Higo Variety Store (Seattle)

  • By Kathleen Kemezis
  • Posted 8/08/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9094

The Higo 10 Cent Store (later Higo Variety Store, located in Seattle at 602-608 S Jackson Street) represents one of the few threads linking the bustle of Seattle's Japantown of the 1930s to recent efforts to revitalize, economically and aesthetically, the International District. The Higo Variety Store was started by Sanzo Murakami (d. 1945) and his wife Matsuyo Murakami in 1909, and moved by them to the S Jackson Street location in 1932. For 75 years, the overflowing store of imported household goods and foodstuffs continuously provided a sense of home for the residents of Japantown. Higo survived the disruption of Japanese American internment during World War II in part due to the protection provided by the building's other occupants, Julius Blumenthal and his half brother, Maurice Zimmer, while the Murakami family was interned. After the war, when the boom of Japantown had dwindled to a hoarse whisper, its crowded shelves once again could aid those Japanese Americans returning from years in internment camps and restarting their lives. A fixture in the history of the International District, the storefront now houses Kobo at Higo, an art gallery, and represents a renewed enthusiasm for the memories and the heritage of Seattle's Japanese Americans. The momentos and artifacts of the Higo 10 Cent Store displayed and treasured at Kobo at Higo contribute to recent efforts to infuse the International District with a sense of place and to reconnect the scattered remnants of Seattle's Japantown. 

Higo 5 ¢ to $1 Store and Seattle’s Nihonmachi 

With Japanese laborers and eventually their families arriving in Seattle, a bustling Japantown, or Nihonmachi, emerged south of downtown as early as 1891. These immigrants hoped to find lucrative work at a time when legal restrictions and discrimination increasingly limited Chinese immigration. The economic heart of Nihonmachi pulsed with Japanese-owned and -operated small businesses such as hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, and bathhouses. The heart centered on Main Street and 6th Avenue, but the neighborhood stretched along Main Street from 4th to 7th avenues and also served Japanese Americans, Nikkei, from surrounding counties. Although many immigrants took on low-paying jobs at the local canneries, rail yards, farms, and timber mills, professional doctors, lawyers, and small-business owners contributed to the Japanese community and cultivated a closely connected, sustainable neighborhood. “In many ways it was like a small town. Everyone knew everyone else,” (Takami). At its peak in the 1930s, Seattle’s Nihonmachi had 8,500 residents, but throughout the Depression years it declined to 7,000 people.

A mix of Japanese and American sounds, smells, and tastes filled the community; individuals growing up enjoyed a colorful blend of both traditional Japanese and American culture. In 1907, the community established the Nippon Kan Theater. By presenting traditional Japanese performances like kabuki, martial arts competitions, and Western-style acts, the theater brought together first-generation immigrants, Issei, and the second-generation, Nisei. The cluttered scrim from the theater announced the support of a number of surrounding businesses, including the Higo Company 5¢ to $1 Store. Sanzo Murakami touted his variety store with a grinning, squatting frog.

Sanzo Murakami's Store

In 1909, Sanzo rented a ground storefront in the Presley Hotel on Weller Street to sell household wares. His business served newly immigrated families and well-established households, both Japanese and white Seattleites searching for the exotic and the familiar. Merchandise such as Japanese and Western fabric and patterns, traditional sandals, ceramics, toys, and imported foodstuffs lined the shelves, and dragon kites and lanterns hung from the ceiling. Japanese customers found familiar and traditional goods and could connect with their heritage, and white residents found unusual goods from another world.

Despite the heavy weight of the nationwide Depression in 1932, Sanzo moved Higo into a new building. The two-story, brick Jackson Building, still found on 6th Avenue and Jackson Street, was just a block away from the heart of Seattle’s Nihonmachi. The architect worked to Sanzo’s specifications to design a noble building, with restrained Gothic touches at its entrance. The building housed nine storefronts and a restaurant on the ground floor with 26 offices on the second floor; however, with only the Jackson Loan Office capable of taking up a lease, Higo expanded to fill the other empty storefronts.

