Japan’s Unique New Year

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symbol of the old ways; in fact, the modern Japanese word for Lunar or Chinese New Year is kyushogatsu, meaning “old or outdated new year.”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.

Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

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

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!

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Seeks Entries by January 31


Far East Cafe, a drawing by Ernest Nagamatsu, first prize winner of the 2014 Imagine Little Tokyo short story contest.
Far East Cafe, a drawing by Ernest Nagamatsu, first prize winner of the 2014 Imagine Little Tokyo short story contest.

Last year, as part of Little Tokyo’s 130th anniversary celebrations, the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) sponsored the first-ever Imagine Little Tokyo short story contest, inviting the general public to submit short works of original fiction set in the historic neighborhood. Stories could take place in the past, present, or future and were judged on the writer’s storytelling ability and use of the neighborhood as a cultural setting.

The contest was a success, attracting about sixty diverse submissions. Ernest Nagamatsu won the first prize of $1,000 with “Doka B-100,” a sorrowful tale about coping with the grief of war. Rubén Guevara’s “Yuriko and Carlos,” a story of interracial romance set during World War II, won the second place prize of $500 while Satsuki Yamashita took the third place prize of $250 with “Mr. K,” which takes the reader on a heartwarming journey of self-discovery over a series of meals in Little Tokyo. All three of the top stories were published in the print edition of The Rafu Shimpo and online at the LTHS website and at JANM’s own Discover Nikkei project. Twelve additional finalists were also published online.

Inspired by the enthusiastic response to last year’s contest, LTHS decided to make Imagine Little Tokyo an annual event. For the 2015 edition, the categories have been expanded to accommodate Japanese-language and youth submissions. The prizes will be $600 for the best English-language story; $600 for the best Japanese-language story; and $400 for the best story by a writer 18 years old or younger. As with last year’s edition, winning stories will be published in the Rafu Shimpo and on the LTHS website and Discover Nikkei.

Do you have a Little Tokyo tale you’d like to tell? The deadline for submissions is January 31! For complete guidelines, visit the LTHS website.

Members Get Perks at Oshogatsu Family Festival

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It’s almost time for the Oshogatsu Family Festival, one of JANM’s biggest and most anticipated events of the year! On Sunday, January 4, the museum will be alive with festive arts and crafts, food, cultural activities, and performances. The programs last all day, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and are free to all visitors. (Note: admission to Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, a specially ticketed exhibition, is not included.)

JANM members enjoy special perks at events like these. If you are a member, be sure to check in at the front desk and get your member sticker so you don’t miss out on the following:

12–2 p.m.: MEMBERS ONLY Osechi-Ryori Tasting
At this exclusive opportunity for JANM members, taste a selection of traditional Japanese new year foods—including various sweets and vegetables—and learn about the symbolism of each dish. Get in line early because the tasting will only last as long as supplies last!

12–5 p.m.: Double Raffle Tickets for Sheep Candy Sculptures
Shan Ichiyanagi will demonstrate the ancient, and now rarely practiced, Asian folk art of candy sculpting, as he makes candy in the shape of sheep. The finished pieces will be raffled off throughout the day. Members get double raffle tickets!

1–1:30 p.m.: Reserved Seating for Taikoza Performance
Taikoza, a group that uses traditional Japanese instruments to create an exciting contemporary sound, will present short performances on koto (zither) and shakuhachi (flute). Get to the Tateuchi Democracy Forum early to take advantage of specially reserved seats for members!

1–4 p.m.: Petting Zoo Members’ Express Line
Meet real live sheep and their goat friends at our Oshogatsu petting zoo, brought to you by Jessie’s Party Animals. Speed your kids through to the zoo by using the Members’ Express Line! (For children only. Line ends at 3:30 p.m.)

1–5 p.m.: Hello Kitty Members’ Express Line
Say “Hello!” and share a hug with Hello Kitty, the star of JANM’s exhibition Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. Put smiles on your kids’ faces—our Members’ Express Line will get them to Hello Kitty faster!

3 p.m.: Reserved Seating for UniverSoul Hip Hop Performance
Watch an energetic performance from UniverSoul Hip Hop, a community-based group dedicated to educating and enriching youth by bringing hip hop dance and culture to K–12 classrooms. Members enjoy reserved seating in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum!

These are just some highlights of what to expect at the 2015 Oshogatsu Family Festival. A complete schedule is available at janm.org. To become a member or renew your membership, visit our membership page. See you in the new year!

Ruthie’s Origami Adventures

Autumn cards by Ruthie Kitagawa
Autumn cards by Ruthie Kitagawa

 

For several years, Ruthie’s Origami Corner has been a popular fixture at JANM, whether as its own standalone event or as part of larger events like Target Free Saturdays and Oshogatsu Family Festival. Visitors young and old have benefited from Ruthie Kitagawa’s gentle guidance as she leads them in making unique origami items to commemorate every occasion.

