Mr. Hori and the Panama Hotel Part III

Continuation from Part I and Part II:

Running the apartment house on 6th and Colombia whilst attending Broadway HS was busy work for the young Takashi but because his parent’s limited English, he had to assist them with the business.  Upon graduating high school, he decided to attend the University of Washington to study accounting.  Only a handful of his friends went to college for due to the depression there was no work.  Furthermore, many who did go to college were met with discrimination.  It was common knowledge that the Japanese engineering students at UW who went on a field trip to Boeing with their class were not even allowed to enter the Boeing plant.  That’s just the way it was.  Even upon graduation, no Japanese engineers were hired at the American firms so many ended up going back to Japan to find work.  The irony is that these are the men who built the planes for the Japanese military in WWII.

Sanjiro was leasing the apartments from someone else, so their work consisted of collecting rent and all the maintenance.  As this period was during the Depression years, many tenants found it difficult to make rent, making it a trying business.  Similar to those renting a home, Sanjiro needed a court order to have them evicted, which wasn’t easy to obtain. So, he kept on thinking of other ideas to make a better living.

Sanjiro realized that compared to the apartment leasing business,  the Japanese hotel business was different and seemed more lucrative. The hotel was a day to day business.   If someone couldn’t pay their rent, as owners, they had the option of locking the guests out of their rooms.  This would  ultimately lead to kicking them out, which enabled them to get a new paying tenant.  Sanjiro believed that it would be much easier to operate than the apartments.

Then in 1938, the Panama Hotel came up for sale for $20,000.   It was his chance to switch and get into the hotel business. To purchase the hotel, they needed a $4,000 down payment.  In today’s terms, it’s more like one hundred times this amount and $4,000 was no small change in those days.  Out of curiosity, I asked Mr. Hori how did his father come up with the money.

At that time, young Takashi had no idea where the money came from and he dare not ask his father because those are the kinds of questions you weren’t supposed to ask.  But many years later, after the war, one of Sanjiro’s friends shared the following story.

When the family was running the Japanese meshiya, Iroha, many of the clients put it on the cuff.  That was the accepted norm of the day, as they all had unpaid bills.  But, determined to purchase the Panama Hotel, Sanjiro decided to collect all those unpaid bills.  He traveled to the saw mills, logging mills and all over the area to find everyone.  In those days, men were honest and when he asked for the money that they charged back in 1928 and 1929, they paid up in 1938, ten years later!  Somehow, I really don’t see how that can happen today.  Sanjiro managed to find that $4,000!

The Hori family started to operate the Panama Hotel on Main St. in 1938.  The rent for one hotel room was $6.00 a month!  This included daily cleaning, fresh towels, plus a weekly change of sheets. He said the price was really determined by the state because many were on welfare and the state issued a voucher for rent that was $6.00 a month.  The 100 rooms were usually at 80-90% occupancy.

Fifteen years earlier, when Takashi was a child, it was still common for whole families to lived in one room of these hotels.  But by this time, most of the residents were single Japanese male workers and retired white men on social security.  Unlike today, life was less complicated then, as there were no rules and no restrictions.  Your room was yours and you were free to come and go as you pleased as long as you made rent.

Life was fairly uncomplicated.  Japantown met all their needs.  They even had their own hospital called Nihon Byoin on 12th and King Street, whereby the doctors came from Japan.  There was little need to speak English and they were still a very close community.  Although typical Japanese cultural activities such as ikebana, tea ceremony, shaminsen and odori existed during this time before the war, only a few participated.

Takashi’s main concern was the well-being of the residents.  During these pre-war days, there was no housing code.  Compared to today, their conditions were extremely modest.  There was no wiring in the rooms except one drop light bulb.  With no sink, or kitchen, many simply cooked in their rooms with gas plates.  But what he does remember is his mother telling him to check all the rooms for any smell of gas, because life during the depression was tough and people committed suicide.

To be continued…

Mr. Hori and the Panama Hotel Part IV




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