The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches is a collection of biographical portraits of extraordinary figures in Japanese American history—men and women who made remarkable contributions in the arts, literature, law, sports, and other fields.
Recovering and celebrating the stories of noteworthy Issei and Nisei and their supporters, the book highlights the diverse experiences and substantial cultural, political, and intellectual contributions of Japanese Americans throughout the country and over multiple decades. Included in these pages are Ayako Ishigaki, Issei feminist and peace activist; Milton Ozaki, mystery writer; Bill Hosokawa, journalist; Wat Misaka, basketball star; Gyo Fujikawa, children’s book artist and author; and Ina Sugihara, interracial activist, to name just a few examples.
JANM’s Discover Nikkei project recently published a two-part feature on the book and its author. Written by Edward Yoshida, the feature reviews the book at length, as well as the author’s current activities. Robinson is a professor of history at Université du Québec à Montréal. The Great Unknown is a compilation of his columns for Nichi Bei Times and Nichi Bei Weekly, along with selections from other publications.
As Yoshida notes, the collection stands out for the breadth of its content; not only does the author present material from a broad span of Japanese American history, he also manages to draw out little-known nuggets of information about such major figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Alan Cranston, both of whom were allies to Japanese Americans. In addition, the book explores the substantial support offered to the Japanese American community by prominent African American writers and activists, including Paul Robeson, Erna P. Harris, Layle Lane, Loren Miller, and Hugh Macbeth. To read Yoshida’s article, click here.
This Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m., Greg Robinson will appear at JANM for a discussion about his book. The program is free with museum admission; click here to RSVP. Members are also invited to an exclusive meet-and-greet one hour prior to the discussion; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 213.830.5646 to RSVP. You may purchase the book at the JANM Store or janmstore.com.
On February 18, JANM will open Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066. Presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, Instructions to All Persons is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience.
Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos will form the substance of the exhibition. Through May 21 only, the exhibition will include two pages of the original Executive Order 9066 and the original Presidential Proclamation 2537, a key precursor to EO 9066 that required aliens from the enemy countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan to register with the US Department of Justice. Both documents are on loan from the National Archives.
Awareness of the impact of executive actions—including executive orders, presidential memoranda, and presidential proclamations—is particularly high right now. During his first two weeks in office, President Trump issued 22 executive actions, ranging from an order to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Some of these actions caused widespread consternation, with the travel ban most notably causing significant disruption in the daily lives of many Americans.
Executive actions are handed down from the executive branch of government without input from the legislative branch. While they can only be given to federal or state agencies, citizens are often affected by the results. Executive orders are the most prestigious of the three types of actions; they are assigned numbers and published in the federal register, similar to laws passed by Congress. Presidential memoranda basically outline the administration’s position on a policy issue, while presidential proclamations are often ceremonial in nature (with the Emancipation Proclamation being a notable exception, along with the aforementioned Presidential Proclamation 2537).
A look at the history of executive actions reveals that they are a way for presidents and governors to flex their power, ostensibly for the good of the nation, and sometimes in the face of great criticism. Trump’s rapid series of actions is generally seen as an effort by an “outsider” president to quickly establish power and begin following through on campaign promises. In comparison, President Obama famously resorted to more executive orders during his second term when he was unable to pass legislation through a particularly intransigent Congress.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of EO 9066, issued more than 3,700 executive actions—by far the highest number in American history. With a prolonged presidential term that spanned both the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt’s aggressive use of executive actions could be seen as an ongoing form of crisis management. For example, his very first executive order on Inauguration Day ordered the closure of all banks for four days to begin restructuring the financial system under the New Deal. Later, he issued an order to seize factories, mines and other privately owned industrial facilities for wartime production.
How justified were Roosevelt’s sweeping orders? While some are credited with establishing policies that were beneficial to the stability of the American people, others, like EO 9066, have been discredited. When do presidents overstep their boundaries? Which of Roosevelt’s orders would you support today, and which would you be inclined to question or even protest? How will Trump’s and Obama’s orders be seen 75 years from today?
Instructions to All Persons aims to provide a space for questions like these. Come see the exhibition to examine the social impact of language and consider the lessons of the past and how they continue to be relevant today.
On January 18, JANM was pleased to partner with Zócalo Public Square and UCLA to present a panel discussion addressing the question, What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry? JANM’s own Interim President and CEO, Ann Burroughs, moderated an extensive talk that featured Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA’s George and Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community; Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum; and Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA’s Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law and author of the award-winning books Immigration Outside the Law (2014) and Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States (2006).
The panel discussion, organized as part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Program series, addressed a topic that has been important to JANM’s work since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Quickly recognizing a dangerously hysterical political climate that threatened the civil rights of innocent Muslim Americans—eerily similar to the climate that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II—JANM’s leadership reached out to Muslim Americans in the months following 9/11, building strong coalitions with community representatives, sharing resources, offering counsel, and helping them to establish the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Recent public statements by President-elect Donald Trump and several of his supporters have again raised the idea of a registry tracking all Americans with ties to the Muslim religion. Disturbingly, some of them have even cited the Japanese American incarceration as a “precedent” for such an action. Statements like this reveal a gross ignorance of history; as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration, admitting that it was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and awarded monetary compensation to each incarcerated family.
Last night’s discussion confronted the question of a Muslim registry head on, examining it in light of the historical perspective afforded by the Japanese American experience. Burroughs opened the discussion by noting that the idea of a Muslim registry is commonly framed as a tactic designed to keep citizens safe; she asked the panelists if such registries do, in fact, keep people safe. The answer was a resounding no. Hirabayashi noted that numerous registries were kept of Japanese Americans, but none of them turned up evidence of espionage or other wrongdoing. Motomura pointed out that the Bush administration created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) in 2002, which turned out to be, in his estimation, an ineffectual “immigration sweep.” Noorani added that although President Obama rescinded the registry in December, it could easily be reinstated by the Trump administration.