Originally, Sanzo, his wife Matsuyo, and their daughters Chiyoko (Chiyo), Ayako (Aya or Betty), and Masako (Masa), and son Kazuichi (Kay) lived at the back of the store and in an apartment upstairs in one of the office spaces. Even today, a lingering wire holder for soap betrays their use of the boiler room for bathing and laundry. After school and on weekends, the children helped staff the store and unpack merchandize. The weekends in the Nihonmachi brought an influx farmers and labors, who contributed more energy and business to the neighborhood, from surrounding counties. “It sure was nigiyaka [lively],” remembers Masa Murakami of Nihonmachi (Takami). The store and the family also became an unofficial center for those emigrating from the Kumamoto Prefecture, Sanzo and Matsuyo’s childhood home. Higo is the name of a city in the prefecture and the birthplace of Sanzo. Masa remembers the warm-spirited Kumamoto farmers bringing the family celery and lettuce as gifts.  

Executive Order 9066   

Uncertainty, paranoia and fear gripped the United States, and especially Seattle, during World War II. Japanese Americans constantly faced racial discrimination culturally and even legally with restrictions to their land holdings and on the naturalization process towards citizenship. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law the Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Leaders of the community immediately felt the order go into an effect as they faced the initial wave of raids, arrests, and detentions. Officials set evacuation dates, and Japanese Americans all over Seattle, and in the farmlands, scrambled to sell or secure their businesses, homes, and possessions. Many families could only abandon their possessions or undersell their businesses. Some families lost virtually everything they had worked for. 

The exclusion order evacuated people by neighborhood; because of their location, the Murakami family was forced to leave with the initial wave on April 30th. A photograph of Jackson Street from 1943 documents the boarded up windows of the Higo 10¢ Store and a lonely sidewalk in the once bustling Japantown. According to Paul Murakami, Masa’s cousin (who affectionately called her and her siblings aunt and uncle), the Murakami family owes the protection of their business from rampant thievery and vandalism to the Jackson Loan Office.  Julius Blumenthal and his half brother, Maurice Zimmer, promised to keep watch over the Higo Store. They paid bills and even sent updates to the family during its detainment at the Minidoka Relocation Center.  

With this act of kindness, the Murakami family could leave Seattle with a forward momentum and a form of hope. According to John Bisbee, the daughters, Masa, and Aya, recalled keeping a crowbar among the few possessions they took to the camp; they assumed it would be necessary to pry the protective shipboards off Higo’s windows, when they returned from the internment camp.  

The Long Journey to Minidoka

In April 1942, almost all of Seattle’s Nikkei traveled to the Puyallup Assembly Center (Camp Harmony) located on the Western Washington State Fairgrounds, There they waited for the next phase of the executive order. In August 1942, they endured a 27-hour train ride behind closed blinds to an unknown destination. The Nikkei arrived to yawning, half-complete buildings in a harsh prairie, full of sagebrush and scorpions. This was the Minidoka Relocation Center. Near the town of Hunt, Idaho, the government had originally planned the barren acreage for an irrigation project.  The interment camp would grow to include 500 barracks within 44 blocks, where family rooms equipped with potbellied stoves and army cots, averaged 16 by 20 feet. The camp also included a hospital, administration buildings, a warehouse, churches, and schools.  

When signing up for camp duties, daughters Masa and Aya chose teaching English to fourth graders over working in the kitchens. Aya had been trained to teach accounting and business, and the younger Masa joined her to help teach the students. For one assignment, they asked each student to prepare an autobiography. One boy dreamed of becoming a pilot and another girl, a nurse. These short, accidently poignant, reflections still exist and offer a glimpse into the innocent world of children at Minidoka.  

Often, the Issei generation suffered from the boredom and inactivity of the camp. Masa remembers, “our parents didn’t have much to do” (Hahn). Sanzo Murakami did not work in the camp, but Matsuyo played a three-stringed instrument, samusang, to entertain the older individuals.  

Universally, despite experiencing the heavy weight of shame and guilt after being torn from their lives and homes, the Nikkei worked constantly to develop an enriching community. Minidoka became a miniature American city with community groups, neighborhoods, newspapers, churches of many denominations, and even a library with donated books.

Surviving the Collapse of Seattle’s Nihonmachi 

It was not until January 1945 that the majority of Japanese were finally able to return to the West Coast. Empty promises by the government and neighbors to protect their homes and possessions meant many returned to nothing. According to Doug Chin, the evacuation “resulted in financial disaster, torment, hardships for virtually every family.” Despite the verve and growth of the neighborhood, “after the war, Japantown was no longer there,” remembered Shiegeko Uno, a resident of the area (Chin).

