Playwright Yilong Liu Explores APIA and LGBTQ Identity

This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.

Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.

Portrait of Afong Moy. Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?

Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.

On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.

JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?

YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.

Playwright Yilong Liu

JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?

YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.

So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.

Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

JANM Continues Educational Programming on Civil Rights

Like many individuals and organizations across the nation, JANM has been stepping up its efforts to raise public awareness and provide support in the wake of recent public policy initiatives that pose potential threats to immigrant communities.

 

 

The museum’s first “Teach-In” took place on December 8, 2016. We invited three speakers to share their perspectives. JANM volunteer Mas Yamashita spoke about being incarcerated as a child during World War II in Topaz, Utah; Betty Hung of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles provided an overview of the political climate; and Mary Hendra of Facing History and Ourselves shared ideas for encouraging dialogue between students and teachers. What emerged was a shared understanding that teachers, school administrators, and community organizations like JANM must combine our efforts to ensure that our students feel safe.

You can watch a video of the entire presentation above. The speakers also provided downloadable handouts:

Post-Election DACA and Know Your Rights

An Open Letter to California’s Educational Leaders

Post-Election Support for Difficult Conversations

Following the Teach-In, members of JANM’s Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, and Education Department traveled to the White House to participate in “Generational Experiences of Asian Americans,” a program that examined the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II as well as contemporary challenges facing the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) and Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian (MASSA) communities today. Discussions of fears and obstacles evolved into coalition building, action, responsibility, and education.

Photo by Lynn Yamasaki, JANM School Programs Developer

JANM representatives who attended were inspired by high school and college students from around the country who are working hard to make an impact in their communities. Although fears persist, these young leaders made them feel grateful to educators who are encouraging young people to learn from the past and stand up against hatred and discrimination. A video of the event is available here.

At the end of March, JANM will be hosting a special two-day teacher workshop in conjunction with our current exhibition, Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066. Supported by a grant from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, this workshop will bring scholars, experts, and first-person voices together in an effort to gain a better understanding of how the current political climate impacts educators and students, and to create lesson plans to facilitate self-guided student visits. This event is currently at capacity, but interested educators may be added to the waiting list at this link.

Stay tuned for more news on JANM’s ongoing educational programs. To subscribe to our quarterly Educator’s E-Newsletter, click here.

Curator Jeff Yang Discusses New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei

This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cover of George Takei’s 2012 book, Oh Myyy!: There Goes the Internet.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.

JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?

Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.

George Takei, student body president, at a student council meeting, Mount Vernon Junior High School. George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?

JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.

JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?

JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.

George Takei carries the Olympic torch through the streets of Los Angeles in the
run up to the 1984 Olympic Games. George & Brad Takei Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?

JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.

As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!

Wedding photo of Brad and George Takei, Toyo Miyatake Studios, 2008.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?

JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.

JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?

JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.

Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening of New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.

Hinamatsuri: Celebrating Girls

A HInamatsuri display in a Tokyo hotel lobby. Photo by David Wiley via Flickr.

As we look forward to the advent of spring on March 20, one of Japan’s most beloved holidays helps us get into the spirit. Hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day, occurs on March 3, just as the chilly climes of winter begin to show signs of receding.

Hinamatsuri celebrates and nurtures the promise of young girls. It does this primarily through an elaborate display of dolls dressed as members of the imperial Japanese court. In addition to being a favorite toy of many girls, the display represents the family’s hopes that their little girl will be as beautiful, graceful, and fortunate as the little dolls.

A Hinamatsuri display at home. Photo by nansei via Flickr.

A typical Hinamatsuri arrangement consists of multiple tiers, with the Emperor and Empress perched on the top tier, followed by descending ranks of servants: samurai, ladies in waiting, and children. Also included are accessories for the dolls, such as tea sets, dressers, and even bathtubs. A full Hinamatsuri set can be very elaborate and very expensive, and many have been passed down through generations. Hinamatsuri celebrations also include eating special foods, such as hina arare (sweet rice crackers) and sakuramochi (mochi wrapped in cherry leaves).

For the most part, Hinamatsuri is celebrated privately, as a domestic ritual, although public displays and ceremonies do occur. Each family typically brings out their set a few weeks before the holiday, displaying it in the nicest room of the house until the holiday is over. They must take care to put it away promptly, however, as an old superstition dictates that a girl who tarries too long with the dolls will have difficulty finding a suitable marriage.

