Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future

Asian American Comic-Con presented a Summit on Art, Action, and the Future at JANM on July 15. Below, JANM summer intern in public programs and media arts Leighton Kotaro Okada contributes a photo recap of the event.

A roundtable discusses the advancement of APIA women in the film industry.
All photos by Leighton Kotaro Okada.

The first Asian American Comic-Con, held in 2009 in New York City, marked the birth of new discussions in Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities. Eight years later, the Comic-Con has returned to address new developments in APIA media production and representation.

JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs with George Takei, Keith Chow, and Jeff Yang.

On Saturday, July 15, 2017, dozens of artists, comic fans, bloggers, movie lovers, writers, actors, “Trekkies,” and activists gathered at JANM under the common theme of APIA pop culture. Panels and roundtable discussions touched on various hot topics, including diversity, Asian American women in the film industry, and more. Panelists came from all over the country and represented a range of diverse opinions and experiences, each bringing a unique point of view and novel ideas on the future of APIAs in media.

Phil Yu, Keith Chow, George Takei, and Jeff Yang gather for a selfie at the event’s conclusion.

A roundtable titled “Woman Warriors: Reimagining Asian Female Heroes” gathered actresses, writers, and producers to discuss the advancement of APIA women in the film industry. Topics such as dragon lady and martial arts stereotypes, fighting for rich and novel roles, and the difficulties of working as both an APIA and a woman in the industry came up while answering questions such as “What should we expect in a rich, textured, powerful, and provocative APIA heroine?” and “What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why has it taken so damned long?”

George Takei receives the Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism.

A highlight of the event was legendary actor and activist George Takei receiving the first-ever Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism. Takei was especially happy to receive the award in the same building where he was married. He then joined author, culture critic, and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei curator Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu for a special live recording of a They Call Us Bruce podcast. The three talked about Star Trek, politics, and married life, ending with a discussion of “the good, the bad, and the OH MYYY of being George Takei.” Takei’s infectiously hearty laugh and constant joking kept the crowd roaring with laughter.

George Takei, Jeff Yang, and Phil Yu tape an episode of the podcast They Call Us Bruce.

Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future was organized, emceed, and moderated by Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow and Jeff Yang in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum.

Leighton Kotaro Okada majors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Songwriting at USC.

An Interview with Nisei Activist Sam Mihara

Sam Mihara. Photo courtesy of Wyoming Public Radio.
Sam Mihara. Photo courtesy of Wyoming Public Radio.

On Saturday, September 24, at 2 p.m., JANM will present Memories of Five Nisei, a very special Tateuchi Public Program in which five second-generation Japanese Americans, who are all in their 80s and 90s, will share significant memories of their lives, with a focus on the World War II camp experience. For anyone interested in the subject of the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII, this is an event that should not be missed.

The organizer and lead presenter for this program is Sam Mihara, a former executive at Boeing Company and a nationally recognized speaker on the topic of the WWII imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Mihara was nine years old when his family was incarcerated, first at an assembly center in Pomona and then at Heart Mountain camp. There, the family lived in one 20-square-foot room in a barrack without facilities for the war’s duration. Mihara’s most recent work is a study of the immigrant detention facilities in Texas, which bear unsettling similarities to the WWII American concentration camps.

Mihara graciously agreed to the following interview, offering insight into the upcoming event and his recent research.

JANM: What gave you the idea to organize these speakers?

Sam Mihara: It began during my tour of the country speaking to many people about my experience. The feedback from students, especially Yonsei (fourth generation) and Gosei (fifth generation), indicated they liked hearing firsthand from someone who went through the imprisonment process. Their grandparents and great-grandparents did not talk much about the camp experience. I thought, if hearing from one former prisoner was good, more should be better. So last year at my annual speech to UCLA Asian American Studies students, I brought two more Nisei, Dr. Takashi Hoshizaki and Toshi Ito, and I called the talk Memories of Three Nisei. It was a hit—according to the feedback, everyone enjoyed the presentation and many said they will never forget it. A few said it was the best lecture they ever heard at UCLA.

With that behind me, I met with Koji Sakai, JANM’s Vice President of Programs, and told him of my idea to have five Nisei present testimonials. And I described the unique memories of each of the five speakers I had in mind. Koji agreed and that is how we came to JANM.

Takashi Hoshizaki, Toshi Ito, Willie Ito, and Shig Yabu. These four Nisei will be joining Sam Mihara on stage at JANM on September 24. Photos by Sam Mihara.
Takashi Hoshizaki, Toshi Ito, Willie Ito, and Shig Yabu. These four Nisei will be joining Sam Mihara on stage at JANM on September 24. Photos by Sam Mihara.

 

JANM: How do you think the Nisei WWII experience is perceived by young people today?

