Toyo Miyatake’s Camera Captured Japanese American History

24 Mar

Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.

Toyo Miyatake's Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.

 

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.

Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.

A well-known photograph taken by Toyo Miyatake at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.

A well-known photograph by Toyo Miyatake, taken at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.

 

Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.

It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.

To explore more works of public art in Little Tokyo, sign up for JANM’s Edible Adventures: Public Art and the Sweets of Little Tokyo tour on March 28.

Pilgrimages to WWII American Concentration Camp Sites Starting in April

19 Mar

Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp. Photo: Richard Murakami.

Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Photo: Richard Murakami.

 

During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast without due process. Most of them were sent to one of ten concentration camps located throughout the United States: Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake, as they are commonly referred to. The War Relocation Authority selected these locations because they were remote, owned by the federal government, and often near rail lines.

For many years after the war, Japanese Americans did their best to get on with their post-camp lives, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasant experience of incarceration. As the years passed however, the community became more interested in grappling with this part of its history. Trips back to the camps began, with some organizing group pilgrimages to facilitate the experience.

Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

Now, more than seventy years after resettlement, there has evolved what could be called a pilgrimage season. The 2015 “season” begins in April and ends in August. Following is a complete schedule with links to more information about each of the organized pilgrimages, including registration and fees.

Pilgrimage to Manzanar (California): April 25, 2015
Pilgrimage to Amache (Colorado): May 16, 2015
Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): June 25–28, 2015
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): August 21–22, 2015
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one is scheduled for July 2016.

These are the five sites that have regular pilgrimages; we encourage you to visit the others as well. With the exception of the Gila River camp in Arizona, permits are not required. In February, President Obama recognized Honouliuli in Hawai`i as a National Monument, so perhaps Hawai`i will one day be added as part of the pilgrimage season.

A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

No matter who you are—whether you were incarcerated or not, whether you are of Japanese descent or not—you might consider visiting one of the former camp sites. There is nothing like standing there, feeling the air, seeing the mountains, sensing the scorching heat or the bitter cold. It is definitely worth a visit, even though they are remote and the conditions are harsh; in fact, that is the point.

East West Players Offers a Platform for New Work by Asian American Writers

11 Mar

JANM has a long history of collaborating with East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe. Among other activities, the museum is proud to host A Writer’s Gallery, a semi-regular reading of new works by Asian American playwrights. On Thursday, March 19, East West Players will present a reading of Giovanni Ortega’s Iyakan Blues (The Criers), a comedy about a group of women who work as professional criers—people who are paid to weep at funerals.

ewp-writers-gallery-logo

On the eve of this latest collaboration, JANM reached out to Snehal Desai, Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at East West Players, and Giovanni Ortega, playwright, to find out more about the series and about Ortega’s play.

JANM: JANM began hosting A Writer’s Gallery way back in 1996. It now occurs roughly semi-annually. Snehal, can you talk about the significance of the series, and how it came about?

Snehal Desai: Lately, the series has functioned as an incubator—a place for the development of works we are considering as part of our season at East West Players. It is immensely helpful for our playwrights to have workshop time to develop their plays and then have a public reading of it, followed by a talkback. We have found that these readings really bring the community and audiences into the process of premiering a new work. The Tateuchi Democracy Forum is a perfect space for this kind of reading and the conversation that follows afterwards.

JANM: How do you go about selecting the writers who get featured?

SD: The writers and the works get selected in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are tied to exhibitions that are being presented at JANM, or they are inspired by dialogues currently happening in the community. Other times, a writer with whom we have a relationship will bring us a play that they are developing and want to read publicly.

Giovanni Ortega. Image courtesy of the artist.

Giovanni Ortega.
Image courtesy of the artist.

JANM: Giovanni, is professional crying really a thing?

Giovanni Ortega: Professional crying is actually a real thing in different countries. It is still done in Chinese, Sardinian, Irish, and Middle Eastern societies, just to name a few. Mourners from Chongqing, China, and Taiwan were recently on the news. The 1993 Indian film Rudaali featured a character who cried at funerals, and going back further, there were professional mourners in Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Père Goriot. The basic concept behind crying at funerals is to allow the person who passed to have a good welcome on the other side. The extent of the wails and cries also shows the reverence and respect this person had while living.

