The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos

27 Aug

Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010. Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.

Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010.
Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.

When Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryukyu monarchy, Uchinanchu (Okinawan) women wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands. These tattoos functioned as symbols of the transition from adolescence to womanhood and also as indicators of social status.

In tattoos of the lower classes, commonly used icons included arrowheads, circles, and squares. According to historians, the arrowhead represented daughters never coming back to their families once they married into another house, just as arrowheads never return to their origin. The circle represented winding thread and the square represented a sewing box; these two items were important because back then, a girl could not marry if she didn’t know how to sew.

Uchinanchu women who came from higher-class families had more intricate, ornate tattoos that sometimes went all the way up their arms. Little is known about these upper-class tattoos, as documentation in English is scant. No matter their status, all Uchinanchu women were said to value their hajichi over their wealth, their husbands, and life itself, as the tattoos were thought to ward off evil, ensure safety, and bring happiness.

When Japan took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the late 19th century, the practice of tattooing was banned. The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses. According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki—the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.

Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.

Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.

Some Uchinanchu women continued to practice hajichi even after the ban, but the practice slowly dwindled over the years. During the period when many Okinawans emigrated to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, Uchinanchu women who bore hajichi were ridiculed and ostracized by their fellow Japanese field workers. Eventually, the hajichi became a symbol of shame; in some photos of Uchinanchu women, their hands are held palms up or tucked into their sleeves in order to hide the hajichi on the backs of their hands.

Today, attitudes have changed. The contemporary generation in Okinawa is becoming more aware of ancient indigenous traditions, and a resurgence in the lost art of Uchinanchu tattoos can be seen among some younger Okinawan women. As a Yonsei Japanese-Okinawan American, I consider it my responsibility to share my culture with the world, just as the mission of the Japanese American National Museum is “to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity.”

JANM’s current exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i, on view through September 6, honors cultural diversity from Uchinanchu points of view.

This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawai‘i. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Richard Murakami: Documenting JANM’s History through Photographs

19 Aug

L to R: Volunteer photographers Russell Kitagawa, Gary Ono, and Richard Watanabe with WWII veteran photographer Sus Ito, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, and JANM event photo coordinator and librarian Richard Murakami.

L to R: Volunteer photographers Russell Kitagawa, Gary Ono, and
Richard Watanabe with WWII veteran photographer Sus Ito, JANM
President and CEO Greg Kimura, and JANM event photo coordinator
and librarian Richard Murakami.


Richard Murakami has been volunteering at JANM for 21 years and documenting the museum’s history for almost as long. He doesn’t claim to be a photographer or even in charge of JANM’s corps of volunteer photographers; rather, he prefers to think of himself as the museum’s event photo coordinator and librarian.

It all started in 1994, when Richard attended the members’ opening reception for America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese Experience and noticed that no one was taking pictures. With a Canon camera that he’d brought from home, he began shooting. He then had two sets of photographs printed and gave the prints and the negatives to JANM for the purpose of starting a repository of images of this type. This task that he saw as a necessity soon grew into his main role and contribution to the museum.

Richard has never taken any photography lessons. “I’m too lazy to go to class,” he says. “So how I learned is, I would take the prints to Kimura Photo Mart and I would say, how can I improve this photo? And they would tell me what to do, and that’s how I learned.”

A total of 12 photographers, including Richard, now help to document the many events and occasions that happen at this busy museum. In the past seven years, they have only missed three JANM events. “I just think these photographers are really great!” Richard enthuses. “You know I can’t say enough good things about them. I really praise and brag about them a lot, they are so good.”

522nd Service Battery personnel, near Rosignano, Italy, 1944. Japanese American National Museum, Sus Ito Collection. Now on view as part of the exhibition Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images.

522nd Service Battery personnel, near Rosignano, Italy, 1944.
Japanese American National Museum, Sus Ito Collection. Now on view as part of
the exhibition Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images.


