Japantown’s Panama Hotel hides a treasure trove of history

A historic picture from pre-internment Japantown, on display in the Panama Hotel. (Photo by Sihanouk Mariona)

In 1942, in a fervor of wartime paranoia, President Roosevelt ordered Japanese-Americans into internment camps for the duration of WWII.

The internment had an especially large impact in Seattle’s Japantown, where Japanese-Americans, many of them US-born citizens, were forced to abandon their homes and businesses almost overnight.

Before they were led away to the camps, some stashed their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel for safekeeping. At the time, the hotel served as communal gathering place, guest house, and sento (Japanese-style bath house).

Amazingly, many of those trunks and suitcases are still there and on view, waiting for owners that never came back.

Oh, and the hotel is still there too, with 101 uniquely decorated rooms that you can actually stay in ($90-125).

Panama Hotel owner Jan Johnson. (Photo by Sihanouk Mariona)

The building, which dates back to 1910, now has National Landmark status thanks to the work and renovations of current owner, Jan Johnson. Johnson bought the hotel in 1985 from the original owner, Takeshi Hori, who leased out during his own internment, and came back to reclaim it after the war.

Though she admits having slept through high school history, her priority now as owner, clerk, maintenance and tour guide, is to save the landmark for educational purposes.

Today the Panama welcomes guests from all over the world, as well as regulars in its tea house, playing mah-jong, sipping drinks, and working on laptopsAlberto, the smiling barista, will gladly guide you through the full bar of imported flavors and scents on offer.

Twice a week, Johnson personally leads tours for all ages (Wednesdays, Sundays $12, call for times). They begin in the tea house, under walls lined with photos of Seattle’s japanese community in the early 1900s. She displays letters and copies of the North American Times, an English-Japanese publication that ran from 1903 until 1942, announcing its own demise due to internment.

Luggage left behind by interned Japanese-Americans, on display through the floor of the Panama Hotel. (Photo by Sihanouk Mariona)

The tour continues past a plexi glass-covered hole in the floor, allowing view of the dusty belongings abandoned six decades ago, and into the old sento, where Johnson reflects on the variations of the bath house in every culture. The cracked tiles and old lockers of the only intact sento left in the United States bear their own evidence of generations past.

Whether you’re there for a tour, a cup of tea, or a good night’s rest, the Panama Hotel offers a hint of time travel and a rarely accessible taste of living history.

The Panama Hotel is located at 605 ½ S. Main St.

For room reservations call (206)-223-9242 or email reservations@panamahotelseattle.com

Sihanouk is an Emmy-award winning stop-motion animator. He has lived in Seattle since 2011.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have just read the book, it was thought provoking to say the least. We never have the chance to look at the situation from both sides, and it did make me think after I finished the last page.

    If I ever get the chance I would love to see the left behind things.

  2. I have also read the book and it is a sad story. There is so much much suffering in the world. I wish it could stop.
    I also would love to see the left behind things. Maybe some day….
    Greatings from Norway

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