International District

The International District (ID) of Seattle has long served as both a landing point and gathering place for Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants to Seattle. Although the Japanese and Japanese Americans were sent to prison camps and Nihonmachi languished during World War II, the area returned to its cultural focus and economic activity after the war, despite the scattering of the Japanese population around the Seattle region. In equal measure, both Japanese newcomers and American-born Japanese have relied on this ethnic enclave for sustenance in the early days, and identity and pride in the modern day.


For more than 150 years, Chinese, Japanese and Filipino newcomers to America, arriving via this Pacific Northwest port city, have found blocks of familiar grocery stores, cafes, and professional services in their home languages, as well as labor, cultural and prefectural clubs .

Japanese contract laborers began to arrive in earnest in the 1880s, after the Chinese Exclusion Act reduced the number of Chinese workers. At first Japanese came to jobs as loggers, then railroad workers, then salmon cannery and agricultural workers in Washington State, mostly second or third sons, unable to inherit family land back home. Their homes mainly were in Okayama, Fukuyama, Wakayama and Kyushu, Japan. Eventually, picture brides were brought to marry the workers and make new homes, albeit in rough inhospitable frontier lands outside Seattle. But the Japanese dominated Main Street area grew, with its hotels, businesses and clubs on the northern edge of the International District, providing shelter, sustenance and familiarity.

Besides the social and language incentives to join together, punitive real estate covenants and employment discrimination had the effect of creating a large and lively ghetto called Nihonmachi or Japantown. As early as 1891, Dearborn Street, further south, was called Mikado Street on a city map due to early businesses like bawdy houses catering to transient and rough workers contracted from rural Japan. Some early Japanese businesses also were found in Pioneer Square, the city's birthplace. Later, the Japanese concerns moved eastward up Yesler Way and Jackson Street, after the street was regraded to make it less steep. Eventually, Japantown became recognized as the area bounded by Yesler Way on the north, 4th Avenue on the west, Dearborn Street on the south and 14th Avenue on the east.

Japanese settlement and business development in the International District (ID) followed on the heels of Chinese establishment in the same area, but concentrated on King and Weller streets. Logically, the Chinese and Filipinos held some animosity toward Japanese as their homelands had been the victims of the growing Japanese imperialist aggression in Asia in the first half of the 20th Century. But day to day ethnic clashes were few here. Sometimes ethnic based Chinese and Japanese business organizations differed over some turf issues of land use, but they knew that eventually they had to work together to preserve the International District from mainstream commercial development.

Community Development

The Japanese built a lively community. Japanese trading companies imported Japanese foods. They sold confections, ice cream, tofu, and some Japanese restaurants even made a specialty of serving Chinese foods, especially for big banquets. Other businesses included excellent florists, with flowers from Japanese greenhouses. And other multiservice businesses like the Furuya Company offered real estate sales, construction services, mailing, printing and banking. In 1930, the Japanese population in Seattle was 8,448. During the Depression, some Japanese left Seattle for other parts of the state, or moved to California, or returned to Japan. The 1940 census reported 6,985 Japanese in Seattle.

Early Japanese workers from outlying areas flocked to Japanese baths on weekends, ate their favorite familiar foods and stayed in Japanese owned hotels. By 1900, there were six Japanese owned hotels. By 1925 there were 127 Japanese owned or managed hotels, mainly in the downtown area. Even after the Depression decimated businesses all over Seattle, the Japanese entrepreneurs survived. By 1940, when Japanese were 2 percent of population, they owned 63 percent of produce greenhouses, 63 percent of hotels and apartments, 15 percent of restaurants, 23 percent of dry-cleaning shops and 17 percent of groceries in Seattle. Many of these were centered in the International District and were represented by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce.

A highly literate community, it supported several Japanese language newspapers and the Japanese American Courier in English, edited by James Sakamoto , a key player in forming Japanese sports leagues for baseball and basketball. Sakamoto, a former boxer, became blind but was able to keep the newspaper going with the steady support of his wife Misao Sakamoto. In the absence of much social life geared for youth, sports teams provided excitement and identity affirmation. They had competitions with Japanese teams from other cities and even from Japan, largely organized by Sakamoto. The Japanese Association, funded in part by the Emperor of Japan, served as official agency for immigration matters. It supported the Japanese language schools, which many Nisei were made to attend after school or on weekends. Kenjinkai (prefectural people's associations) mainly represented Okayama, Hiroshima, Wakayama and Kumamoto prefectures in Seattle. They served as welcoming committees and social organizations.