SM: The young people in my audiences are very well educated, especially on the topic of civil rights. In 1942, the Issei and older Nisei simply went along with the government’s decision to remove us from homes and place us into desolate prison camps. If it were to happen again today, I am confident there would be many more resisters than there were in 1942—a lot more activists taking stands, as Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui did.

Most importantly, young people of all races and beliefs should learn from the lessons of our WWII experience and never allow it to happen again to anyone. Everyone should be aware of the Mitsuye Endo case, brought by a woman who was fired from her clerical job with the California Department of Employment before being imprisoned at Tule Lake. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in her favor in December 1944, and resulted in the closing of the prison camps and the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast. Mass imprisonment will probably never happen again to Japanese Americans. But other immigrants, including people of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Latino backgrounds, should be fully aware of the lessons learned from our experience.

JANM: It sounds like your experiences at Heart Mountain have given you a lifelong interest in the phenomenon of mass imprisonment. Can you tell us more about your path of study? What have you learned, and how has it helped you to process your own experience?

SM: I really believe that mass imprisonment cannot be justified on any basis. “Mass imprisonment” means that the prisoners were selected on the basis of race or religious or other beliefs, and that many of those imprisoned did not receive due process. I really believe that everyone has a purpose in life, which is to make life better for others. So when I heard some politicians promoting the idea that our WWII imprisonment was a favorable precedent in order to justify the imprisonment of undocumented immigrant mothers and children, I knew it was a gross mistake, and I had to do something about it. Those politicians need to be better educated, along with everyone else.

JANM: Please tell us more about your most recent project, studying the new detention facilities in Texas for undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

SM: I studied the new prisons in Texas, visited them, and talked to immigration attorneys. The conditions these immigrants have to endure are inhumane; they hold thousands of families in more dense quarters and with tighter security than we had at the WWII camps. Can you visualize perimeter walls ten feet tall with surveillance cameras at the top? Or forcing 16 mothers and their children to live in a single cell? I feel these modern facilities should be closed. I include these findings in my speeches where appropriate to help educate others.

For additional details about our upcoming Memories of Five Nisei event, read our press release. The event is free, but RSVPs are highly recommended.

You can read about Sam Mihara’s memories of Heart Mountain on JANM’s Discover Nikkei website, here and here. And just today, Discover Nikkei published Takashi Hoshizaki’s story.

A JANM Intern’s Meditation on Changing Little Tokyo

JANM’s three 2016 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Interns worked hard at the museum this past summer, taking on a variety of responsibilities and gaining invaluable experience in exhibitions, design production, and media arts. They also made time in their packed schedules to contribute to this blog—Alyssa Melville, exhibitions intern, wrote an introduction to the traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony, while Michael Chang, design production intern, interviewed the Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead.

Minjae Kang, media arts intern, was intrigued by the major construction work currently taking place in Little Tokyo, as the neighborhood gets ready to welcome a new Metro Regional Connector station, projected to open in 2020. He decided to create a short, impressionistic film that chronicles the work. The exercise was also an opportunity for him to practice some new skills. Following is his statement:

During my first week as an intern, I made this video of the ongoing construction of the Metro Regional Connector Project in Little Tokyo. The laborious but enjoyable process definitely helped me to sharpen my technical skills.

First, I had to request permission from the workers to enter restricted areas, which was granted. Then I shot my footage with a Canon 5D Mark III. I did the editing with Final Cut Pro X, and the grading with DaVinci Resolve. I always edited with Premiere in the past, but I learned more tools and techniques in Final Cut. I also learned about several free music sites, such as SoundCloud, Free Music Archive, and ccMixter.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this project. I was able to really explore Little Tokyo and discover various places to eat and hang out. I look forward to the new station providing convenient transportation options for everyone, so that I can bring my family and friends to Little Tokyo.

 

Minjae Kang majors in film and video at California Institute of the Arts.

Samoa’s ‘Ava Ceremony Keeps Tradition Alive

A traditional 'ava ceremony performed in Samoa. Photo by John Agcaoili.
A traditional ‘ava ceremony performed in Samoa.
Photo by John Agcaoili.

 

JANM’s newest exhibition, Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, opens to the public on Saturday, July 30. Tatau explores Samoan tattoo practice through photographs that showcase the work of traditional tatau masters alongside more contemporary manifestations of the art form, highlighting the beauty of the Samoan tattoo tradition as well as its key role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture.

Our opening day celebration will begin at noon with a traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony. To help us understand the nature of this ceremony, our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in exhibitions, Alyssa Melville, researched and wrote the following essay.

The ‘ava ceremony is an ancient Samoan ritual that is performed at the beginning of all important services and gatherings. Typically led by the high chief of the hosting village, the ceremony begins with words of welcome as the participants sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle or semicircle. The proceedings include the preparation and consumption of an ‘ava drink, which is usually followed by a feast.

