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CrabFest 2021



When is a restaurant more than a place to eat? Part 1

Maneki opened October 3, 1904, and has weathered a lot of hard times: Spanish flu, WWI, WWII, internment camps, racism, COVID-19. Yet when you talk with current Maneki owner ("I prefer 'caretaker'") Jean Nakayama, their longevity really comes down to a positive focus on community. Maneki is more than a place to eat.

Jean doesn't know why Maneki was built in the first place, but due to segregation policies, Japantown was limited to the Japanese. The Japanese people couldn't leave, they weren't allowed in Chinatown. Chinese kids couldn't come to Japantown to play with kids there. Maneki was located on 6 th Avenue, a half block from the Nippon Kan Theatre, which also still exists. "People would see shows, skits and plays, at Nippon Kon, then go to Maneki. The second story of the Maneki castle structure was all tatami rooms. When they took out the dividers, it would seat 500. On weekends, there would be events: funerals, weddings, meetings for dignitaries who were in town. It was usually packed." It was the heart of the community.

Japanese came to America to work, but often weren't allowed to contact family members or friends who were already here. They didn't speak or understand English and had few skills. Families would send children to work in America and send money home. "If you were the ninth child in a family and a girl, they didn't want you. A company would give the family payment and pay passage for the child. Others who came were farmers and fish mongers. Some people actually did come here, make money, and go home. But not most. Later, there were 'picture brides.' Since people couldn't contact those already here, the men and women would exchange pictures. There were few Japanese women here, and men wanted to marry. There was plenty of work, but often companies wouldn't hire Japanese due to the language barrier, skin color, or lack of skills. There was no support system, like churches, for them.

"The Japanese were a homogeneous group-same skin color, same hair color. But they were divided by prefecture. In the old days, they didn't mix, so each had their own dialect," explains Jean. "When they came to America, each prefecture would help their own. And even within a prefecture, you could be considered an 'outsider' if there was a scandal in your family. Maneki became a training ground. People learned English and developed skills. Even into the '70s, many moved on to successfully own their own businesses."

During WWII when people were pulled from their communities and sent to internment camps, many buildings were vandalized and ruined, as was the original Maneki castle. The Sato family returned after the war and re-opened Maneki in 1923 in the NP Hotel where it is today. They owned it into the '60s; Tojuji Sato used his own recipes. "It was home cooking," says Jean. "His daughter Virginia ('Shi-chan') eventually took over the restaurant in the '70s. She didn't make money; she wasn't a businesswoman. It was hard for her. She had three little kids, then her mom died. A year later, her dad died, and a year later her husband died. She ran Maneki until her kids were grown. None of them wanted to run the restaurant. Kozo Nakayama cooked in the kitchen, and he wanted to own a restaurant. He had come from Japan with $500 in his wallet. He worked hard, so she told him if he wanted to try, she'd sell him Maneki. Jean's family brought her to Maneki as a child, and she started waiting tables there in 1974. She met Kozo and they married. "He changed a few things. Americans liked beef, so he added beef teriyaki and steak. More recently, I've added salads and vegetable sukiyaki. We have white board specials that aren't on the menu, mostly sushi and sashimi. But the menu has been the same since at least the '70s. Most customers were Japanese until the '70s. We added tatami rooms in the early '60s; the Bush Garden put theirs in in the late '50s. We were the first to have a sushi bar, adding it in the '70s. We didn't have skilled sushi chefs until then.

"As more non-Japanese came, we had more explaining to do about the food. People expected fish to be boneless and skinned. Our salmon has a strip of skin on it-it's the best part! Grilled, salty, crisp with a little soy and radish. One woman kept asking if we had fish. I told her we had mackerel, pike, lingcod, perch. She would say, "No! Fish!" The only fish she knew was salmon. People didn't know tofu, either. It would help if we could figure out where people were from. A Scottish guest wouldn't eat fish but liked eel and seaweed."

Connie Adams/June 2021

Watch for Part 2 in our July issue.


304 6th Ave S
Seattle, WA 98104

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