Some of the volunteer photographers (Steve Fujimoto, Russell Kitagawa, Gary Ono, Richard Murakami, and Richard Watanabe) recently sponsored the Upper Level Members Reception for the opening of Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, an exhibition of photographs taken by Ito while he was on a tour of duty through Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

The reception was a natural fit for the group since the exhibition is about photography, but for Richard, it was also about honoring the 442nd veterans. “They opened the door for people like me who followed, so I owe them a lot,” he said.

Like Richard, Sus Ito also considers himself an amateur photographer. “I think he has an eye for photography,” Richard reflects. “Some people just point and shoot. With Sus, it’s what he took and when he took it that’s important. And whoever picked out those photos to include in the exhibition and tell the story—that person has an eye too.”

Richard’s official day to volunteer at the museum is every Friday, but you can often find him here multiple days of the week, sitting in his office in front of his Apple computer. In addition to coordinating the volunteer photographers and photographing events himself, he also inventories and organizes all the images. “When staff members need photos, they ask me and I find them. I’m probably the only one who really knows where they are.”

This post was researched and written by JANM Executive Assistant Nicole Miyahara. In addition to her duties at JANM, Nicole is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker who is currently working on The Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.

Minyo Station’s Uniquely Japanese American Music

12 Aug

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


Established in 2008, the band Minyo Station blends traditional Japanese folk music with contemporary genres to create a unique sound. Minyo Station is one of the featured performers at JANM’s upcoming Natsumatsuri Family Festival. JANM production intern Amy Matsushita-Beal helped to conduct the following email interview with band leader Yu Ooka to learn more about the group.

JANM: Can you explain what minyo is and what it sounds like, for people who don’t know?

Yu Ooka: For people who have never heard it before, it might be easiest to describe minyo as “the blues of Japan.” Many centuries ago, people sang songs while farming or fishing; doing so made the time pass and encouraged the workers to keep going until the job was done. There is a famous minyo song called “Tanko Bushi” that is played during bon odori dances, which honor ancestors as part of Japan’s annual Obon festivities. The song was originally sung by coal miners; tanko means coal mine and bushi means melody or tune. At some point, musical instruments like taiko drums and shamisen (traditional Japanese three-stringed lute) were added to the mix.

JANM: What does “contemporary Japanese folk music” mean to you? What other genres do you incorporate into your act besides minyo?

YO: Unfortunately, minyo sometimes has a reputation for being “old music” that’s “not for young people.” We decided to mix minyo with different Western genres like R&B, pop, rock, funk, and jazz to make it more listener-friendly and more appealing to younger generations—in other words, more contemporary. Our band uses guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion in addition to vocals and shamisen. Some of LA’s finest musicians, who have worked for major artists like Aretha Franklin and Al Jarreau, contribute on the Western side, while the Eastern side has classically trained minyo artists. At its heart though, our music is still very much minyo music—it just might have some jazz chords or rock rhythms in it.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


JANM: You wear traditional Japanese garments in your performances. Is this important to you, and why?

YO: Minyo Station’s mission is to keep this beautiful traditional music alive and pass it on to the next generation. We represent Japanese tradition, which we must never forget. That is why we wear kimonos instead of fancy leather jackets!

JANM: Yu, you have a background as a jazz guitarist. How did you get involved with minyo? Are the two styles complementary?

YO: Yes, I was a guitarist first. I knew about minyo, but I never played it while I was living in Japan. After I moved to the U.S., I came across many Japanese cultural activities, including minyo, which was introduced to me by a friend. I started learning how to play the shamisen, and it became a great honor for me to work with this kind of music.

Minyo and jazz do share some similarities. For instance, when you play jazz, you have to “swing” in order to make a rhythm; this means not following the metronome precisely but rather, listening to and responding to the musicians around you. It’s the same with minyo—you have to communicate with the other musicians through your music.

JANM: Your band plays at a variety of venues, including museums and festivals. What are your favorite places to perform, and why?