A close-up of the Emperor and Empress dolls. Photo by hirotomo t via Flickr.

The word hina means small and lovely object, while matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. Historians trace the origins of Hinamatsuri to the reign of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623-51), when ministers presented a set of hina dolls to the shogun’s eldest daughter on her seventh birthday, thus beginning a practice that became popular among the noblemen of the day. However, the basic idea of a spring festival to nurture new energy and ward off bad luck dates as far back as ancient China.

At JANM, we’ll be celebrating Hinamatsuri with an origami workshop on Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. Longtime museum volunteer and origami enthusiast Ruthie Kitagawa will show you how to make Hinamatsuri-themed cards for your family and friends. The JANM Store also has several Hinamatsuri-related products to help you celebrate; check out, for example, this cute solar-powered Hina doll display, or this beautiful rabbit Hinamatsuri pop-up card.

The Great Unknown Captures a Spectrum of Japanese American History

The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches is a collection of biographical portraits of extraordinary figures in Japanese American history—men and women who made remarkable contributions in the arts, literature, law, sports, and other fields.

Recovering and celebrating the stories of noteworthy Issei and Nisei and their supporters, the book highlights the diverse experiences and substantial cultural, political, and intellectual contributions of Japanese Americans throughout the country and over multiple decades. Included in these pages are Ayako Ishigaki, Issei feminist and peace activist; Milton Ozaki, mystery writer; Bill Hosokawa, journalist; Wat Misaka, basketball star; Gyo Fujikawa, children’s book artist and author; and Ina Sugihara, interracial activist, to name just a few examples.

JANM’s Discover Nikkei project recently published a two-part feature on the book and its author. Written by Edward Yoshida, the feature reviews the book at length, as well as the author’s current activities. Robinson is a professor of history at Université du Québec à Montréal. The Great Unknown is a compilation of his columns for Nichi Bei Times and Nichi Bei Weekly, along with selections from other publications.

As Yoshida notes, the collection stands out for the breadth of its content; not only does the author present material from a broad span of Japanese American history, he also manages to draw out little-known nuggets of information about such major figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Alan Cranston, both of whom were allies to Japanese Americans. In addition, the book explores the substantial support offered to the Japanese American community by prominent African American writers and activists, including Paul Robeson, Erna P. Harris, Layle Lane, Loren Miller, and Hugh Macbeth. To read Yoshida’s article, click here.

This Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m., Greg Robinson will appear at JANM for a discussion about his book. The program is free with museum admission; click here to RSVP. Members are also invited to an exclusive meet-and-greet one hour prior to the discussion; email memberevents@janm.org or call 213.830.5646 to RSVP. You may purchase the book at the JANM Store or janmstore.com.

Executive Orders Then and Now

On February 18, JANM will open Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066. Presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, Instructions to All Persons is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience.

Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos will form the substance of the exhibition. Through May 21 only, the exhibition will include two pages of the original Executive Order 9066 and the original Presidential Proclamation 2537, a key precursor to EO 9066 that required aliens from the enemy countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan to register with the US Department of Justice. Both documents are on loan from the National Archives.

Page one of Executive Order 9066. National Archives, Washington, DC.

Awareness of the impact of executive actions—including executive orders, presidential memoranda, and presidential proclamations—is particularly high right now. During his first two weeks in office, President Trump issued 22 executive actions, ranging from an order to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Some of these actions caused widespread consternation, with the travel ban most notably causing significant disruption in the daily lives of many Americans.

Executive actions are handed down from the executive branch of government without input from the legislative branch. While they can only be given to federal or state agencies, citizens are often affected by the results. Executive orders are the most prestigious of the three types of actions; they are assigned numbers and published in the federal register, similar to laws passed by Congress. Presidential memoranda basically outline the administration’s position on a policy issue, while presidential proclamations are often ceremonial in nature (with the Emancipation Proclamation being a notable exception, along with the aforementioned Presidential Proclamation 2537).

