This building has served as a significant cultural institution for Seattle’s Japanese community since it was constructed in 1940. It was originally constructed for use as a gymnasium and community hall by the Seattle Hokubei Butokukai, a Japanese traditional martial arts club. Before World War II, community clubs provided places for Japanese Issei (First Generation) and Nissei (Second Generation) to maintain social bonds and to teach and carry on traditional cultural practices. Japanese immigrants began to arrive in Seattle in the late 19th century. Gradually the Japanese developed their own community enclave adjacent to Chinatown. The business center of Nihonmachi, or “Japan town,” was centered at South Main Street near Fifth Avenue and the community extended eastward to 12th Avenue. Just prior to the advent of World War II, the Yesler Terrace housing project was begun. The project, and the subsequent relocation of the Japanese community to internment camps in 1942, effectively destroyed the core of the Japanese commercial district.
The Seattle Hokubei Butokukai, formerly at 508 Main St., was one of many Japanese organizations forced to relocate for the Yesler Terrace Housing project. Although the new club building was not in use for very long before the internment of the Japanese community at the onset of World War II, it was renovated after the war for use by a new Japanese community organization, the Nisei Veterans Committee.
The architect of record was John Mattson, but it is notable that the original design drawings and construction permit are signed by Kichio Allen Arai. Arai was the first Asian American to graduate from the Architecture program at the University of Washington. He went on to receive his Masters in Architecture from Harvard University and he is known for his contributions to the design of numerous buildings associated with the Japanese community in the Pacific Northwest.
Although the building's associations with two important Japanese community groups, and associations with the architect A. K. Arai are notable, both early and later renovations to the building have greatly altered its original appearance.