YO: Every place where we perform is special for us. We play from the bottom of our hearts and we sincerely enjoy sharing minyo with every audience we encounter. We believe people can feel the spirit of the music even if they can’t understand the words. We look forward to performing at JANM and hope people enjoy it.

Minyo Station will perform at 3 p.m. this Saturday, August 15; they will also provide the music for our community bon odori dance at 12:30. Both events take place in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. For a complete schedule of Natsumari Family Festival activities, click here.

Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

5 Aug

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.


Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.

JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?

Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.

Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.

JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?

MY: Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!

DF: Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?

DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.

MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.

JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.

MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.

JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?

DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!

The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 2: The Making of a Princess

29 Jul

One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, was selected as a queen candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Japanese Festival, representing the Gardena Evening Optimist (GEO) club. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court process and what it means for the princesses and the community at large. Read her first entry here.

Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).

Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).


A couple of days after I submitted my application, I received an email confirming my interview. The interview only lasted 30 minutes with a panel of six interviewers. I was told I would hear back the next day about whether or not I was selected.

After what seemed like the longest day of my life, I finally received an email at 4 p.m. The first two lines read, “Thank you so much for taking the time to apply and interview for the Miss GEO candidate position. It was very nice interviewing you and getting to know you.” I immediately thought I hadn’t been selected.

Then in the second paragraph it stated, “You were selected as the 2015 Miss GEO!” My jaw dropped and I screamed, which probably wasn’t a good idea since I was working at JANM’s front desk at the time. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, friends, and co-workers, who had all encouraged me throughout the interview process. A week later, I had my crowning at Cherrystones restaurant in Gardena, where I was able to meet members of GEO and give my first, very rough, speech. It was a night to remember!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa's crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa’s crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.


At the end of April, I attended the Nisei Week Queen Candidate orientation with my parents, where I met the other girls and our advisors, the Queen and Court Program Committee. Less than a week later, we had our first training session: kimono rehearsal, in which we learned how to properly put on, walk in, and fold a yukata (casual summer kimono). Some of us had a hard time at first, but now we can all put them on with ease.

Since June, we’ve been meeting at least three times a week for various classes and trainings. The sessions are three to four hours long and have included odori (Japanese dance) rehearsals, modern dance classes, etiquette training, professional development, and a variety of cultural lessons. Many hours are devoted to practicing our introductions and learning to walk properly in heels. My favorites, however, are the cultural lessons. The first one was in basic karate—by the end of the lesson, we were each able to break a board in half!

All of these classes prepared us well for our first big event—the Nisei Week Japanese Festival Opening Ceremony on July 19. At this official kickoff, we all gave our introductions and were presented as candidates for Nisei Week Queen. But the fun doesn’t stop there! We still have lots of trainings to go before Nisei Week.

Nisei Week takes place August 15–23. The new Nisei Week Queen will be selected at the coronation ceremony on August 15. Who will be crowned? Visit for more information, and stay tuned to this blog for more diary entries!

Marié Digby’s Colorful Pop Music Helps Launch JANM’s New Summer Night Concerts

21 Jul

Irish-Japanese American singer-songwriter Marié Digby is just one of the artists featured in JANM’s new Summer Night Concerts series, launching on July 30. Digby is a Los Angeles native who vaulted to fame after her acoustic cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” went viral on YouTube. We conducted this email interview to learn more about her music and her perspective as an Asian American musician.

Marié Digby

Marié Digby

JANM: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Marié Digby: I would say it’s like an apple! The skin is vibrant and colorful, the meat of the fruit is storytelling and emotions, and at the core is pop music.

JANM: Who or what are your biggest influences?

MD: I’m a kid of the nineties so most of my biggest influences are bands and artists from that era. I grew up on Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Poe. So many amazing artists!

JANM: What inspired you to do your own acoustic version of “Umbrella”?

MD: I had just started uploading cover videos on YouTube. I was always on the lookout for new songs on the radio—preferably, heavily produced songs that I felt still had an amazing core structure, which I could then break down to just vocal and guitar/piano. When I heard “Umbrella” in my car for the first time, I knew it would probably sound great stripped down.