JANM: What inspired you to write Iyakan Blues (The Criers)? Did you draw from personal experience?

GO: The initial inspiration for the play was the women in my family. I was raised by my two grandmothers, and then my mom after I moved to the U.S. [from the Philippines] when I was a teen. Growing up, I was always surrounded and influenced not only by my lolas (grandmas) but also their sisters and my aunts. They were all strong-willed women who had very distinct opinions about life.

Regardless of whatever adversity, burdens, and struggles they had to endure to survive, the underlying force was laughter to get through it all. I witnessed that this was their tool in survival, regardless of how difficult it got. One of my earliest memories was going to the wake of my Lolo [Grandpa] Tute, where tears and laughter went hand in hand. Having such experiences allowed me to realize that I can use the theme of death as a means to laugh, and writing this play was a great opportunity to do so.

There are also very few stories about the Filipino diaspora. There is so much more to our country than Imelda, beaches, karaoke, dancing, pancit [Filipino noodles], and poverty. Ours is a rich culture, not unlike the U.S. in its mixture of race, religion, and cultures. My own heritage being Chinoy (Filipino and Chinese) as well as Spanish and Native American is a testament to our variety. I wanted to share different perspectives that people have in regards to what being Filipino is.

A Visit from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

3 Mar

JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)

JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)
All photos by Leslie Unger.

 

Two weeks shy of her one-year anniversary at the Japanese American National Museum, Director of Marketing and Communications Leslie Unger had one of the most interesting days of her over-two-decades-long professional career. Read about it below!

On February 11, JANM was honored to host a group of visitors from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They had traveled from Warsaw to visit several institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily to learn about education department practices and activities. I tagged along with JANM staff members Clement Hanami, Allyson Nakamoto, Christy Sakamoto, and Lynn Yamasaki, knowing that this would be a memorable opportunity for cultural exchange. I was not disappointed.

POLIN is a new museum, opened in April 2013. Its core exhibition depicting the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews was opened at the end of October 2014. Over the course of the exhibition’s first three days, some 15,000 people visited. That’s a remarkable figure and I can only believe that it speaks to an essential need that POLIN is filling for Poland, for those of Jewish heritage and non-Jews alike.

In addition to learning about the history of Poland and Polish Jews, as well as how the POLIN Museum came into existence, I was fascinated by some of the concepts and themes that the Warsaw museum and JANM share, including notions of identity and citizenship, and how to represent a proud people scarred by immeasurable tragedy.

JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.

JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.

 

There was a very interesting discussion about the phrase “concentration camps.” This is terminology that JANM and others use in reference to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II rather than other more euphemistic wording. Of course, “concentration camps” is also the terminology most often used to describe where Jews were sent and where so many of them perished during the war. And it is the context of the Holocaust that has brought an additional level of meaning to the phrase for many people.

When we told our Polish visitors that JANM uses “concentration camps,” I could see each of them experience a moment of discomfort. As someone of Jewish heritage, I had felt the same internal shudder the first time I heard the words used at JANM. But as I became more familiar with the story of Japanese Americans and focused more specifically on the actual meaning of the words themselves and not on additional connotations that have evolved, I became more comfortable. I shared this personal experience with our guests, and they too were able to speak more objectively about this powerful phrase and how it has in fact been used in numerous other situations, before and after WWII.

Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.

Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.

 

Perhaps one of the most memorable things articulated by our guests was that Jews are integral to the story of Poland and vice versa, and that the POLIN Museum tries to portray this symbiotic relationship as well as how Jews were and are part of the historical context of the larger geographic region. As one of them said: “The story of the Jews is presented to inspire respect for diversity.”

You could not write a statement that more closely mirrors the mission of JANM. The stories of Polish Jews and Japanese Americans are not the same. But in the span of just a few hours, I was emphatically reminded of how there is so much more that the human race shares than what might divide it.

Descanso Gardens’ Renowned Camellia Collection is Rooted in Japanese American History

25 Feb

Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens

A camellia in bloom at Descanso Gardens. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

 

Through a special partnership agreement, all JANM members are invited to visit Descanso Gardens this Sunday, March 1, free of charge. Located 20 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, Descanso Gardens is a 160-acre nature preserve known for its botanical collections and seasonal horticultural displays. This weekend will be an especially good time to visit as the Gardens will be hosting their annual Camellia and Tea Festival, during which patrons can enjoy the blooming camellias and participate in a variety of celebratory activities.