Churches, including Buddhist, Catholic and other Christian denominations, provided spiritual guidance and more chances for social solidarity. Often the Issei preferred Buddhist temples, and the American-born Nisei attended Christian churches. As well, arts organizations and the Japanese schools provided cultural anchors for every type of activity. Japanese quickly enriched their cultural life through poetry, Shigin chanting, Japanese drama, and traditional dance and music performances. Most of these cultural events centered in the Nippon Kan Theatre on Washington Street, next to Yesler Way. Indeed, touring artists from Japan found a stage and welcome audience at the Nippon Kan. Says author David Takami in Executive Order 9066: Fifty Years Before and Fifty Years After , "The center of Nihonmachi was 6th and Main. During the Bon Odori festival, a bandstand for musicians was constructed in the blocked off intersection . . . the neighborhood could have been any town in Japan."

In 1921 the Japanese Progressive Citizen's League was formed, which became the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) when a national convention was held in Seattle in 1930. The JACL was to become one of the key proponents of Japanese community cooperation with the U.S. government in the exclusion and incarceration. But much later, the Seattle JACL became a national leader in the push for federal reparations payments for those who had been forcibly sent to prison camps during World War II.


The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 by the militarist Japanese government struck the Japanese community like thunder and lightning. Japanese-born and American-born Japanese alike were perplexed by multiple scenarios of what could happen to them. Following on the heels of virulent prewar anti-Japanese lobbying by racist conservative political groups, media coverage now added to the general West Coast hysteria over possible Japanese espionage. Immediately, the heads of Japanese civic, religious and business organizations were picked up by the FBI, their houses rudely searched. They were arrested without specific charges and sent to jail camps in other remote states such as Wyoming and Arizona. Their bewildered families were not notified where the family heads had been sent. Executive Order 9066 led to a series of exclusion orders that were enforced for those Japanese and Japanese Americans living within a 60-mile corridor on the West Coast, or whatever was deemed militarily necessary to enforce.

Japantown activity shrank dramatically in the months before all Japanese were ordered out in the spring of 1942. Many Japanese bank accounts were frozen and/or businesses confiscated. In March a curfew was imposed from 8 PM to 6 AM, affecting many with jobs or studies at universities. Restaurants had to comply and close earlier than normal.

As told in David Takami's Executive Order 9066 , because the army limited inmates to bringing only what they could carry, "people made arrangements to store their belongings at churches or at the homes or businesses of friends. Sagamiya, the Japanese sweet shop in the heart of Nihonmachi, stored boxes and trunks piled to the ceiling." Even today, the Panama Hotel which now houses a toney tea room, proudly displays the trunks left in its basement by local Japanese that were not claimed after the war.

In April 1942, over several days, Seattle Japanese, the majority of them American citizens, were sent by train first to "Camp Harmony" in Puyallup, and then to Minidoka camp in Idaho. The Japanese population of Seattle at the time was about 7,000. Other Japanese in the western part of the state were also evicted, many to Tule Lake camp in northern California. Some kind supporters from Seattle visited Minidoka to offer assistance, such as Baptist minister Reverend Emery Andrews and Quaker leader Floyd Schmoe . A few hundred Seattle Japanese or Japanese American university students were placed in Midwest or East Coast schools prior to the forced removal or found a way there during the three-year stretch of imprisonment at Minidoka. A number of Nisei soldiers joined the U.S. Army in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team or 100th Battalion , which suffered a high percentage of casualties in European battle zones. At the same time, a brave few Nisei sat in jail for resisting the curfew or exclusion order. Gordon Hirabayashi , a University of Washington student, was one such resister whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Settlement after the War

The International District did not die during the wartime. Many enterprising African Americans brought their businesses to Jackson Street, including notable jazz clubs where famous musicians played. Chinese and Filipino workers and shops filled the need for services while the Japanese were gone for three years. Some were loyal caretakers for Japanese friends' homes and businesses.

But many Japanese had no home to come back to after imprisonment in the camps, and families hunkered down in the Japanese schools, Buddhist temples, and other facilities that had been turned into temporary hostels. Often their old neighborhoods and former places of employment were openly hostile to their return, with graffiti stating "No Japs Wanted" scrawled on their homes. Many fewer Japanese farmers returned to their former homesteads south of Seattle. Employers refused to rehire Japanese, fearing open rebellion from their other workers or customers. Many workers were underemployed or found employment with government offices like the U.S. Postal service. A poignant story of one character's return to Seattle's Japantown after the war is No-No Boy (book)| No-No Boy ]] by John Okada, the dramatic independent voice describing the dismal life of one Japanese American who did not swear allegiance to the U.S. in the infamous "loyalty questionnaire" administered in the camp.

The International District's Nihonmachi had shrunk in size, even as immigration restrictions were lifted in the two decades after the war. While many more Chinese and Filipinos continued to come to the U.S. and found some support and sustenance in the International District, the Japanese community did not grow to its original prewar size.

Many Japanese Americans and their offspring moved further and further from the International District or Central Seattle core, which had been their home area. Some wanted to disassociate with other Asians and moved southward to Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and Renton; eastward to Mercer Island and Bellevue; and northward to the University District or Shoreline. And the Japanese Shin Issei (new first generation) who came over in the '80s and '90s tended to live their professional lives away from the Asian core district, settling on the north and east sides of Lake Washington, as they were associated with aerospace and/or technology firms there.

