How the JANM Store Selects and Develops Its Products

Spirit Stones, available at the JANM Store.

In April of this year, the JANM Store was the proud recipient of a 2017 Museum Store Association (MSA) Recognition Award for Product Development. Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and a current MSA board member, wrote a long essay on how she came to develop the award-winning products, an edited portion of which we published in May. We now present another excerpt from the same essay, which offers more in-depth insights into how products come to be selected and developed for the JANM Store.

Being the director of a museum store with our particular mission statement—to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience—has always made product development challenging. Contrary to what many vendors and buyers imagine, Japanese products do not make up most of our inventory. We are a museum that explores Japanese American culture, history, and community.

During the early days of the JANM Store, the rule was to not buy any products that were perceived as “too Japanese.” This rule served two purposes. First, it put the emphasis on the hybrid culture of Japanese Americans. Second, it removed the appearance of competing with local neighborhood merchants, many of whom do specialize in products imported from Japan. Explaining all of this to vendors was often met with perplexed head scratching.

What we wanted was to offer memorable items that would firmly imprint what we were about on the visitor’s memory—items that would remind people of the history they had seen through our exhibitions. Finding such objects became the mission of the store. What kind of products could we offer that would bring back the stories depicted in Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition covering 130 years of Japanese American history, from the early days of the Issei pioneers to the present day?

On the left, mystery stones that were found at Heart Mountain concentration camp and donated to JANM’s collection; on the right, the keepsake products they inspired at the JANM Store.

Our first custom products were inspired by a 55-gallon metal drum full of rocks that was found at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Each one had been carefully painted with a single Japanese kanji character. These rocks were initially dubbed “the Heart Mountain mystery rocks,” but it was later determined that they formed Buddhist sutras when placed around the cemetery at Heart Mountain.

Around that time, “affirmation stones” were becoming popular. We found a vendor who offered to make custom stones for us—not painted, but carved, making for a more permanent object. We selected a few of the kanji from the Heart Mountain stones and had them reproduced by a local calligrapher. It was a daunting project, producing six designs in quantities and prices that would work for both the store and the vendor. And when we announced that we were going to sell rocks in the store, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Apparently no one remembered when Pet Rocks were popular!

That was 18 years ago. Today, our stones are still selling, and we have expanded our line to include Heart Mountain Mystery Rocks, Spirit Stones, and Kaeru Stones. Our stones feature characters that were used at Heart Mountain as well as popular Japanese American sayings and whimsical images of JANM’s mascot, the frog (kaeru), which symbolizes the concept of “return” in Japanese culture.

Other products we have developed over the years include a koinobori (carp kite) painting kit; a plush frog toy that doubles as a secret container; a plush daruma beanbag; a kaeru zipper pouch by M.P. Barcelona; and a series of custom tea blends that are named after the different generations of Japanese Americans. Developed in collaboration with neighboring business Chado Tea Room, the tea blends include Issei, a roasted hojicha blended with coconut in honor of the first Japanese immigrants who settled in Hawaii, and Nisei, a genmaicha with citrusy bergamot tones to honor the second generation that largely settled on the West Coast.

Today the JANM Store is virtually exploding with uniquely Japanese American products, many of which are collaborations with local vendors, as well as a great collection of Japanese American history and culture books and products related to our current exhibitions. Intriguing new items are added all the time—like this tasty Japanese salsa from Colorado—so be sure to stop by often for an authentic adventure in Japanese Americana.

Maria Kwong

Maria Kwong is the Director of Retail Enterprises at the Japanese American National Museum.

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