The camellia collection at Descanso Gardens is said to be the largest in the world; it boasts rare and familiar camellias and has been designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society. The collection is worth seeing for these reasons alone, however, its origins are also closely tied to Japanese American history, giving it an added significance for members and friends of JANM.

Descanso Gardens started out as Rancho del Descanso, the home and ranch of newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy. A horticultural enthusiast with a particular interest in plants of Asian origin, Boddy started a camellia collection in the 1930s with plants purchased from local nurseries, some of which were owned and operated by Japanese Americans.

F. M. Uyematsu, owner of Star Nursery. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

F. M. Uyematsu, owner of Star Nursery. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

When Japanese Americans faced mass incarceration following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, Boddy was sympathetic to their plight. He admired Japanese culture and had in fact written a book in 1921, Japanese in America, extolling the contributions of Japanese immigrants. Boddy decided to purchase the entire camellia inventory of the Star Nursery, owned by the Uyematsu family, prior to their removal to Manzanar. He also purchased the Mission Nursery business owned by the Yoshimura family in San Gabriel, continuing to operate it while the family was imprisoned at Gila River.

Unlike many opportunistic investors who offered to buy the nurseries at a fraction of their value, Boddy paid fair prices to the Uyematsus and the Yoshimuras, enabling both families to put their financial affairs in order before being incarcerated. The camellias from Star Nursery were planted in the shade of live oak trees on about 25 acres of Boddy’s property, where they continue to flourish today. After the war, Boddy closed down the Mission Nursery and moved all of its stock to his estate.

F. W. Yoshimura, son of the founder of Mission Nursery and then, after release from Gila River, founder of the San Gabriel Nursery in San Gabriel. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

F. W. Yoshimura, son of the founder of Mission Nursery and then, after release from Gila River, founder of the San Gabriel Nursery in San Gabriel. Image courtesy of Descanso Gardens.

In 1953, Boddy sold his home and ranch to the County of Los Angeles. A volunteer-run support group called the Descanso Gardens Guild, formed in 1957, took over the management and development of the property, eventually turning it into the public institution it is today.

A more detailed version of this story is available on discovernikkei.org. You can also read a history of the Mission Nursery, which was reincarnated after the war as the San Gabriel Nursery and Florist, here.

If you are a JANM member, simply present your current membership card to receive FREE admission to Descanso Gardens this Sunday.

Japan’s Unique New Year

18 Feb

At JANM's 2015 Oshogatsu Family Festival, Kodama Taiko perform a mochitsuki (rice cake pounding) ceremony to ring in the new year. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

At JANM’s 2015 Oshogatsu Family Festival, Kodama Taiko perform a mochitsuki
(rice cake pounding) ceremony to ring in the new year. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

February 19 marks the official beginning of the Year of the Sheep, according to the most common interpretation of the ancient lunar calendar that has been used throughout Asia for centuries. On that day, many Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities will hold their traditional New Year celebrations. For the Japanese, however, it will more or less be a day like any other.

Japan is unique among Asian countries in that it is the only one that celebrates New Year on January 1, like the Western world. This custom can be traced back to 1872, when the Meiji government decided to abolish the lunar calendar and adopt the Gregorian calendar, believing the latter to be scientifically superior.

The Meiji Era, which lasted from 1868 through 1912, was a period of rapid progress and sweeping Western influence in Japan, as the country began its transition from an isolated feudal society to a modern one of “enlightened rule.” For the Japanese citizens of the time, the lunar calendar was a symbol of the old ways; in fact, the modern Japanese word for Lunar or Chinese New Year is kyushogatsu, meaning “old or outdated new year.” Adopting the Gregorian calendar, which was in use throughout the trading nations of Europe and America, meant keeping in step with the times.

JANM visitors join in on the fun at Oshogatsu 2015. Photo: Richard Watanabe.

JANM visitors join in on the fun at Oshogatsu 2015. Photo: Richard Watanabe.

