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.

Nick Ut: A Photographer for All Seasons

Photographer Nick Ut covering the war in Cambodia in 1971. All photos courtesy of Nick Ut.

Leslie Unger, JANM’s Director of Marketing, reminisces about her professional encounters with the legendary photographer Nick Ut, who will be speaking at JANM on June 8.

Before coming to work at JANM, I worked for over 19 years at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (best known for presenting the Oscars), handling a variety of communications and media relations responsibilities. During my time there, I met Nick Ut of the Associated Press—one of the many, many photographers who lined the red carpet on Oscar night.

Shortly after meeting him, I learned that Nick had taken one of the most famous, iconic images in the history of photography, that of a young Vietnamese girl running toward the camera, her clothing burned from her body by napalm. I was astounded—and proud!—that I now knew this acclaimed photographer, and somewhat puzzled that the person who had captured an image that literally helped change the world was now taking pictures in the entertainment world.

I guess when you win a Pulitzer Prize at age 22 for a wartime image that is seared into the minds of millions, snapping some celebrity shots might be a welcome change. Not that Nick didn’t take this work seriously, but let’s face it: while red carpets may be full of battling egos, there are no napalm bombs getting dropped.

Nick Ut with Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl pictured in his iconic 1972 photograph, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, in 2009. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Each year after, when Nick would come by the press office during the days leading up to the Academy Awards, I would make sure I stopped what I was doing in order to say hello to him and, more importantly, make sure that new people working in the office knew who he was—that he had taken a photo that was truly historic. I wanted to make sure everyone knew about Nick and about that photo. He was always gracious during these introductions. I never knew him to be boastful of his accomplishments, but I felt he was rightfully proud and not embarrassed to be called out for them.

After I left the Academy, I went to work for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. It didn’t occur to me that my path would cross with Nick’s there, but sure enough, it did. On the morning of a press conference to announce the year’s Royal Court, there was Nick. After smiles and hugs—typical of his warmth and friendly demeanor—I once again made sure that my co-workers knew exactly who Nick was.

Nick Ut poses in front of a Vietnam War helicopter in Nebraska earlier this year. Photo by Mark Harris.
By 2015, I was working at JANM and hadn’t seen Nick for a couple of years. One day, I met Stefanie Davis from the Museum of Ventura County, who was visiting JANM. In the course of casual conversation, she mentioned that her museum was going to be presenting an exhibition and public programs tied to the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Hearing this, I immediately thought of Nick and I asked Stefanie if she knew of him. She didn’t, but expressed interest in getting in touch to see if he might participate in a museum event.

I emailed Nick about what was happening in Ventura and was thrilled to receive a phone call from him that same day. We spoke for several minutes and he gave me the OK to share his contact info with the Ventura museum person. I did, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know what, if anything, came of the connection.

That was a little more than two years ago. Nick has since retired from the AP—in fact, he did so just recently. But he’s going to be at JANM on June 8 for a discussion about his life and career and you better believe I’m going to be there, too. I won’t have to tell anyone who Nick is—he’ll be telling them himself.

Nick Ut and Leslie Unger reunite at Ut’s talk at JANM on June 8.

JANM Appreciates Its Volunteers

Past and current winners of the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award and others gather for a group photo. L to R, standing: Richard Murakami, Teri Tanimura (daughter of the award’s namesake), Bill Shishima, JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs, Irene Nakagawa, Nahan Gluck, Lee Hayashi, Babe Karasawa, Ken Hamamura, Carole Yamakoshi, Janet Maloney, Helen Yasuda, Roy Sakamoto, Hal Keimi, and Mike Okamura. L to R, seated: Bob Moriguchi, Marge Wada, Masako Koga Murakami, Bob Uragami, Ike Hatchimonji, and Julia Murakami. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers are at the heart of the Japanese American National Museum, an institution that was founded through a tireless grassroots volunteer campaign. Today, volunteers continue to play a crucial role in the museum’s operations: leading docent tours and representing the museum to our visitors, staffing the Hirasaki National Resource Center, helping to count and restock inventory for the JANM Store, helping to organize the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, and leading activities for the School Visits program, among numerous other tasks. Some of our volunteers are camp survivors or descendants of camp survivors, providing a critical link to the past.

To recognize the outstanding commitment of our volunteer corps, JANM annually gives out awards to those volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty in helping the museum fulfill its mission. On May 13, 2017, awards for outstanding service in 2016 were announced during our special Volunteer Recognition Event.

