The Panama Hotel is located in the heart of Seattle, Washington's Chinatown-International District, the location of its Nihonmachi (Japantown) before World War II. The hotel has a long history of providing temporary lodging for immigrants from Japan who emigrated to Seattle and houses one of only two intact sentos (public bathhouses) in the United States. The hotel's basement was also used by the Japanese community as a storeroom for their possessions during WWII when people of Japanese descent were evacuated from the West Coast and sent to relocation centers throughout the United States.
The hotel was designed by Sabro Ozasa, the first Japanese American architect to practice in Seattle and one of the earliest to practice in the United States. The Panama Hotel was built on the corner of 6th and Main Streets in what was considered the heart of Seattle's Nihonmachi. The five-story building was completed in 1910 as a workingman's hotel with the sento in the basement, stores on the ground floor, a mezzanine above, and three floors of guest rooms.
The Japanese brought the traditional cultural practice of bathing in sentos from Japan, adapting it to their new home. The practice is over a twelve hundred years old and was both social and practical as some homes, especially in urban areas, did not have private baths. Almost every American Nihonmachi had a sento containing multiple furos (soaking tubs). At one time, there were hundreds of sentos in the western U.S. Today only two remain – the Hashidate Yu at the Panama Hotel and the still operating Miyazaki Bathhouse in the Walnut Grove Japanese Historic District in Walnut Grove, California.
The Hashidate Yu has a different entryway from the Panama Hotel's main entrance. The entrance to the sento is located on 302 6th Avenue South. Users of the sento paid an admission fee that varied over time. The Hashidate Yu consists of two furos – one for men and one for women. The men's side is three times larger and more spacious than that of the women's. A dividing wall separates the two furos, but both sides have faucets that control the water. Before getting into the tubs, bathers would put their shoes and other personal items in wooden lockers. The lockers still have their original numbers from right to left and include internal hooks. Some of the original advertisements are still visible in the men's locker; many of the signs are bilingual. Examples of the signs include ones advertising the West Coast Printing Company, Hikida Furniture and Appliance Company, and Yesler Hardware and Plumbing Supplies.
Because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December 1942, and the United States' subsequent declaration of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal of anyone of Japanese descent - citizens and non-citizens alike - living in California, Washington, Oregon and parts of Arizona and New Mexico to relocation centers. As a result, 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were sent to live in one of 10 relocation centers throughout the U.S. for the duration of the war.
Faced with enforced evacuation and hearing, by word of mouth, that the owner of the Panama Hotel, Mr. Takashi Hori, had a secure place to store belongings, many of the members of Seattle's Japanese community brought their valuables to be stored in the basement of the hotel. In 1945, Mr. Hori, who had been interned in a relocation center, returned to Seattle to reclaim his hotel from the management company that ran it while he was away. He found approximately 50 trunks of property unclaimed in the hotel basement and tried to reunite them with their owners, but many families, including the owners of the trunks, did not return to Seattle after the war.
After buying the hotel from Mr. Takashi Hori and his family in 1985, Jan Johnson, the current owner, also tried to locate the trunks' original owners or their descendants and return the personal belongings to the families. Appreciating the historic value of the trunks and their contents, Ms. Johnson took the belongings that were left unclaimed and created a museum in the basement of the hotel. Many of the items have been included in temporary exhibitions at Ellis Island in New York and the Japanese American National Museum in the Little Tokyo Historic District, Los Angeles, California. Today visitors and guests to the hotel can see and learn from the collection of photographs, clothes, and items that were part of everyday life in Seattle's pre-WWII Nihonmachi.
The Panama Hotel became a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and operates as the Historic Panama Hotel Bed & Breakfast. Guests stay in the original hotel rooms, decorated with pre-World War II furniture, and the hotel has a well-known Asian Tea and Coffee House. The Hashidate Yu is open for tours by appointment. Both inside and out, the Panama Hotel looks much the same today as it did in the first half of the 20th century and still anchors a vibrant neighborhood in downtown Seattle.
The Panama Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 605 South Main St, Seattle, WA.