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From 1909 until the Japanese-American internment during World War II, the Nippon Kan Theater and Astor Hotel served Seattle's Japantown (Nihonmachi) community by providing housing for new immigrants, entertainment and cultural connection, and a gathering space for families, events, meetings, and fundraisers. The National Register of Historic Places Astor Hotel building is now a bike messenger service, but its original theater curtain (advertising the Nihonmachi businesses of 1909 through the 1920s) has been incorporated into the Wing Luke Asian Museum's Tateuchi Story Theatre (1; 2; 3).

  • Original Nippon Kan Theater curtain, now in the Tateuchi Story Theatre (image from Wikimedia Commons)
  • Members of the Japanese Association in the 1910s at the Nippon Kan Theater (image from the University of Washington)
  • A 1915 performance (image from the University of Washington)
  • The Nippon Kan Theater building, now occupied by a messenger service (image from Wikimedia Commons)
The Cascade Investment Company constructed the Astor Hotel, including the hall housing the Nippon Kan Theater, in 1909. The company had been established by Japanese businessmen Takahashi, Hirade, and Tsukono with a Caucasian "front man" to work around anti-Japanese restrictions on businesses (1; 2). The theater became the center for Seattle's 27-block Japantown (Nihonmachi) community, hosting not only performances, but also social events, meetings of Kenjin Kai (prefectural societies who helped new immigrants find housing, jobs, access to healthcare, and refuge from anti-Japanese intimidation), political meetings, speeches (including some by women's rights activists), fundraisers for churches and educational facilities, and family gatherings (1; 3). Seattle's International District consisted of immigrants from Japan, China, Greece, Italy, and Russia, as well as Jewish and African American migrants, who began the oyster industry in the Puget Sound, worked to establish fertile farmland in the area's swamplands, and provided labor for Seattle's canneries, sawmills, railroads, and service industry needs, as well as establishing (in spite of anti-immigrant restrictions) their own ethnic shops and community services. Japantown sprang up in the center of this district, and grew from 125 to a vibrant community of over 6,000 residents between 1890 and 1910 (1).

The theater's role in Japantown life was perhaps best symbolized by the 15-by-30 foot fire curtain which first adorned its stage, composed of logo advertisements paid for by local proprietors including the Maneki restaurant, the only remaining business from Seattle's turn-of-the-twentieth-century International District. The curtain was placed in storage in either 1915 or 1925 and was thought to be lost until the 1970s, when it was rediscovered (1; 3). The theater hall, on the first floor of the Astor Hotel, includes a stepped balcony, stage, hanamichi (traditional Japanese theater runway), and a special platform for musicians, and the rear wall (backstage) is decorated with the names of Japanese-Americans from 1918. The hotel was built as temporary housing for men immigrating from Japan, but following the First World War, competition over employment led to anti-Japanese laws banning new immigrants, forbidding Japanese ownership of farms, refusing Japanese people citizenship, and leading to the closing of many of Japantown's businesses, shops, and hotels. During World War II, the internment of both citizen and non-citizen Japanese Americans stripped the community from the neighborhood altogether. Those who returned to Seattle settled elsewhere (3).

In 2005, the building became home to a bike messenger service, the owners of which have worked in cooperation with the International Special Review District (ISRD) board and the Wing Luke Asian Museum to preserve the building's history (2; 3). The theater curtain, a physical representation of the vibrant Japantown of the early twentieth century, was restored by conservator Peter Malarkey and hangs once again as a stage curtain in the Wing Luke Museum's Tateuchi Story Theatre (3).

1. Burke, Edward M. "Nippon Kan." National Parks Service, National Register of Historic Places. February 1, 1977. Accessed August 1, 2016. 2. Nguyen, Nhien. "No more shows for the Nippon Kan Theatre." The International Examiner. October 4, 2005. Accessed September 2, 2016. 3. Ramirez, Marc. "Nippon Kan’s long-lost curtain back on stage." Seattle Times. May 19, 2008. Accessed September 2, 2016.