JANM: There’s a wonderful quote in your bio: “I love watching people, and songs come out of that. When I have an experience that moves me, I can’t sit still until I’ve written the song.” Can you give us an example of an experience that moved you to write a song?

MD: What’s funny is, when I have a really positive/happy experience, I rarely feel like the first thing I want to do is sit down with my guitar and write a song! It always seems to be the more tragic, heartbreaking, soul-shaking events. As an example, I once wrote a song about all of the different people I’ve seen and met who pass through Los Angeles, in the hopes of becoming a star. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to see the transformations I often witness. This city from afar is full of hopes and dreams but when you’re actually in it, it can really eat you up alive.

JANM: Do you identify as an Asian American artist? Or, put another way, do you feel that your identity as an Asian American influences your artistic practice, and if so, how?

MD: I absolutely do! When I first started out, I never considered the fact that my ethnicity might play an important role in my being an artist. When I started posting videos, I noticed that the majority of the comments were coming from Asians, in all different parts of the world! I love being half Asian. I am so proud to represent not only my Japanese culture, but a quickly growing group of hapa kids in America.

JANM: Besides JANM’s Summer Night Concert, do you have any exciting plans or upcoming gigs you’d like to tell our readers about?

MD: The most exciting project on my calendar right now is a new album I’m creating with Tom Rothrock, who produced my first album, Unfold. We’ll be working on it later this fall. It will be my first full-length independent release, after making four other albums with the help of record labels. But I believe with the help of my amazing fans, it just might be my best album yet!

Marié Digby will perform as part of JANM’s first Summer Night Concert on July 30, along with Priska and headlining act Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. Kogi BBQ, Arroy Food Truck, and Frach’s Fried Ice Cream will be on site, along with a beer garden sponsored by JANM’s Young Professionals Network. Join us again on August 27 for an evening with Paul Dateh, Mike Gao, and Go Yama. All concerts are FREE.

Sus Ito and the Rescue of the Lost Battalion

16 Jul

This week, JANM opened Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, the first exhibition in Sharing Our Stories, a new series drawn from JANM’s extensive permanent collection. The exhibition looks at WWII photographs taken by Susumu “Sus” Ito while on a tour of duty through Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.

While Ito participated in such dramatic events as the rescue of the Lost Battalion and the liberation of a sub-camp of Dachau, the majority of the photographs capture the humble daily lives of a group of young Japanese American soldiers. In the essay below, JANM Curator of History Lily Anne Yumi Welty Tamai, PhD, takes an in-depth look at one of the images featured in the exhibition. Read on for a riveting account of the rescue of the Lost Battalion and its aftermath, as experienced by soldiers who lived through it.

Japanese American National Museum. Sus Ito Collection.

Japanese American National Museum.
Sus Ito Collection.

“We were in a number of dangerous situations. But the five days that I spent with ‘I’ Company and this mission, were really the most memorable. It was five days where I didn’t remember days from nights.” —Sus Ito, from JANM oral history interview, 2014.

In the last week of October 1944, after ten days of fighting to liberate Belmont, Biffontaine, and Bruyères in northeastern France, the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team received new orders. Without rest or time to recuperate, they were sent on a mission to rescue the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, made up of men from Texas. The soldiers of the 141st were trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded by German troops in eastern France with very little food, water, and medical supplies. Two other units had tried to rescue the so-called Lost Battalion without success; the Germans had a tremendous advantage in terms of position, and ambushed the American troops from their sniper nests.

There were no real roads in the mountains, just trails, and most were too narrow for large tanks. The forest was so dense in some areas that they had little to no visibility. Veteran George Oiye of the 442nd’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, “C” Battery, remembered the conditions: “The rain, snow, heavy clouds, dark fog, and the huge carpet of pine trees overhead made it hard to tell day from night.” It took six days of intense fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion. Out of the 800 Nisei soldiers who fought, around 600 suffered casualties in the process of rescuing 211 men.

