Hotel is reminder of city's Japanese-American past

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The saga of Seattle's Japanese Americans remains on stage inside an old-world hotel on South Main Street called the Panama.

Later this summer, the Panama Hotel will enter Seattle's tea and coffeehouse scene with a stylish street-level space that is part espresso bar, part Japanese-American museum.

A fusion of custom cabinetry and photo gallery, it serves a helping of Seattle history and sencha - a green tea - to wash it all down.

In a city where history is measured by decade instead of century, the Panama, built in 1910, is a treasure that owner Jan Johnson is turning into a citadel of near-vanished Japanese-American culture.

Japanese Americans in Seattle, forced to evacuate their homes in 1942 and report to World War II internment camps, stashed their belongings in the basement of the Panama, which was at the hub of the city's Japantown at Sixth Avenue and Main.

Fifty-seven of those trunks have toured the country under the auspices of the Japanese American National Museum over the past decade.

The hotel contains what is reputedly the only impeccably preserved Japanese public bath left in the United States.

Captured in time, the bath looks much as it did when it stopped operating in either the 1950s or 1960s. A mosaic tile floor, sloped to allow for water drainage, leads to two marble and concrete baths separated by a wall - one for men and one for women and children.

Signs advertising local Japanese-owned businesses, ranging from a soda company to a hardware store, line the upper perimeter of a row of lockers.

The baths are not usually open for public viewing, but Johnson loves leading students on tours through her building to enlighten them.

One student from a Yakima middle school touring last week asked her why she, a Caucasian, is so interested in Japanese-American history.

"History is so important to your culture - everybody's culture," Johnson told the students. "It shouldn't be left behind."

With the opening of Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee, it won't be.

"If people can come up with innovative ways to tell the story of Japanese Americans, as long as it is historically accurate, organizations like ours welcome it," says Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

With the panache of an artist and a fanatical attention to detail, Johnson has spent the past four years - and a chunk of her savings account - remodeling two storefronts of linoleum and stucco into a flow of fir floors, exposed brick walls and dark wood moldings.

She plans to adorn the walls with enlarged black-and-white photos, copied from state archives, that depict the culture of Japanese Americans in Seattle and Western Washington.

Some show Seattle's Japantown, including the Panama Hotel, as a thriving commercial and social center, a landscape of restaurants, shops, hotels and other small retail businesses.

"Japantown was very much decimated and never recovered from World War II," says David Takami, a local author who wrote "Divided Destiny," a chronicle of Seattle's Japanese Americans.

An estimated 7,000 Japanese Americans lived in Seattle in February 1942 when the U.S. government ordered that they be incarcerated in internment camps. An original copy of the final edition of The North American Times, dated March 12, 1942, is framed on the wall of the Panama teahouse.

Under the headline, "This is our last shot at writing," the editors of Seattle's daily Japanese-American newspaper mused about shutting down. "The editors honestly hope the Japanese readers of this newspaper will not lose confidence in the United States and continue to support the cause for which the United States is fighting," it read.

"I find this kind of emotional when I read it and I get teared up," Johnson told the Yakima students.

Johnson, whose family has lived in Seattle for five generations, bought the Panama in 1985 and quickly discovered its rich history.

She tracked down a 1964 newspaper story about a 35-ton earthmover that barreled down Main Street and crashed into a corner of the building, bringing down the brick façade. A picture shows nine rooms exposed, beds hanging perilously over the rubble-filled sidewalk.

The hotel is in much better shape today. Johnson rents about 100 modest rooms, each furnished with antiques, including wardrobes that a previous owner made from refrigerator crates.

The hotel is popular with young Asian and European tourists who appreciate rates as low as $200 a week.

The teahouse, however, is designed to attract locals. Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle's Chinatown International District, says he is excited at the prospect of more activity along Main Street.

"Anything that happens at the Panama will contribute to preserving the legacy," he says.

The teahouse features two rooms, separated by a staircase. One displays vintage teapots on a mantel stretching the length of the bar - part of the booty left in the basement, the belongings of a Japanese-American family that ran a Chinese restaurant in the area.

The same room also features a thick sheet of glass flooring that gives visitors a glimpse into the basement and a few of the actual trunks, loaded with clothes.

In the second room, Johnson wants to install a large TV to screen documentary films on Japanese-American history.

If the flair of Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee draws people in, Johnson hopes they will leave with an appreciation of the old Japantown.

"It was history and we don't have a lot of it in Seattle," she says. "I want people to know what happened here."

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293 or