Photo by John Agcaoili.
Photo by John Agcaoili.

 

The drink is made by mixing the ‘ava plant, also known as Piper methysticum, with water. This is done in a tānoa (bowl that stands on multiple legs) using a fau (strainer made from the bark of the fau, or Hibiscus tiliaceus, tree) as the stirring tool. The fau strains excess ‘ava from the water; it is then tossed over the right shoulder to a soga‘imiti (a male with a tatau), who shakes out any remaining ‘ava pieces before tossing it back. This continues until no more plant pieces remain in the tānoa. The drink is then served in an ipu tau ‘ava (half of a polished coconut shell) in an order that reflects the social rank of the guests being served.

Photo by John Agcaoili.
Photo by John Agcaoili.

 

The power of this ritual comes from its great care and attention to detail. Every move made is very deliberate, from the direction in which the ‘ava is stirred to the shoulder the fau is tossed over. Both the seating and the order of consumption of the ‘ava are dictated by the hosting high chief and are representative of the social hierarchy of Samoan society.

Just as the practice of tatau has migrated and evolved over the years, so has the ‘ava ceremony. Since Samoans rely on oral traditions to preserve their history and culture, small details of the ceremony have changed over time simply due to the retelling of the stories by different generations. As Samoan emigrants have settled around the world, the various diasporic communities have developed their own ceremonies based on different stories and retellings. Some have added a prayer at the end; others have altered the dress code to better suit contemporary society.

The central purpose of the ‘ava ceremony, however, remains the same: promoting unity and respect among groups.

Alyssa Melville majors in sociology/anthropology and business management at University of Redlands.

Dumbfoundead is a Rapper Straight Outta Koreatown

Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park
Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park

 

Dumbfoundead, whose given name is Jonathan Park, is a Korean American rapper. Born in Buenos Aires, “DFD” was raised in LA’s Koreatown. At the age of 10, he got his first exposure to hip hop at a community center in MacArthur Park. He further honed his craft at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop in Leimert Park. He began to achieve renown after participating in the West Coast division of the rap battle Grind Time Now. Today he has a strong presence on YouTube, where he has over 400,000 followers, and has released three solo albums to date.

Dumbfoundead will be headlining JANM’s outdoor Summer Night Concert on Thursday, August 18, along with other hip hop and electronic music stars. Our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in production, Michael Chang, conducted the following interview with the rapper via email.

Michael Chang: What drew you to music, specifically hip hop and rap, as a way to express yourself creatively?

Dumbfoundead: There was always an “I don’t give a ____” attitude that came with rap music. I feel like I can say whatever I want when I rhyme it over a beat. There’s a lot of power in music. Hip hop as a genre specifically has always been rebellious and DIY, and I like that aspect of it—it makes something out of nothing.

MC: As a creative person, what do you think makes Los Angeles a unique place to work?

DFD: We have so many little neighborhoods, and each one makes you feel like you’re stepping into another country. Being in this city really is the definition of the American experience; I feel like I learn more every day about different cultures and how unique everybody is, which helps me write universal stories and songs.

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MC: Do you think LA is more conducive to a thriving scene for artists of color?

DFD: I love that LA is as diverse as it is. The community of AAPI entertainers here is bigger than anywhere else in the world and I definitely do not take that for granted. I think it’s important that we tell the stories of our people with all the outlets we have here. I know when I tour the Midwest I get a lot of AAPI artists coming up to me and talking about the lack of creative outlets in their town.

MC: The music video for your song “Safe” critiques how Hollywood erases and ignores AAPI identities in mainstream media. Do you think executives, directors, and other people in power inside the entertainment/media industry do this with intent or more subconsciously?

DFD: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s almost a new idea to throw us into leading roles and in some cases they can’t even imagine us playing those characters. In other cases, they aren’t willing to take the chance because they think white actors are a safer bet for box office success. We need more people of color behind the scenes—writers, producers, directors, and executives—pushing our stories forward. We can’t just wait for those roles to come along, or expect them to be written by people who don’t know anything about our experiences. We have to write our own stories.

MC: Looking into the future, are there any other media or disciplines you’d like to explore?

DFD: I would love to write, direct, and act in films. TV and films have always been big passions of mine and there are so many stories that still need to be told. For right now though, I’ll settle for writing treatments for my music videos [laughs].

JANM’s Summer Night Concerts series kicks off this year with “Viva La Taiko” on July 21 and continues with “Electronic and Hip Hop Night” on August 18. Concerts are held on the plaza; admission is free and no RSVP is needed. For more information, visit janm.org.

Michael Chang majors in Graphic Design and Painting at the University of Southern California.

Shin-Issei Volunteer Kyoko Ogawa Contributes Invaluable Japanese Translation Skills

Kyoko Ogawa volunteering at the front desk of the Hirasaki National Resource Center.
Kyoko Ogawa volunteering at the front desk of the Hirasaki National Resource Center.