“I saw so many wounded and dying fellow soldiers. There were friends holding their comrades in their arms. I ran into ‘I’ Company, which at that point only had four guys with a PFC (private first class)—Clarence Taba—in charge … the fighting had been that fierce.” —S. Don Shimazu, veteran of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery.

Japanese American National Museum. Sus Ito Collection.

Japanese American National Museum.
Sus Ito Collection.


General John Dahlquist had sent the Japanese American unit on this mission knowing the odds for success were slim. Years later, as told in the book Japanese American History (edited by Brian Niiya), U.S. Senator and 442nd veteran Daniel K. Inouye recalled: “I am absolutely certain that all of us were well aware that we were being used for the rescue because we were expendable.” Despite these circumstances, they all fought valiantly.

Sus Ito did not take many photographs during the actual rescue of the Lost Battalion. However, he did take one of Sgt. George Thompson (above) after the battle was over. Thompson was not even supposed to fight on the front lines, but he had begged Ito for an assignment so he could see what war was really like. Ito agreed, allowing George to carry an extra set of radio batteries for the unit.

Reflecting on this striking photograph, Ito said: “George Thompson didn’t put his hands in front of him because he was down, or because he hated the thought of war. He was just trying to hide. Maybe he was trying to erase some of the images of what the Lost Battalion mission was like.”

When remembering the mission to rescue the Lost Battalion, Ito said: “We were fighting against an enemy we could not see. To this day when I walk into a dark forest on a bright day—or even when I think about it—I get goose bumps.”

To hear more of these stories and learn more about our exhibition, be sure to catch Dr. Lily Anne Tamai’s Behind the Scenes Lecture on July 25. The program is free with museum admission, but RSVPs are recommended here.

Shiisaa: Okinawa’s Lion/Dog Guardian

7 Jul

An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.

An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.


The shiisaa (sometimes spelled shisa) is a traditional decorative icon of Okinawa. The shiisaa resembles a cross between a lion and a dog and usually appears in pairs. It is similar to the Chinese guardian lion or “foo dog,” which is commonly seen at the entryways of buildings in China. Like the Chinese lion, the shiisaa serves as a guardian or sentinel in Okinawan (Uchinanchu) culture.

The Uchinanchu people place the two shiisaas either on their roofs or at the gates to their homes. Doing this is believed to ward off bad spirits. Stories about the pair’s genders can vary, but most people believe that the one on the left is male because his mouth is closed to prevent bad spirits from entering the home, while the one on the right is female and has her mouth open to draw in good spirits and energy.

A shiisaa dance on Kukusai Street in Haebaru-cho, Okinawa. Photo by Kenneth Taylor Jr via Flickr.

A shiisaa dance on Kukusai Street in Haebaru-cho, Okinawa.
Photo by Kenneth Taylor Jr via Flickr.


The shiisaa also appears in Okinawan festival dances. Performed by two people wearing a costume that includes a prominent face and thick, shaggy yellow or brown fur, shiisaa dances are accompanied by traditional folk songs performed with a sanshin, the Uchinanchu cousin of the shamisen (traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument). Shiisaa dances are most commonly seen at Okinawa’s annual Shisa-mai (Lion Dance) Festival.

At JANM’s Free Family Day on July 11, held in conjunction with the opening of the new exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—the Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, children can learn more about these charmed creatures at our two shiisaa-making craft stations. Other Okinawan-themed activities will include Okinawan lei-making, Okinawan pastry sampling, an Okinawan gift raffle, and performances by Okinawan musicians, dancers, and taiko drummers.

This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawaii. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

New Exhibition Touches on Okinawan History

30 Jun

At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing. Photo by Allyson Nakamoto.

At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted
every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing.
Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.