Seventies Regrowth of the International District

The International District by the 1970s was a sad place, with little adequate housing for elderly Filipino and other retired workers. Chinese restaurants and shops in the area struggled despite the steady influx of new immigrants. Homeless people and drug dealers wandered the streets. Young Asian Pacific American activists rallied against development of the Kingdome stadium, which they thought would increase property taxes and swamp the ID with traffic. And they demonstrated in favor of new low-income housing or subsidies for existing housing for the low income workers of the ID.

At the same time, student activists and Asian professionals alike established more social service organizations for health, mental health, food distribution for low income elders, and low cost child day care for workers. Japanese Americans supported the vigorous efforts by Chinese and Filipino Americans. This activism led to the continuing strength of the multi-Asian ethnic leadership of the ID.

The International Examiner newspaper, established to support progressive work in the ID, and other Asian American newspapers, such as the North American Post (published in Japanese) and the Northwest Asian Weekly (originally the bilingual Chinese Post ) continue to be based in the ID. Many Filipino newspapers have been published as well. Indeed, after the fall of Saigon and active escape of refugees from war in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Laotians, Hmong, and Cambodians made their way from resettlement areas across the U.S. to the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Vietnamese Americans found space and a welcoming attitude as they established many businesses and restaurants, forming a central core at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, now called Little Saigon.


Asian American urban planners, historic preservationists, government workers, and elected officials have helped to preserve the International District as an important component of a contemporary racially diverse urban area. Thus Seattle can boast one of the few, or perhaps the best, examples of a successful, mutually beneficial pan-Asian enclave in a major American city. For example, the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority have included representation of all Asian Pacific ethnic groups in important decision making on ID land and resources.

Today one still can find Japanese businesses such as restaurants and gift shops in the Main Street and Jackson Street area. And nearby, on Weller Street, one can find the large Uwajimaya grocery store, which rebounded from wartime losses to become a group of four successful major Japanese product stores in Washington and Oregon, as well as an import business. Also, a recent national bestselling novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet , by Jamie Ford, local Chinese American writer, illuminated the Japanese and Chinese communities' cross-relations in the ID leading up to World War II.

A rebirth of identity has rebranded Nihonmachi with relevant signage, historic tours, commercial activity, and vigorous exhibits in the ID's Wing Luke Asian Museum. There is little doubt the heritage of the Japanese in the International District will continue as part of a multihued and rich pan-Asian Pacific American legacy.

Authored by Mayumi Tsutakawa , Independent writer and editor

For More Information

Burke, Ed, and Betty Burke. "In a Chorus of Shadows: The Story of the Nippon Kan and its Restoration." In Turning Shadows into Light: Art and Culture of the Northwest's Early Asian/Pacific Community . Edited by Mayumi Tsutakawa and Alan Chong Lau. Seattle: Young Pine Press, 1982. 46-53.

Daniels, Roger. "The Exile and Return of Seattle's Japanese." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 88.4 (Fall 1997): 166–73.

Dubrow, Gail Lee. "'The Nail That Sticks Up Gets Hit': The Architecture of Japanese American Identity in the Urban Environment, 1885–1945." In Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century . Edited by Louis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. 120–45.

East of Occidental: The History of Seattle's Chinatown . Documentary film directed by Maria Gargiulo. Hill Film, Inc. & Prairie Fire Pictures, 1986. 29 minutes.

Fiset, Louis. Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Hosokawa, Bill. "The Uprooting of Seattle." In Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress . Edited by Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986. Revised edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. 18-20.

Ito, Kazuo. Issei, A History of Japanese Immigration in North America . Trans. Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard. Seattle: Japanese Community Services of Seattle, 1973.

Lee, Shelley Sang Hee. Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Miyamoto, S. Frank. "Social Solidarity among the Japanese in Seattle." University of Washington Publications in the Social Sciences 11.2 (Dec. 1939): 57–130. Seattle: Asian American Studies Program, University of Washington, 1981. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

———. "The Japanese Minority in the Pacific Northwest." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 54.4 (Oct. 1963): 143-49.

Mochizuki, Ken. Meet Me at Higo: An Enduring Story of a Japanese American Family . Seattle: Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 2011.

Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle's Women Teachers of the Interwar Years: Shapers of a Livable City . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Shimabukuro, Robert Sadamu. Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Takami, David A. Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle . Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1992.

———. Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle . Seattle University of Washington Press and Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1998.

Taylor, Quintard. "Blacks and Asians in a White City: Japanese Americans and African Americans in Seattle, 1890–1940." Western Historical Quarterly 22.4 (Nov. 1991): 401-29.

———. The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Tsutakawa, Mayumi. "The Political Conservatism of James Sakamoto's Japanese American Courier." M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1976.

Last updated May 14, 2024, 4:06 p.m..