 

In spite of this outlook however, the Japanese have retained many of their cherished New Year traditions; they simply practice them during the days immediately before and after January 1. JANM’s Oshogatsu Festival, for example, takes place on the first Sunday after January 1. The festival adapts several popular New Year traditions for a large and diverse crowd, including pounding mochi, eating buckwheat noodles, and sampling special New Year dishes like kamaboko (fish cakes) and kuri kinton (puréed sweet potatoes).

JANM wishes everyone a Happy Lunar New Year. We look forward to welcoming you to our museum many times during the Year of the Sheep.

A Girl Scout’s Tribute to Hello Kitty

11 Feb

16-year-old Senior Girl Scout and Los Angeles resident Elizabeth Keller participated in JANM’s first Hello Kitty Girl Scout Program on November 22, 2014. She graciously agreed to share her thoughts on her experience. Thank you, Elizabeth! The essay is accompanied by photos taken at the most recent Girl Scout workshop, held on February 7.

Girl Scouts visit JANM for a special Hello Kitty workshop, February 7, 2015. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

Girl Scouts visit JANM for a special Hello Kitty workshop.
Photo: Russell Kitagawa. All photos taken on February 7, 2015.

 

To me and many other girls, Hello Kitty is the ultimate symbol of femininity. Her lovely, bubbly, adorable little world full of flowers and hair bows is enchanting. And in a world where being “girly” is frowned upon, Hello Kitty reminds us not to be afraid to be our fabulous selves.

The Scouts get their own private viewing of Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. Photo: Steve Fujimoto.

The Scouts got their own private viewing of Hello! Exploring the
Supercute World of Hello Kitty
. Photo: Steve Fujimoto.

 

I had never considered the other aspects of Hello Kitty, however, until my Girl Scout troop visited the Japanese American National Museum’s Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. The exhibition was educational and heartwarming. I learned that Hello Kitty is five apples tall and that her full name is Kitty White. I found that I could have Hello Kitty on everything that I own—my lunchbox, my roller skates, my rice cooker, and even the braces on my teeth.

JANM staff then helped the Scouts to make their own Hello Kitty-inspired artwork. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

The Scouts making their own Hello Kitty-
inspired artwork. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

After viewing the exhibition, all the Girl Scouts completed a craft. I doodled small pictures of Hello Kitty and watched girls as young as five make beautiful art out of a character that had inspired their creativity.

Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

Looking around at more cute, pink, or otherwise charming household objects than I thought I would ever see—everything from clothes to food to headstones—it dawned on me that Hello Kitty is more than a simple little icon splashed on some toys. She represents the idea that we not only own our femininity, but that we also have the right to display it as we please.

A Scout shows off her creation. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

A Scout shows off her creation. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

Everything a girl does—from wearing makeup to playing video games—is seen as a call for attention, especially male attention. Hello Kitty recognizes no presence or agency except her own. She doesn’t ask anyone’s permission to be her lovely pink self; she simply is.

Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

During the Hello Kitty Girl Scout Program, I saw little girls—young Scouts who are still learning about what it means to be a girl—exploring concepts presented in the exhibition, like business, foreign relations, and fashion. They learned about these things in the context of their beloved Hello Kitty. They discovered—and I was reminded—that they can do anything with their own power. And if they want to rule the world in a pretty pink dress, well, nothing can stop them.

Scouts and their troop leaders pause to savor a great day at JANM. Photo: Steve Fujimoto.

Scouts and their troop leaders pause to savor a
great day at JANM. Photo: Stephen Fujimoto.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE TOKYO: New Film Series at JANM Spotlights Asian American Film

3 Feb

BTILT_splatter+bumpers

JANM’s Vice President of Programs, Koji Sakai, announces the launch of an exciting new Asian American film series at the museum.

During the last quarter of 2014, JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum was the site of two sold-out screenings and panel discussions celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic film The Karate Kid and the tenth anniversary of Alice Wu’s romantic comedy, Saving Face. In December, it also hosted a well-attended screening of Tadashi Nakamura’s feature-length documentary, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, followed by an intimate talk and a live ukulele performance by Shimabukuro.