A longtime JANM volunteer, Ruthie is a native Angeleno who spent part of her childhood imprisoned at Santa Anita Assembly Center and Amache Relocation Center. She has had an interest in arts and crafts for as long as she can remember; while still in high school, she volunteered to teach a class for the Boys and Girls Club.

Ruthie did not discover origami until later in life, and she admits that at first, she was not very good at it. Her initial experience with the craft occurred during preparations for her brother’s wedding in 1992, when she assisted in folding hundreds of gold foil cranes. She remembers with good humor that her cranes wound up on the reception tables, hidden behind floral arrangements, and that she was not invited to help with her sister’s wedding decorations two years later.

Shortly after her brother’s wedding, Ruthie’s older sister Lois—a dedicated JANM volunteer—encouraged her to take origami classes at the museum. Under the tutelage of Ryoko Shibata, who taught the origami classes at that time, Ruthie dedicated herself to improving her skills, which steadily blossomed. At the same time, she began volunteering at JANM as a docent and a Hirasaki National Resource Center assistant. Shibata Sensei eventually asked Ruthie to be her assistant in the origami classes, which Ruthie then took over when Shibata retired.

Kitagawa, right, received the 2010 Community Award in recognition of her services as a volunteer.
Ruthie Kitagawa, right, received the 2010 Community Award
in recognition of her services as a volunteer.

 

Sadly, Ruthie’s older sister passed away in 1998. Ruthie credits Lois—who was an avid origami practitioner—and JANM with inspiring her passion for the art form. Today, Ruthie applies a creative approach to her origami practice, often adding her own unique flourishes to designs she finds in books.

When asked what she enjoys the most about teaching her origami classes, Ruthie responds: “I love getting to know the people who come. They try so hard, and they can’t always complete the projects, but when they do, their faces just light up! That makes me really happy.”

Read more about Ruthie’s life story on Discover Nikkei. To meet Ruthie in person, come to Target Free Family Saturday this weekend, where she will be teaching participants to make a unique holiday ornament. Ruthie will also lead a Year of the Sheep origami workshop at our Oshogatsu Family Festival on January 4.

The World of Shibori

Dyed silks from Shibori Girl Studios
Dyed silks from Shibori Girl Studios.

Among the more popular craft activities offered at JANM are the shibori (resist cloth dyeing) workshops led by Glennis Dolce, better known as Shibori Girl. In September, Dolce led a two-day mandala design class, and this weekend, she is leading a sold-out Hello Kitty–themed workshop that takes its inspiration from Sanrio’s origins as a silk manufacturer.

The art of manipulating, binding, shaping, and dyeing cloth to create a raggedy, patterned look has a long history that goes back centuries. Evidence of its practice has been found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The Japanese are credited with perfecting the technique, hence the common use of the term shibori, which comes from the Japanese verb shiboru, meaning “to wring, squeeze, press.” A simplified Western variant of the practice has come to be known as “tie-dye.”

A classic indigo shibori pattern. Photo by naukhel via Flickr.
A classic indigo “spider web” shibori pattern. Photo by naukhel via Flickr.

Shibori most likely came to Japan from China at least 1,300 year ago. It began as a humble craft used by the poor to decorate and rehabilitate inexpensive fabrics. As various forms of shibori evolved, it became both a popular folk art and a means of producing elite silk kimonos for the aristocracy. In the 17th century, the village of Arimatsu emerged as a leading shibori specialist, and it continues to be a center for the art form today.

Over the centuries, industrialization and shifting global trends have threatened shibori with extinction. However, in the early 1980s, interest in the craft was revived by contemporary practitioners, who applied modern materials and techniques to expand and continue the art form. Today, shibori workshops are popular events, and a variety of creative shibori products can be seen in shops and boutiques everywhere. There is even a World Shibori Network.

Glennis Dolce leading a shibori class at JANM
Glennis Dolce leading a shibori class at JANM.

Upcoming Shibori Girl events at JANM include a two-day Shibori Fusion workshop in January and a reprise of the Hello Kitty workshop in March. Stay tuned to janm.org for more details, and be sure to get your tickets early, as these events tend to fill up quickly!

Take Advantage of Member Appreciation Days This Weekend

Thanksgiving weekend is upon us! And with it, the busiest shopping days of the year.

If you’re a JANM member, why not avoid the crowds at the mall and spend some quality time at one of Southern California’s outstanding museums instead? During Member Appreciation Days, Friday Nov. 28 through Sunday Nov. 30, you can enjoy FREE admission and a 20% store discount at 20 participating institutions, including JANM, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the California Science Center, and the San Diego Museum of Art, among others. Don’t miss this chance to check out some excellent museums for FREE, and get your holiday shopping done at the same time!

Don’t feel like leaving the comfort of your own home? You get the same 20% discount if you shop at janmstore.com. Below are a few new products, hand-selected by our store managers, that would make great gifts for loved ones.