A look at the history of executive actions reveals that they are a way for presidents and governors to flex their power, ostensibly for the good of the nation, and sometimes in the face of great criticism. Trump’s rapid series of actions is generally seen as an effort by an “outsider” president to quickly establish power and begin following through on campaign promises. In comparison, President Obama famously resorted to more executive orders during his second term when he was unable to pass legislation through a particularly intransigent Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of EO 9066, issued more than 3,700 executive actions—by far the highest number in American history. With a prolonged presidential term that spanned both the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt’s aggressive use of executive actions could be seen as an ongoing form of crisis management. For example, his very first executive order on Inauguration Day ordered the closure of all banks for four days to begin restructuring the financial system under the New Deal. Later, he issued an order to seize factories, mines and other privately owned industrial facilities for wartime production.

How justified were Roosevelt’s sweeping orders? While some are credited with establishing policies that were beneficial to the stability of the American people, others, like EO 9066, have been discredited. When do presidents overstep their boundaries? Which of Roosevelt’s orders would you support today, and which would you be inclined to question or even protest? How will Trump’s and Obama’s orders be seen 75 years from today?

Instructions to All Persons aims to provide a space for questions like these. Come see the exhibition to examine the social impact of language and consider the lessons of the past and how they continue to be relevant today.

Mikado Hotel Preserves a Slice of Little Tokyo History

Guests mingle at the grand re-opening of the Mikado Hotel in Little Tokyo.

On Wednesday night, the Little Tokyo community was invited to a grand re-opening party for the Mikado Hotel, located on First Street in the historic heart of the neighborhood. This was no ordinary re-opening—the Mikado Hotel is a historic piece of architecture, built in 1914, and it has essentially lain dormant since the end of World War II. Capital Foresight finally purchased the building in 2014, and got to work on a restoration that would be faithful to the building’s history while updating it with contemporary touches. The result is quite remarkable.

The building’s façade has been restored to look the way it did in 1932. Visitors must first walk down a long corridor to reach the stairs and elevator at the back of the building; the corridor is decorated with a collage work and text panels recounting the history of Little Tokyo. The second and third floors are where the guest rooms, now called “micro-suites,” are located. On the second floor is a beautiful new open-air courtyard; the builders created this space by reducing the sizes of the individual rooms. In the past, the rooms were larger, but the space between them was practically nonexistent. The micro-suites continue on the third floor.

A peek inside one of the Mikado Hotel’s new micro-suites.

The suites are indeed microscopic—each one is about the size of a small bedroom. However, care has been taken to furnish them with all the necessary conveniences, including a kitchenette, full private bathroom (the original hotel had shared bathrooms), and storage cupboards. The style is decidedly hip and modern. A total of 42 suites will be available to rent starting in a few weeks, with leases that can run from one day up to one year. The price range is expected to be $1,160 to $1,500 per month.

Also new and hip is a rooftop lounge, featuring two comfortable seating areas. Guests can look down on the courtyard and balconies from here. The original hotel was enclosed, so the open-air effect is a welcome new addition, adding vibrancy to a small space.

The Mikado’s ground-floor corridor features a long collage capturing the history of Little Tokyo.
The collage contains a mix of images from different periods in the neighborhood’s history.

The building was designed as a hotel by the California architect Alfred F. Priest. It is said to be typical of the commercial architecture that populated American main streets of the early 20th century, with its glazed white brick entrance and buff brick upper stories. Prior to World War II, it was known as the Mikado Hotel. While the Japanese American community was incarcerated, Little Tokyo became an African American enclave known as Bronzeville, and the Mikado morphed into the Shreveport Hotel, featuring a well-known soul food restaurant.

The ribbon cutting ceremony, viewed from the Mikado’s rooftop lounge.

Gentrification is a contentious subject throughout Los Angeles, and Little Tokyo has not been immune to its effects. Critics bemoan the appearance of soulless condominiums, constructed quickly in the interest of profits, with no regard for the area’s history. A project like the Mikado Hotel seems to strike the right balance, respecting the lineage of the property while making it appealing to new audiences.

Comedy InvAsian Serves Up Live APIA Talent

Promotional poster for Atsuko Okatsuka’s performance on February 11 at JANM.
Courtesy of Comedy InvAsian.

The 2017 Oscar nominations came out this week, and much was made about how diverse the nominees were. Out of the 20 acting nominees, seven are people of color; six of African descent and one of Indian descent. While this is encouraging, it is clear that much work still needs to be done to promote the visibility of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) talent. As this blog has argued in the past, APIA talent is not in short supply, but opportunities for them often seem to be.

