lacked the funding. As a result, the building declined until 1980, Hayashi said. “I think she’s very happy to see that her father’s intent is finally carried out.”

Hayashi thinks of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, about the fact that things don’t last forever, particularly power. “The building is going to stay, and I’m just sort of the caretaker for now,” Hayashi said. He hopes his children will want to continue taking care of it, and it preserve it as a center for music, events, “happy memories and entertainment.”

“It would be really cool to see that, and have it kind of return to its glory.”

For anyone interested in renting the Nippon Kan space, you can visit https://www.kobeparkevents.com/ to learn more.

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