JANM Vice President of Operations/Art Director Clement Hanami presents the 2016 Administration Award to photographer Ben Furuta. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

Ben Furuta, who photographs many of our public programs, won the Administration Award, which recognizes outstanding service and achievement in an administrative/operational capacity. Sharlene Takahashi, one of our docents, received the Community Award, which is given for outstanding service and achievement in working with visitors, with the public, and in the community on behalf of the museum. The Program Award was given to Patricia Ishida and Linda Fujioka to recognize their outstanding service and achievement in educating visitors through public and school programs. And finally, the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, named after a passionate volunteer who passed away tragically in 1992, was given to Ken Hamamura, who assists JANM in many different areas, including photo archiving and preparations for the last two National Conferences.

Sharlene Takahashi holds up her 2016 Community Award. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM Director of Education Allyson Nakamoto presents the 2016 Program Award to Patricia Ishida. (Linda Fujioka was also a winner of this award, but could not be present for the event.) Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ken Hamamura, center, holds up his 2016 Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, surrounded by members of his family. On the far left is Teri Tanimura, daughter of Miki, and on the right is JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers also receive pins to recognize the number of years of service they have given to JANM. This year, pins were given out as follows: One Year—Noreene Arase, Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Keiko Miya, Michael Okuda, Sandra Saeki, William Teragawa, and Tomi Yoshikawa; Five Years—Peter Fuster and Kyle Honma; Ten Years—Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita; Fifteen Years—Eiko Masuyama, Fred Murakami, Julia Murakami, Larry Oshima, and Mitsuyo Tanaka; Twenty Years—Marge Wada; Twenty-Five Years—Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda.

L to R, standing: JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; One-Year Service Pin recipients Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Michael Okuda, and Tomi Yoshikawa; JANM Board of Governors member Nikki Kodama. L to R, kneeling: One-Year Service Pin recipients Noreene Arase, Keiko Miya, and William Teragawa. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with Ten-Year Service Pin recipients Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita. Ken Hamamura joins them on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with 15-Year Service Pin recipients Julia Murakami and Larry Oshima. 2016 Tanimura Award winner Ken Hamamura is on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, 20-Year Service Pin recipient Marge Wada, and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Hanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; 25-Year Service Pin recipients Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda; and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Kanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.

As always, the staff at JANM thanks our volunteers from the bottoms of our hearts. Without their efforts, the museum would not be able to organize nearly as many programs or serve nearly as many visitors in its ongoing quest to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

For information about volunteering with JANM, please visit janm.org/volunteer or contact volunteer@janm.org or 213.830.5645.

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.

George Takei: Mementos from a Remarkable Life

Replicas of Captain Hikaru Sulu’s chair and table from the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. George really loved being a captain in that movie; these items were actually fabricated for the exhibition and are not part of The George & Brad Takei Collection.

New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.

The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.

This abstract sculpture was carved from a Cypress tree knee by George Takei’s father, Takekuma Norman Takei, while the family was incarcerated at Rohwer, located in the swamps of Arkansas. It is one of George’s most beloved objects.

George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.

George’s student ID card from his days at UCLA sits in front of a BDYBA Oratorical Award he won there in 1956.

These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.

If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.

A wedding photo of George and Brad is framed next to Brad’s handwritten vows. In the gallery, this artifact is complimented by several inventive wedding cards sent to them by fans.
This rare Simpsons souvenir jacket, only given out to actors who have recurring roles on the TV series, almost made it into New Frontiers but had to be cut due to lack of space. JANM members were able to get an up-close look at this and other objects, and hear personal stories about George and Brad, at our exclusive Members Only Learning at Lunch event on April 21, 2017.

Kizuna Inspires and Trains the Next Generation of Japanese Americans

All photos courtesy of Kizuna.

Founded in 2011, Kizuna is a nonprofit organization based in Little Tokyo whose mission is “to build a future for our community through the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation.” Through a variety of workshops, projects, and initiatives, Kizuna teaches leadership and community service skills as well as Japanese American values and cultural practices to Nikkei youth of all ages.

At the 2017 Oshogatsu Family Festival, JANM hosted Kizuna’s story time reading and signing of their recently published children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi (available for purchase at the JANM Store). We will also be partnering with them to present our next JANM Free Family Day on Saturday, April 8. The event will celebrate Japanese American history and Kizuna staff will be on hand to lead craft activities, a spam musubi workshop, and story time readings.

This week, we sat down with Kizuna director Craig Ishii via email to find out more about the organization and what it does.

Kizuna celebrates the opening of their office.

JANM: You’ve been going strong now for six years. Please tell us the story of how and why Kizuna was founded.

Craig Ishii: Several of us had been working at different community-based nonprofits for some time—Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese American Citizens League, etc. During our tenures with those organizations, it became clear that the community was looking for involvement from the next generation, but there was a general lack of knowledge and practice on how to do this. So in 2011, we brought our heads together and created the organization. We were not experts in this arena, but we had the drive. We went through several names before we found the name “Kizuna.”