With their return on January 22, 1945, the Murakami family found intact windows and the ability to restart their business.  They left Minidoka on the first train to Seattle according to Masa (Hahn). Sadly,, within eight days of his arrival home, Sanzo died from a heart attack in the back office. Despite this loss, Matsuyo and the children reopened the store. Although the merchandize had been untouched, the store needed lots of cleaning. Once again Higo became a place for many Nikkei families to rebuild their home. Returning Japanese sought china, cookware, fabric, as well as news of scattered family members and friends and updates on those who had returned from the camps.  

The store continued even as the Japanese neighborhood dwindled. Eventually, the family moved out of the neighborhood to Beacon Hill. The children, Masa, Aya, and Kay, eventually took over the business. They remodeled the store in 1957 and renamed it the Higo Variety Store. In 2003, finally alone after the deaths of her siblings, Masa retired and her nephew, Paul Murakami, closed the business.  

Kobo at Higo  

But the legacy of Higo continues even now, after the closing of the store. In the winter of 2004, John Bisbee and Binko Chiong-Bisbee opened a second location for their gallery, Kobo, in the Higo Variety Store storefront. With the utmost respect and awareness of the remarkable history of the Higo storefront, they named the store “Kobo at Higo.” They restored the cabinets and display spaces of the Higo Variety Store and now incorporate the simple black structures and elegant glass cases seamlessly into the expressive, modern art of their gallery. 

Essentially as urban archaeologists, they have sifted through the treasures of the leftover inventory from the 80-year old business and placed many of their findings on display. John Bisbee noted that the “obligation is to identify and preserve the elements of history that make the place unique” (Bolt).  

A portion of the Kobo at Higo store presents artifacts of the Higo Store and of Seattle’s Nihonmachi. Wooden forms for display, dainty sandals, antique canisters of rice crackers, fans, and imported china sets document the culture of the once thriving neighborhood. Additionally, they strive to present the people who created the Higo Variety Store. The sisters, Masa and Aya, traveled extensively together, collecting matchbooks, and recording their cities and countries on an oversized world map. Some of their postcards to the caretaker of the building have been displayed to recreate the travels of these women; the owners of Kobo also hope to incorporate the matchbook collection into the display.  

"What Do You Need?"

Bisbee and Chiong-Bisbee have contributed much time and effort casting out a net to capture the past, sometimes it walks right through their Jackson Street door. Even after the closing of the store, people, touched by the store and the kindness of the Murakami family, occasionally visit to relive a part of their personal history. Bisbee recalls a giant of a man coming into Kobo at Higo looking for Masa. He first encountered her after his return as a veteran from the Vietnam War. According to Bisbee, Masa often greeted customers with the simple phrase, “What do you need?” For this gentleman, that question was exactly what he longed to hear. After returning from Vietnam, he encountered a cold shoulder of animosity from Americans opposed to the war. When he wandered into Higo and encountered Masa’s “What do you need?” All he could say was “a hug.” Without hesitation, the elegant, petite Masa embraced the looming soldier and waited as he cried on her shoulder.

 The establishment of Kobo at Higo and the preservation of the Higo Variety Store contribute to other independent efforts revitalize the International District. In 2003, a charrette of Japanese and International District leaders, preservationists, architects, and city officials crafted numerous recommendations. Their plan, “Restoring A Sense of Place in Seattle’s Nihonmachi,” sought to energize the economy of the neighborhood and recapture an identity for the community.

Additionally, the preservation of historic structures integral to Japantown, like the Nippon Kan Theater and the Panama Hotel, have left intact the physical landscape of the neighborhood. The collection of artifacts and the restored and reused displays in Kobo at Higo captures the journey of the variety store and of the community. The Higo Variety Store continues to house a momentum to reclaim Seattle’s Nihonmachi and to foster a remembered and continuing sense of place.


Sources: Kristen Millares Bolt, “Retail Notebook: Kobo at Higo is a Peaceful Marriage of Past, Present,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 2004 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Doug Chin, Seattle’s International District: The making of a Pan-Asian American community (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007); Louis Fiset, Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese American Community and the Puyallup Assembly Center (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Trevor Griffey, “September 2003: Preserving Seattle’s Japantown,” Preservation Seattle, September 2003 (http://www.historicseattle.org/preservationseattle/neighborhoods/defaultsept2.htm); John Hahn, “Murakami family’s Higo Store Has Been a Constant in the Changing ID,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 2000 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Kathleen Kemezis interview with John Bisbee, July 3, 2009, Seattle; Kery Murakami, “A Small Piece of Japantown Preserved: Memories of a Fading Era Live in Historical District,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 29, 2008 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); David A. Takami, Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998).

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