Once a bustling and thriving neighborhood in Seattle’s International District, Japantown essentially vanished at the time of the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II and never truly returned to its original state.
Today, with help from local businesses and organizations such as the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), Japantown is experiencing a modern revival and resurgence of community and culture.
KOBO Seattle, a local art gallery and store, sits today in the space of the historic Higo Variety Store, which was once a cornerstone of the Japantown community.
The Higo Variety Store was opened by the Murakami family in the early 1930s and was a department store of sorts, offering a wide variety of products and serving as a gathering place for local residents.
As the Murakami lineage began to fade, a family friend began looking for new tenant to take over the space when the store closed its doors in the early 2000s.
The friend approached John Brisbee and Binko Chiong-Brisbee, owners of KOBO Seattle, which then had only one location in Capitol Hill. The couple saw a unique opportunity to bring something new to the Japantown community and opened their second location, KOBO at Higo, in the unofficial landmark space of the Higo Variety Store.
KOBO at Higo is an art gallery that showcases local artists, a gift shop, and a museum to honor the space’s history.
The SCIDpda and IDEA Space, their branch for community engagement, are working toward bringing Japantown back to life.
Ching Chan, the design lab coordinator for IDEA Space, attributes some of the present-day hardship for Japantown being the development of the I-5 freeway. When the freeway was built it cut Japantown in half losing the area’s sense of connectivity.
IDEA Space also brings events to the community, such as Nihromachi (Japantown) Nights, to celebrate Japanese culture and bring visitors to the neighborhood. Nihromachi (Japantown) Nights consisted of raffles, activity booths, and a central stage for local music and dance talent.
Also, IDEA Space had received grants to work on business façade improvement to make storefronts more appealing and pedestrian friendly.
The recent launch of the First Hill Street Car, which stops within Japantown, will also make it easier for visitors to access the neighborhood’s small businesses.