When we were first getting off the ground, we had no office and no resources, but we had our networks, a clear vision, and nonprofit building skills. In addition to our years of working in nonprofits, several of us also held master’s degrees in nonprofit management; I really believe that the technical knowledge we acquired in those programs had a huge impact on the success and growth of Kizuna. In our first year, we launched our programming, held our first fundraiser, and seeded the funds to hire our first staff member. Since then, we’ve been able to continuously grow our budget, staff, and programs each year.

JANM: What does the name “Kizuna” mean?

CI: Kizuna doesn’t have a direct English translation. Eiko, the very wise receptionist at JACCC, described it best when she told me that kizuna is the depth of your relationship with someone. So the bond between myself and my parents, that is our kizuna; or the bond between best friends, that’s kizuna. We chose this name for a couple of reasons: we’re hoping to create a deep relationship between our students and the community, but we’re also hoping to build a tightly knit next generation that is connected and networked.

Kizuna staffers Sophie Wang and Michelle Yamashiro help
promote their children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi.

JANM: Tell us about the book, Thank You Very Mochi. What inspired you to get into publishing, and is this the first of more children’s books to come?

CI: Our program manager, Paul Matsushima, held a workshop a couple years back where he had to manage more than 60 kids for a mochitsuki (mochi pounding) workshop. He knew that having 60 kids pound and knead mochi at once would be impossible, so he split them into various activity stations. One of those was a storytelling station that revolved around a family mochitsuki. Afterwards, one of the parents said to him, “Hey, that story is a cute idea, you should turn it into a children’s book.” So Paul, Sophie Wang (Kizuna’s development coordinator), and I co-authored Thank You Very Mochi. It’s been a great way to get our mission out to the community here in Southern California and beyond. I think this book is everyone’s favorite accomplishment to date and yes, we would like to publish more!

JANM: What are some of your other favorite accomplishments?

CI: I’m pretty sure we have the largest network of Japanese American summer camp programs in the nation now. We manage six separate locations working with around 350 elementary to middle school students per year (and that number grows each year). It’s our largest program but also our most creative. It’s my personal favorite because it allows Kizuna to build the culture of the next generation. When we have a student who attends for more than a couple of years, we can impart important understanding and behaviors that will help them be successful and give back to our community as they age.

JANM: It’s amazing that you offer a full range of programs for ages seven through young adulthood. Do your kids tend to come back to take on more advanced programs?

CI: Yes, definitely, there’s a high retention rate. For me, working with kids is the clearest and most direct representation of impermanence. On one hand, you want the kids to grow up and everything that you do is about their growth and development. But then, of course, as they do grow up, they become smarter and wiser, and they really don’t need you as much. Then at that point, they become the teachers, instructors, and mentors. It’s great to watch this, but sometimes it feels like it happens a little too quickly. I’m sure folks in my parents’ generation say the same thing about us!

Join JANM and Kizuna for JANM Free Family Day: Celebrate Japanese American History on Saturday, April 8. Thank You Very Mochi is available for purchase at kizuna-la.org, janmstore.com, and in person at the JANM Store.

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.

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.

Shibori Girl Has a Passion for Handmade Crafts

The fruits of a recent shibori class at JANM. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

As “Shibori Girl,” Glennis Dolce offers several shibori (resist cloth dyeing) workshops a year at JANM. If you’re not familiar with the art of shibori, check out our earlier blog post on the history of the craft. Dolce’s workshops are always very popular; in fact, this weekend’s Indigo Vat Making and Shibori Technique workshop is completely sold out. We decided to sit down with Dolce to learn more about her background and her practice.

JANM: You’ve said that you think of Japan as your first home. Can you explain your connection to that country?

Glennis Dolce: I grew up in Yokohama, Japan, as a result of my father—a naval architect—taking two back-to-back assignments at the Yokohama Naval Shipyard. We lived there from 1965 to 1972. We lived both on and off the base and had the opportunity to take in many wonderful locations, absorbing the enriching culture and beauty of Japan. I went to the two base schools in Yokohama (Richard E. Byrd Elementary and Nile C. Kinnick High School) as well as St. Maur International School. In 1995, I went back to Japan for the first time after moving away and realized that I had come back “home.”

Glennis Dolce leads a shibori class at JANM, flanked by samples of resist cloth dyeing.
Photo by Tokumasa Shoji.

JANM: How did you first encounter shibori? What captivated you about it?

