Okada graffiti preserved at historic Nippon Kan Theater

The Okada signature survives! When I first came to Seattle in 1977, poet and playwright Garrett Hongo brought me backstage to the empty Nippon Kan Theater to show me a wall of graffiti with the name of a juvenile John Okada, painstaking inked into the stone. It was like touching a piece of history.

Photo © 2024 Frank Abe.

Frank Chin used the stage in the 1980s to direct the play Lady is Dying by Lonny Kaneko and Amy Sanbo for Northwest Asian American Theater. But the building changed hands and was sold for use as the dispatch center for a bike messenger service, with no tours. I worried the wall got painted over and despaired of every seeing it again.

But according to the Northwest Asian Weekly, a man named Eric Hayashi — no, not the one-time manager of the old Asian American Theater Workshoptwo people but the President and CEO of Rainier Clinical Research Center in Seattle — recently purchased the building for $10 million, and has just completed earthquake retrofits and renovations.

ribbon-cuttingHayashi held a grand re-opening for the Nippon Kan Theater today attended by hundreds, as a showcase for the new renovations, that include upgraded sound and lighting systems, to promote use of the space for “weddings, corporate events, fundraisers, cultural events (bat/bar mitzvahs, high school proms, college formals, quinceaneras, etc.), and dance & musical performances” through Kobe Park Events. His investment gives new life to a building built and used by the Issei for cultural performances dating back to the 1910s. And I was glad to see for myself the graffiti on the wall behind stage right, now preserved under a sheet of clear Lucite.

wall of graffiti
Photo © 2024 Frank Abe.

I’ve never seen any documentation of how or why so many young people came to affix their names to the rough stone surface as a kind of prewar “Kilroy was here,” so I was surprised to learn at the event that Matt Sasaki, one of the artists on our graphic novel We Hereby Refuse, is the grandson of an Issei who bought the building with a loan from the community after the family’s return from Minidoka. Matt got us the following folklore, in the words of his mother, May Sasaki:

woman and man on stage
May Sasaki with Eric Hayashi

“The signatures were of the entertainers who performed at the Nippon Kan Hall. That’s all I know about it. The building was called the Astor Hotel when my dad, Saiji Nakamura, purchased it. It was cheap then because it was run down and abandoned during the war years. He remembered the downstairs hall as a cultural entertainment center before and wanted to restore it. But he was not able to gain financial support. He would have been happy to see the Nippon Kan Hall today!”
interior of theater
interior of theater

One thought on “Okada graffiti preserved at historic Nippon Kan Theater”

  1. Frank that is fantastic!! [Goosebumps]
    What an amazing artifact. (Also the theatre looks great). How fortunate it is preserved.

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