This February, JANM will host live tapings of a new series aimed at providing a platform for exciting APIA comedic talent. Comedy InvAsian presents six APIA actors and comedians doing one-hour standup sets in front of a live audience. Each set will be professionally filmed for later digital television broadcast.

The series will kick off on Friday evening, February 10, at 9 p.m. with a set from Paul “PK” Kim, a regular at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory and founder of the APIA networking group Kollaboration. It will end on Sunday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Amy Hill, a longtime film and television actress known for her roles on 50 First Dates, Seinfeld, All-American Girl, King of the Hill, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Amazon Studio’s Just Add Magic, among many other credits. For a complete schedule, with links to purchase tickets, visit this page.

Comedy InvAsian was founded by writers/directors Quentin Lee and Koji Steven Sakai (the latter was also formerly JANM’s Vice President of Programs). As the two state on their website: “In our filmmaking career, we have met and become friends with so many talented comedians of color, from producing Dwayne Perkins in Take Note to directing Randall Park in The People I’ve Slept With to working with Paul Kim in the Comedy Ninja Film Festival to directing Amy Hill in White Frog and The Unbidden. Comedy InvAsian will celebrate the talent and comedy of a group of select and diverse Asian American comedians which should prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

The two already have a distributor, Viva Pictures, and are vying to get on a popular digital platform like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. The latter recently produced Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, which became an enormous hit for the longtime comedy writer and standup artist. Lee and Sakai hope that Comedy InvAsian will also become a hit, so that they can continue to spotlight the many great APIA comedians that they know. Come support them by attending a live taping at JANM in February!

What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry?

L to R: Hiroshi Motomura, Ali Noorani, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and Ann Burroughs.

On January 18, JANM was pleased to partner with Zócalo Public Square and UCLA to present a panel discussion addressing the question, What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry? JANM’s own Interim President and CEO, Ann Burroughs, moderated an extensive talk that featured Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA’s George and Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community; Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum; and Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA’s Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law and author of the award-winning books Immigration Outside the Law (2014) and Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States (2006).

The panel discussion, organized as part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Program series, addressed a topic that has been important to JANM’s work since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Quickly recognizing a dangerously hysterical political climate that threatened the civil rights of innocent Muslim Americans—eerily similar to the climate that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II—JANM’s leadership reached out to Muslim Americans in the months following 9/11, building strong coalitions with community representatives, sharing resources, offering counsel, and helping them to establish the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Recent public statements by President-elect Donald Trump and several of his supporters have again raised the idea of a registry tracking all Americans with ties to the Muslim religion. Disturbingly, some of them have even cited the Japanese American incarceration as a “precedent” for such an action. Statements like this reveal a gross ignorance of history; as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration, admitting that it was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and awarded monetary compensation to each incarcerated family.

Last night’s discussion confronted the question of a Muslim registry head on, examining it in light of the historical perspective afforded by the Japanese American experience. Burroughs opened the discussion by noting that the idea of a Muslim registry is commonly framed as a tactic designed to keep citizens safe; she asked the panelists if such registries do, in fact, keep people safe. The answer was a resounding no. Hirabayashi noted that numerous registries were kept of Japanese Americans, but none of them turned up evidence of espionage or other wrongdoing. Motomura pointed out that the Bush administration created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) in 2002, which turned out to be, in his estimation, an ineffectual “immigration sweep.” Noorani added that although President Obama rescinded the registry in December, it could easily be reinstated by the Trump administration.

The rest of the discussion weighed various aspects of current and past public policy, and lessons that can be extracted from history. As with all Zócalo Public Square programs, the event was recorded in its entirety and will be available for viewing on their website soon. In the meantime, as noted by Zócalo writer Reed Johnson, a key takeaway from the discussion was to be prepared for the very real possibility of a “trigger moment” occurring—like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the US’s entry into World War II—that will likely set existing security apparatuses into motion and activate questionable public policy.

Although the discussion was at times foreboding, Motomura tried to strike a positive balance by recognizing that much progress has been made in the last 75 years; ideas that were considered “exotic” back then, such as LGBTQ rights, are commonplace now.

JANM Hosts “Common Ground Conversations” Beginning This Week

The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”

Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.

Following are the topics for each conversation:

January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity

Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.

We hope you’ll join us!