GD: I must have seen and even worn some shibori as a child at summer festivals in Japan, where we dressed in yukata (summer kimono) with obi age (sash), but back then I did not know what it was. During the late 1990s, I was a vendor at the Houston Quilt Festival, and it was there that I started to pick up small bits of Japanese textiles. Later, I realized that most of what I had collected was shibori. I was intrigued by its unique patterning and the texture that was sometimes imparted to the cloth by the process. I wondered to myself, how was it made? And that’s how it all started. I studied the fabrics, read many books, and eventually began practicing on my own. As I learned and practiced more, my love for shibori grew with the understanding that each piece is unique and has limitless possibilities. This in itself is a view of life that I enjoy passing along when I teach.

Glennis gives advice to a workshop participant. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Describe your artistic training.

GD: I was fortunate to attend a new and experimental high school in Virginia that was very progressive and had full-on art studios in painting, sculpture, ceramics, metals, textiles, and printmaking. It was fantastic. I had access to materials and equipment, and I had a passion for working with my hands. Following that, I attended UC Davis and CSU Long Beach as a ceramics major in the late 70s. I chose ceramics because I thought I could make a living with clay and I wanted to work with my hands. I started a porcelain company while I was at CSULB and worked in porcelain for over 30 years until I closed the company around 2002. I consider my primary training to be the ongoing day-to-day operation of my business, my love for materials and process, and the challenge of making a living outside the constraints of being “normal.”

A workshop participant examines his work. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Besides teaching, you also run an online store. Can you tell us more about the store?

GD: Yes, I actually spend more time making and selling my work than teaching; I enjoy both. I have been blogging since 2006 and over time have created a following for my work. I have always enjoyed making and selling things that others can incorporate into their own work—being a craft supplier if you will. My online store often features my unique silk shibori ribbon that people all over the world buy to use in their own creative projects. I also sell indigo and plant-dyed cloth for others to incorporate into their own work.

I believe that making things by hand is valuable and even necessary for people. It can provide stress reduction, increased life satisfaction, and even improved brain function, according to some studies linking motor skills with cognitive processing. I enjoy creating things that make people wonder. As a child, I realized that making arts and crafts made me feel better. It still does. I started teaching as a way to educate people about my own work as well as encourage them to incorporate hand-making into their own lives.

Another happy customer. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Do you have other creative pursuits besides shibori?

GD: I do like to share my interest in Japan and silk textiles with others in the form of my Silk Study Tour to Japan, which I offer every other year. It is a tour devoted to seeing Japan through the eyes of a silkworm; understanding the industrialization of Japan and its connection to the silk trade as well as the many textile, craft, and cultural traditions there. I get lots of enjoyment from sharing the beauty and grace of Japan with others through this tour.

I have many creative interests—gardening, cooking, writing, marketing, sewing, watercolor painting, calligraphy, and more. I believe that we can inject creativity into almost anything we do!

The next available Shibori Girl workshop at JANM will be Shibori Mandalas, taking place Saturday–Sunday, February 4–5, 2017. Be sure to reserve your spot early!

Members Only Learning at Lunch Looks at Pioneering Animator Iwao Takamoto and His Peers

On Friday, November 18, JANM members brought a brown bag lunch and joined the museum’s collections staff for a look at the work of the late animator, TV producer, and film director Iwao Takamoto, who had a distinguished career at Disney and Hanna-Barbera, and two of his Japanese American peers who also worked in the Hollywood film industry: MGM art director Eddie Imazu and Disney animator Chris Ishii.

Below you will find a few photos highlighting the event, which was part of JANM’s Members Only Learning at Lunch series. If you are a current JANM member, watch for your December e-newsletter, which will include an exclusive link to JANM’s professionally produced video of the event. JANM members now get exclusive first-viewing privileges on selected JANM program videos; in the last two months, members have enjoyed advance access to a talk with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and a World War II panel discussion with Five Nisei. The new video will include fascinating tidbits about the lives of the three artists, including a personal reminiscence from an audience member who knew Takamoto as a child.

Not a JANM member? Click here to purchase a membership for yourself or a loved one—gift memberships at the Family/Dual level are 20% off, now through the end of the year. And be sure to provide your email address so we can notify you of new videos available for viewing!

JANM Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee holds up a limited edition Scooby-Doo print signed by Iwao Takamoto, Joe Barbera, and Bill Hanna.
While at MGM, art director Eddie Imazu worked on an early movie about the renowned all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team called Go For Broke (1951). Here, we see casual snapshots he took of the actors while they were on set.
This comic strip was done by Chris Ishii, another animator who worked at Disney, while he was incarcerated at Santa Anita assembly center. Li’l Neebo was his contribution to the Pacemaker, Santa Anita’s community newspaper. Ishii, who graduated from Chouinard School of Art (now California Institute of the Arts), was known for working on Dumbo and may have paved the way for Takamoto, who was a bit younger than he was.