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Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty exhibition catalog, featuring extensive color photographs, essays by the curators, and a bonus sticker sheet with exclusive Hello Kitty x JANM kokeshi-inspired art.

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Beautiful chrysanthemum tote bag by Yancha, with two inner pockets, a magnetic snap closure, and stain-resistant vinyl finish. Matching cosmetic bag also available!

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Cute nerd wooden oni pendant, featuring a laser-cut image of a Japanese demon. The oni is generally held responsible for negative things in Japanese folklore, but here it’s been turned into an adorable nerd emblem. Skinny nerd version also available!

Visit our Holiday M.A.D.ness page for complete details and a list of participating institutions. To become a member or renew your membership, visit our membership page. Happy Thanksgiving and happy shopping!

Historic Wintersburg is a Window onto a Forgotten Time

Founded in 1934, this Japanese Presbyterian Church, now boarded up, is the oldest of its in the state. Photo: Carol Cheh.
Founded in 1934, this Japanese Presbyterian Church, now boarded up, is the oldest
of its kind in the state. All photos by Carol Cheh.

 

Warner Avenue (formerly Wintersburg Avenue) in Huntington Beach is a busy street. Six lanes of cars roar by at all times, passing a dense parade of apartment complexes, single-family dwellings, schools, strip malls, chain restaurants, and big-box stores.

Amidst all this modern-day development, the last remaining structures of Historic Wintersburg Village—a farming community settled by European and Japanese pioneers in the mid-1800s—sit quietly at the southeast corner of Warner and Nichols Lane, barely noticed by passersby. Consisting of a cluster of homesteads, a community church, a mission, and a tiny patch of farmland all dating to the turn of the century, this property is a fascinating window onto a bygone era.

The history of the church can be seen in this photo. It began its life in 1934 as the Japanese Presbyterian Church, as inscribed in the building's cornerstone, before being taken over by other congregations.
The history of the church can be seen in this photo. It began its life in 1934 as the Japanese Presbyterian Church, as inscribed in the building’s cornerstone, before being taken over by other congregations.
The modest five-acre parcel was purchased by Charles Mitsuji Furuta in 1912, less than a year before California passed the Alien Land Law forbidding Asian immigrants from owning agricultural land. It managed to survive the World War II incarceration era and stay in the Furuta family until 2004, when it was sold to a waste management company.

The church on the corner, founded in 1934 by Orange County’s Japanese immigrant community, is the oldest Japanese Presbyterian Church in the state. The red house near the edge of the property, now falling apart with age, was once a spanking-new, ultra-modern home, built by Furuta for his new bride, Yukiko, whom he brought over from Japan.

Sadly, the parcel is currently threatened with development. A preservation task force, spearheaded by historian and author Mary Adams Urashima, is working to prevent that from happening. Earlier this year, they were helped in their efforts by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which designated Historic Wintersburg one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places of 2014.

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This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM is pleased to host Mary Adams Urashima, who will discuss the fascinating history of Wintersburg Village, detailed in her highly informative and readable new book, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach (available for purchase in the JANM Store). Come hear some amazing stories of early pioneer life in Orange County and learn how you can help save a vital piece of its history.

Okaeri LGBTQ Gathering Welcomes All

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The word okaeri in Japanese means “welcome home,” and the first-ever Okaeri gathering, happening at JANM this weekend, seeks to welcome and provide a safe, productive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) members of the Nikkei community, along with their non-LGBTQ friends, family, and allies.

Co-chaired by Marsha Aizumi, an author and activist whose son is transgender, and riKu Matsuda of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Okaeri was developed by a diverse coalition of individuals with strong ties to the local Japanese American community.

The initial impetus for the event came from Aizumi, whose son Aiden was born biologically female and came out as a lesbian before transitioning to his male identity. Initially believing that she had been a bad parent, Aizumi dug deeper and realized that the issue was one of choice. While her son did not have a choice about his identity, she did have a choice in terms of her own response; she could reject her son, or she could embrace and support him.

Choosing the latter led to a richly rewarding journey of discovery that produced the well-received book, Two Spirits, One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance, co-written with Aiden and discussed in an event at JANM last year.

It is this spirit of love and acceptance that drives Okaeri, which seeks to bring visibility to Nikkei LBGTQ people and issues and break the cloak of silence that often surrounds them—a goal that gibes well with JANM’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity. Aizumi, Matsuda, and the other organizers envisioned this as a small event that would serve as a kickoff for more coalition-building in the future. But excitement has been spreading, and Okaeri is drawing more attendees than expected.

“We thought we’d be happy if 75 or 100 people came,” Aizumi said. “But now it’s looking more like 150 or 200 people, and they’re coming not just from L.A., but from San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C.”

Okaeri will kick off on Friday night with a reception and special screening of To Be Takei, the biographical documentary on actor and gay rights activist George Takei. On Saturday, attendees can join workshops, themed discussions, and performances as well as relax and network in a designated social lounge. For more information and to register, visit okaeri-la.org.