On July 11, JANM will open a new exhibition, Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. The two artists in the exhibition examine their mixed-heritage roots in Okinawa and Hawai‘i, drawing heavily from ancestral histories. The opening day will coincide with a JANM Free Family Day, which will feature many crafts and activities inspired by Okinawan culture.

Although it is currently part of Japan, Okinawa for most of its history was an independent island kingdom called Ryukyu. Because of its location between the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, sailors, traders, scholars, and travelers from Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond visited the Ryukyu Kingdom. Over time, elements of the languages, arts, and traditions from those countries found their way into the Ryukyuan culture, enriching it and making it even more distinct from its neighbors. In the Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi), this mixing of cultural influences is called champuru.

A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

In 1609, the kingdom was annexed by Japan. Trading continued under the banner of Japan, while the Ryukyuan court system, performing arts, literature, and crafts flourished. In 1879 however, Japan officially took over the kingdom and renamed it “Okinawa Prefecture,” dissolving the Ryukyuan monarchy. The Japanese government then attempted to eliminate Ryukyu’s native culture, replacing it with Japanese language, culture, and laws.

A variety of factors tied to changing social policy in Okinawa soon led to economic hardship and social unrest. At the same time, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 created a need for more immigrant labor in the United States. In 1899, the first group of laborers left Okinawa for Hawai‘i. Emigration then began in earnest from Okinawa to Hawai‘i, to the mainland United States, and to South America.

It is the history of these immigrants that is explored in the art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. How did the former Ryukyuans make their lives in Hawai‘i? How did their culture continue to evolve in Hawai‘i, mixing with even more cultures? Despite all this champuru, there is still something that is distinctively and identifiably Okinawan.

An Update on the Eaton Collection from JANM Board Chair Norman Y. Mineta

23 Jun

This letter from Norman Y. Mineta, JANM’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees, is an expanded version of one that appeared in The Rafu Shimpo earlier this month.

After a relatively short period of time, though an arduous journey, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) has acquired the Allen H. Eaton collection of Japanese American art and artifacts. The Eaton Collection consists of some 450 items produced by those of Japanese ancestry and those who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. The acquisition occurred after Rago Arts and Auction Center cancelled its scheduled public auction, which threatened to break up the collection and would have scattered the art pieces to numerous individuals and institutions.

The cancellation occurred as a result of thousands of people who raised awareness through social media, grassroots organizing, the threat of an injunction by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and a personal appeal by George Takei to David Rago, a principal of the auction house. Without a doubt, this was a victory for the total community.

In the rush to “wrap up” as quickly as possible, since the window of opportunity was short, the process was abbreviated and certain individuals and organizations were not contacted, to their dismay. For that, JANM apologizes.

The Japanese American National Museum, as its name implies, is the appropriate organization to become the stewards of these art objects. JANM is national in scope and outreach, with a curatorial staff to preserve the history of its collections while protecting and conserving their significant holdings. The Eaton Collection has just arrived at JANM, and it will require extensive conservation to preserve it and to establish a baseline for future care. JANM is the right institution to steward these precious artifacts on behalf of the Japanese American community and the total community for generations to come.

JANM has, and will continue to play, an active leadership role to involve multiple community stakeholders in shaping the collection’s future. As many are aware, there was a conference call on May 13, 2015 that was moderated by Dr. Franklin Odo that included representatives from the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the Japanese American Citizens League, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Wing Luke Museum of Seattle, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose the Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts, JANM, and many other individuals and organizations to start the discussion for a positive and collaborative healing path for our community. This was the first of what will, no doubt, be many such conversations around the Eaton Collection.

As the conservation process and discussions progress on the Eaton Collection, we view it, along with all of our artifacts, as a shared community treasure of which the Japanese American National Museum is the guardian. As with many museums, there are ways to share the art objects through traveling exhibitions and long-term loans to other museums and institutions where the public would be able to see and have access to these artifacts.

We look forward to working with all of the community stakeholders to come to a positive, jointly shared solution.

Norman Y. Mineta
Chair, Board of Trustees
Japanese American National Museum