 

The collections office is where you will find Kyoko Ogawa, one of the museum’s newest volunteers, every Tuesday. Originally from Nagano prefecture in Japan, Kyoko moved to the United States with her husband over thirty years ago.

As a shin-Issei (Japanese national who immigrated to the United States after World War II), Kyoko provides the invaluable service of translation from Japanese to English. In fact, she is currently the only collections volunteer who translates letters, diaries, and other archival materials largely written by our community’s Issei (prewar, first-generation immigrant) pioneers.

A letter in the JANM collection that Kyoko has been working on translating.
A letter in the JANM collection that Kyoko has been working on translating.

 

“Kyoko is really invaluable in the sense that she is providing a service that has been lacking in the collections department,” says Maggie Wetherbee, JANM’s Collections Manager. “We were so excited when we found out she wanted to volunteer. Most people do not want to do it because it is so tedious.”

Though decades removed from the early Japanese American migrants, Kyoko, with her strong native language skills, provides us with a link to the Issei experience. Her first volunteer project involved translating Buddhist sermons that were read in the American concentration camps during World War II.

Kyoko also volunteers in the Hirasaki National Resource Center, where she helps visitors research their family’s records from the Issei generation to the present. From time to time, she lends a hand as an origami volunteer as well.

A glimpse of JANM's archives.
A glimpse of JANM’s archives.
“Everyone is just so nice, and their dedication is incredible!” Kyoko says about all the museum volunteers. She is particularly thankful to her volunteer mentors, Marge Wada and Irene Nakagawa, who have helped her transition into JANM’s lively and close-knit volunteer community.

One key take-away from her time at JANM has been the importance of sharing diverse lived experiences—a concept she did not grow up with in a largely homogeneous Japan. With every passing week, she cheerfully asserts, “I am learning something new!”

Please note Kyoko Ogawa is not available for general translation requests. Her volunteer services are currently limited to the needs of JANM’s Collections and Management Access Unit.

This post was researched and written by Sakura Kato, JANM’s summer 2015 curatorial and collections intern. Kato, who just graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in history and pre-law, conducted the interview with Ogawa in Japanese.

The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos

Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010. Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010.
Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
When Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryukyu monarchy, Uchinanchu (Okinawan) women wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands. These tattoos functioned as symbols of the transition from adolescence to womanhood and also as indicators of social status.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minyo Station’s Uniquely Japanese American Music

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station

 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiisaa: Okinawa’s Lion/Dog Guardian

An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.
An Okinawan shiisaa statue. Photo by troy_williams via Flickr.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Obon: Dances for the Dead

Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.
Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.

Obon is a Japanese holiday to honor deceased ancestors, much like the European Halloween or the Latin American Día de los Muertos. Rooted in Buddhist traditions, Obon ensures that we express gratitude for the hard work of the generations before us.

The Ullambana Sutra, a Buddhist text, tells the story of a monk named Mokuren who was initially unable to help his suffering mother’s spirit pass on. In response, the Buddha created a ritual and offering for the living to assist their ancestors’ souls and bless relatives who are still living. These practices became the basis for the modern-day Obon festival.

Obon festivals are held in July and August, in Japan and Japanese immigrant communities throughout the world. The original sutra appointed the fifteenth day of the seventh month as the holiday, but there are variations in date because of differences between the Gregorian and lunar calendars. The festivals feature food, music, and most importantly, dancing!

Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012. Photo by --Mark-- via Flickr Creative Commons.
Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012.
Photo by –Mark– via Flickr.

 

When Mokuren’s mother’s soul found peace, it is said that he reacted by dancing. Obon dancing, or bon odori, is an important part of Obon festivals throughout Japan, with certain regions even having their own unique dances. Dances have been also developed abroad by Japanese emigrants living in countries such as America or Brazil. Live music, including taiko drumming, typically accompanies the dancing.

In Japan, some families return to their parents’ homes to celebrate Obon. These celebrations often include cleaning up family gravesites and offering food to ancestors. Another custom involves floating lanterns down a river in hopes that the lights will help guide souls that remain on this earthly plane.

Even though Obon is based on Buddhist beliefs, no one is excluded from celebrating. Obon festivals are important community events, and celebrating the departed doesn’t require any special religious belief. The Obon dances and food here in America may be different from those in Japan, but all the festivals maintain the same reverence for family and community.

Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.
Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.

 

JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival on August 9, 2014 will feature a lecture on Obon traditions by Rimban Bill Briones of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and a participatory bon odori dance. Come learn more about Obon and celebrate your ancestors!

This post was written by Mitchell Lee, one of JANM’s 2014 summer program interns. Mitchell is a student at UCLA, where he is majoring in Japanese and Asian American Studies.