Now, in an effort to continue screening Asian American films, I am proud to announce a new bi-monthly film series called Big Trouble in Little Tokyo. To organize this series, JANM is partnering with Visual Communications, one of the premier Asian American media organizations; Angry Asian Man, one of the first and most influential Asian American blogs; and First Pond Entertainment, a consultation and distribution service for independent films that focuses on socially-driven documentaries and narratives that feature underrepresented communities in front of and behind the camera.

Starting next week, we will screen a film on the second Wednesday of every other month under the Big Trouble in Little Tokyo banner. The series will feature big Hollywood productions as well as small independent films, from the distant past and the more recent present, and will often include post-screening discussions with actors, directors, and others involved in the making of the movie. It will celebrate some important anniversaries, and most importantly, it will provide a venue for more Asian American films to be seen and appreciated.

TheJoyLuckClub Our first screening, taking place on Wednesday evening, February 11, will be The Joy Luck Club (1993), the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, directed by Wayne Wang. Wang and stars Rosalind Chao and Tamlyn Tomita will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. On April 8, we will screen Big Trouble in Little China (1986), the cult film directed by John Carpenter that inspired the title of this film series. Post-screening panelists will include actors George Cheung and Gerald Okamura.

On May 13, we will have a very special screening in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916–17), a silent black-and-white film directed by Marion Wong. The Curse of Quon Gwon is the earliest known film directed by an Asian American, and one of the earliest directed by a woman. The evening will include a talk with filmmaker Arthur Dong, who preserved two reels of the historic film, which was later restored by the Academy Film Archive. Parts of the film are still missing.

As an Asian American filmmaker, one of the things that saddens me is the lack of opportunities and places to screen our films. That’s why as a JANM staff member and part of its programming team for more than five years, it has always been important to me to ensure that the museum can be such a place. JANM has hosted dozens of film festivals, from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival to Outfest, and hundreds of screenings. Now we have a series to call our own. For complete details on upcoming screenings, please visit our Big Trouble event page.

Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

28 Jan

ChinaDollsCover.final Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.

Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.

One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.

Hideo Date Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Hideo Date.

Hideo Date, Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Hideo Date.

 

See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Chisato Okubo.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of Chisato Okubo.

The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)

This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.

China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.

Little Tokyo Markets Explored in Edible Adventures Tour This Saturday

21 Jan

The early Little Tokyo grocery store, Kii Shokai Foods, is commemorated with an engraving on the sidewalk in front of Daikokuya restaurant.

The early Little Tokyo grocery store, Kii Shokai Foods, is commemorated with an
engraving in front of present-day Daikokuya restaurant.

 

When the first Japanese immigrants began arriving in California in the late 19th century, they needed to establish certain infrastructures for themselves in order to facilitate their survival in a new, and often hostile, country. One such infrastructure was the self-sufficient community of Little Tokyo, where a variety of Japanese businesses catered to Japanese needs. Another was the pioneering development of wholesale produce and flower markets.

It is a little known fact that prior to World War II, Japanese immigrants grew and sold 75 percent of all fresh produce consumed in Los Angeles—produce that was sold at such outlets as the venerable Grand Central Market, opened in 1917. Japanese American growers also established the city’s first major flower market, the Southern California Flower Market (popularly known as “the Japanese market”), on Los Angeles Street in 1913. This initial effort eventually gave rise to the Los Angeles Flower District, the largest wholesale flower district in the nation.

Today, Nijiya Market anchors the bustling Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo.

Today, Nijiya Market anchors the bustling Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo.

 

Downtown and Little Tokyo are filled with the ghosts of thriving immigrant businesses from the past. One such ghost can be found just a few steps from JANM. If you look at the sidewalk in front of the busy Daikokuya restaurant, you will see fading gold letters commemorating the establishment of Kii Shokai Foods in 1910. Today, the ethnic market tradition is carried on in Little Tokyo by popular chains like Nijiya and Marukai.

This Saturday, learn more about the fascinating history of downtown’s markets and the pivotal role that Japanese Americans have played in their development. Roxana Lewis, travel agent and history buff, will lead Edible Adventures: Little Tokyo Markets, Then and Now from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. $40 for members and $50 for non-members gets you an informative tour, lunch, and admission to our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. The tour is limited to 18 participants, but a few spaces are still available!