Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Glimpse into Seattle's Japanese Internment
Growing up in the Greater Seattle Area, you learn in school about the Lewis and Clark expedition as they followed the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean in 1806. You learn about Chief Joseph of the Pacific Northwest Nez Perce tribe and his heart-wrenching vow in 1877 to “fight no more forever.” But on April 21, 1942, Seattle was the setting of a major historical moment that is hardly taught in local schools: the mass evacuation of all Japanese-Americans to internment camps.
That is what initially drew me to read Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, just a deep-rooted desire to learn more about this section of history that took place right in my own backyard. Ford did not disappoint. Set in Seattle just after the Pearl Harbor attack that sent America into WWII, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet centers around young Henry Lee who is struggling to find his place in the world as an American while staying true to his Chinese heritage and not being mistaken for one of the despised Japanese. When he meets young Japanese-American girl Keiko Okabe one day at school, his little world suddenly doesn’t feel so empty. With the South Seattle jazz scene of the 1940’s illuminating as a colorful backdrop, Henry and Keiko’s friendship blossoms, transcending racial lines and geographical ones as Henry crosses the boundaries of his home in Chinatown to the neighboring (and forbidden) Nihonmachi (Japantown).
But the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 had done more than bring war to the homefront. It had created fear, suspicion, and hysteria into the hearts of Americans. In an attempt to keep possible Japanese spies away from American military bases, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the evacuation of 9600 Japanese-Americans in the Seattle area, and a total of 110,000 on the entire U.S. West Coast.
Henry finds everything around him spiraling out of control as he watches Keiko and her family forcibly removed from their home and sent to a Japanese internment camp. As Henry and Keiko fight to preserve their friendship and their way of life, the reader’s heartstrings are tugged along the entire way.
A native of Seattle, author Jamie Ford paints a picture of the 1940s city that makes you want to go and see it for yourself (which I did). Much of the landmarks he mentions throughout the novel are still there, including the Panama Hotel, former gateway between Chinatown & Japantown, for which the book is named.
Ford beautifully captures the sweet innocence of young love in a time of wartime chaos, generational discord, and severe racial tensions. He depicts with great detail both the conditions of the Japanese “prison camps” and the everyday life of the Japanese families who resided there. He brings to life a glimpse of this rarely mentioned moment in American history, while never losing sight of all the emotional threads that tie the story together.
The Japanese Internment is a shameful moment in American history that no formal apology by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 could ever erase. But thanks to Jamie Ford and his novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, now it will also never be forgotten.
Seattle Japanese-American Relocation Route
Camp Harmony, Japanese American relocation assembly center
Camp Minidoka, Japanese American Internment Camp