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.

JANM Store Wins Product Development Award

The JANM Store was recently the proud recipient of a 2017 Museum Store Association (MSA) Recognition Award for Product Development. The award recognized the Instructions to All Persons product line, which includes a tote bag and a t-shirt. Inspired by the Civilian Exclusion Orders posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration, these products perfectly embody the museum’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and a current MSA board member, accepted the award at the MSA Conference & Expo in April. She has also written an essay about how she came to develop these products. Below is an edited excerpt.

The Civilian Exclusion Order, with its bold headline reading “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” has become a symbol of a defining moment in Japanese American history: the World War II incarceration without due process of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. The first product we developed around this historic document was in response to requests for a souvenir magnet. Rather than using a photograph of the museum, we decided to take the Civilian Exclusion Order and reduce it down to a standard refrigerator magnet. Made by Found Image Press, it is now our most popular magnet.

The next product was inspired by the text of the document, which contains the instructions that are so often repeated by camp survivors remembering their experiences—you could take “only what you could carry.” We put the full instructions on one side of a tote bag and the iconic headline on the other. To explain the history behind these words, we created a special informational tag that resembled the ID tags that the prisoners were forced to wear on their journeys to the camps.

The tote bag was launched at a convention in Seattle, with some trepidation as to what kind of reception it would get. But we soon spotted people walking around with their totes and engaging in conversations with curious passersby. The bag was a conversation starter—a chance to talk about the story that is at the core of the Japanese American National Museum.

The t-shirt was initially developed to complement the exhibition Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066, on view at JANM through August 13. Plans for the exhibition, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the signing of the executive order that paved the way for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, were in place two years in advance. However, a funny thing happened in the meantime: the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States.

Xenophobia was on the rise and with it, a renewed passion for civil rights activism. The times were resonating with our mission and we started feeling that a more active voice needed to be raised, not just a cautionary tale. With that in mind, production was moved up on the t-shirt and new words were added to the iconic headline—a call to action “to all persons who believe in civil rights.” By the time Instructions to All Persons opened in February, the t-shirt was showing up on social media and at marches and protests around the country.

From the very beginning of my association with MSA, I have taken the lessons of product development to heart: do your best to present your museum’s mission in products that will resonate and become a catalyst for learning and transforming the world.

Fundraising Auction of Usagi Yojimbo Artwork

Stan & Sharon Sakai at the 2011 Japanese American National Museum Gala Dinner
Stan & Sharon Sakai at the 2011 Japanese American National Museum Gala Dinner

Just a heads up about this most worthy cause. The art in this auction is also being published as a book which we will sell in the Museum Store later this year.

Proceeds from the auction and book sales will help to offset the Sakai family’s ongoing medical expenses. There is some GREAT art to be had created by a stellar list of artists. The auction starts on March 6!

Click here for details >>

Stan and Sharon have been wonderful supporters and partners of JANM. We had an exhibition of his work in 2011 (Year of the Rabbit: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo), he presented a session at our 2013 National Conference in Seattle, and we sell many Usagi Yojimbo products in our Museum Store, including JANM exclusive items.

Here is a photo of Stan and Sharon in 2011 at our Gala Dinner that year—happier times!

 

Geta-pets!

geta-pets

Just had to mention these cool geta that only just arrived at the Museum Store.

Make tracks like a cat, monkey, or dinosaur with this ingenious take-off on traditional wooden geta. These are made from FSC Certified European beech and painted with non-toxic water-based paint.

Geta are usually worn slightly smaller than your foot in order to better maintain balance. We have them in two sizes so big people can help little ones as they make tracks.

But be quick! We have a limited supply in limited sizes! These are too special to last long! (Not available online due to limited sizing and availability.)

If you’re still looking for holiday gifts, the Museum Store will be open this weekend! We’ll be closed as usual on Monday, but for the real last minute gift shopping, we will be open on Christmas Eve. We’ll be closed Christmas Day.

Happy Holidays!

Shop Small Business MAD*ness! 11/30/13

Shop Small

American Express’ Shop Small Saturday is on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which happens to fall in the middle of our Member Appreciation Days (11/29, 11/30, 12/1).

This year if you are a current Museum Member AND and American Express card holder, you can potentially profit from shopping at our Museum Store on that Saturday. As with anything that sounds too good to be true, there are rules. But read this post carefully and you may come out ahead!

1.) You must REGISTER your AMEX card online at ShopSmall.com between 11/24 and 11/30. Only a limited number of registrations will be accepted, so act fast!

2.) Use your card and spend $10 or more in our physical Museum Store (online sales are not eligible) and American Express will give you a one-time $10 statement credit for that sale.

Caveats: Read the instructions carefully. You will only receive one $10 credit per AMEX card account, and ONLY if you register your card successfully. More information is available at ShopSmall.com

Member Appreciation Days

But think about it, if you are an eligible Museum Member, you will receive a 20% discount on your purchase* that day, and if your total is over $10 AND you make the purchase with your registered AMEX card, you will get a $10 from American Express to boot!! Shazam!

*20% discount applies to eligible merchandise only. Not applicable to sale items or memberships.

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November 2013 Member Appreciation Days postcard frontMember Appreciation Days
Friday – Sunday, November 29 – December 1, 2013

20% off at our award-winning Museum Store & janmstore.com + reciprocal FREE admission and 20% off store sales at 16 other SoCal institutions—including MOCA, California Science Center, Pacific Asia Museum, Craft and Folk Art Museum, and more!

For more info & a complete list of participating institutions >>

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Not a current JANM member? If you have an AMEX card, you can still register to participate in their Shop Small Saturday offer to get your $10 credit.

Or…you can join/renew now to take advantage of the extra savings!

President Clyde Kusatsu!

Akemi Clyde BW lo-res

Congratulations to Clyde on his recent election to President of the Los Angeles Local SAG/AFTRA Chapter! (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, doncha know.)

Clyde was in Farewell to Manzanar and is thereby on my radar forever! He played Akemi Kikumura Yano’s husband in the film, which is of course, available from the Museum Store!

 

 

Holiday MAD*ness coming up!

Before you get too caught up in Thanksgiving preparation, don’t forget that this weekend is Member Appreciation Days weekend.

If you are a current JANM member (and you must have your card to do this) you can visit 21 cultural institutions in Southern California and receive free admission and 20% discount in some of the most unique stores in town (and a couple in San Diego too, for those of you who are traveling!)

Member Appreciation Days participating institutions list >>

Check the list for details and exceptions (some places are not open all three days!) And have a Happy Thanksgiving!