The rest of the discussion weighed various aspects of current and past public policy, and lessons that can be extracted from history. As with all Zócalo Public Square programs, the event was recorded in its entirety and will be available for viewing on their website soon. In the meantime, as noted by Zócalo writer Reed Johnson, a key takeaway from the discussion was to be prepared for the very real possibility of a “trigger moment” occurring—like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the US’s entry into World War II—that will likely set existing security apparatuses into motion and activate questionable public policy.
Although the discussion was at times foreboding, Motomura tried to strike a positive balance by recognizing that much progress has been made in the last 75 years; ideas that were considered “exotic” back then, such as LGBTQ rights, are commonplace now.
The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”
Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.
Following are the topics for each conversation:
January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity
Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.
Over the weekend, JANM opened a new special display, Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Organized by a grassroots group called the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, the display tells the true stories of those targeted as dangerous enemy aliens and imprisoned in the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, located in the Tujunga neighborhood of Los Angeles, by the US Department of Justice during World War II. The detainees included Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants who were considered spiritual, educational, and business leaders in their communities, along with Japanese and other individuals who had previously been forcibly removed from Latin America.
As noted by Hyperallergic magazine, this display is especially relevant right now, in light of some current political rhetoric that favors creating a database of all Muslim Americans in response to terrorist threats. The public hysteria that has led to the targeting of millions of innocent Muslim Americans is eerily similar to the WWII hysteria that quickly led to the incarceration, without due process, of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—most of whom were American citizens, and all of whom were innocent of any crimes.
Thanks to the Japanese American Redress Movement, the US government formally apologized for its actions during WWII, admitting that they were “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” As part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, monetary compensation was awarded to each family that was incarcerated. Because of these official actions, Japanese Americans and others felt that the incident had been sufficiently exposed and denounced in the public arena.
Just this past week, however, a Los Angeles Times article exploring the history lessons offered by various national parks, including the Tule Lake Unit and Manzanar National Historic Site, was met with two letters published in the newspaper’s travel section insisting that the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans was entirely justified. The publication of the letters caused an uproar, particularly among the Japanese American community—this was addressed by the Times via their Readers’ Representative Journal blog. Former JANM staffer Koji Steven Sakai also appeared on KPCC’s Take Two show on December 14, explaining to listeners why the letters were so offensive to his community, and offering some historical context.
The Japanese American National Museum is committed to sharing the history of Japanese Americans in order to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. An important focus of this mission is ensuring that what happened to this group of individuals during WWII never happens again, to any other group of people.
Now more than ever, immigration is at the forefront of American dialogue and debate. Join us this Saturday, November 19, as we host the National Conversation on Immigration: Barriers and Access, organized by the National Archives as part of a series of conversations commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. A full day of talks and panel discussions will look at past and present barriers to immigration, the real-life experiences of immigrants, and more. For a complete schedule and to register, click here.
The Bill of Rights is one of three documents considered fundamental to the founding and philosophy of the United States. The first, the Declaration of Independence, states the principles on which the American government is based. The second, the Constitution, served to unite America’s states and lay out the structure of the federal government. And finally, the Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the Constitution, spelling out the rights of individual citizens in relation to their government. Included are the right to free speech, the right to assemble and protest, the right to bear arms, and the right of the accused to a speedy trial with an impartial jury.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation’s nonpartisan record keeper, preserving the important documents and materials that trace our country’s history. Established in 1934 by President Roosevelt, NARA’s holdings number in the millions and include slave ship manifests, the Emancipation Proclamation, journals of polar expeditions, photographs of Dust Bowl farmers, and treaties with Native Americans, among many other items. All are accessible to the public, and many can be viewed on NARA’s website.
The National Conversation on Immigration: Barriers and Access is presented in part by AT&T, Ford Foundation, Seedlings Foundation, Toyota, and the National Archives Foundation.
This weekend, JANM will once again host Okaeri, a volunteer-organized conference that focuses on creating visibility and acceptance for the Nikkei LGBTQ community. The inaugural conference was held here in 2014; you can read our introductory blog post here.
“The biggest thing that came out of the last conference was that it inspired other cities such as Sacramento, San Jose, and Seattle to have events for the LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander community,” says Marsha Aizumi, Okaeri’s co-chair. Marsha’s son is transgender, and she is not only an ally of the community but an activist, having gone from being the only APIA mother attending a local PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting to now being the President and Co-Founder of PFLAG-San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander.
Aizumi sees the Asian American community as having a unique cultural challenge around accepting their LGBTQ children, due of lack of communication and the shame associated with coming out. Arriving on the heels of National Coming Out Day, Okaeri provides a safe space for building community and fostering growth and understanding. Workshops and panel discussions will focus on making intergenerational connections, being an ally, dealing with issues around religion, building a movement, gaining access to mental health services, and much more.
Congressman Mike Honda, an ally to the transgender community who has been outspoken about having a transgender granddaughter, will be the keynote speaker. Also new this year is an after party and networking event on Saturday night for attendees who are 21 and over.
Although the event is almost completely at capacity, Aizumi is still encouraging people to register and attend; no one will be turned away. For more details and to register, please visit okaeri-losangeles.org.
This post was researched and written by JANM Executive Assistant Nicole Miyahara. In addition to her duties at JANM, Nicole is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker who is currently working onThe Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.
Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans were moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. In the summer of 1942, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee—best known for his series on Pie Town, New Mexico—documented four such camps in Oregon and Idaho, capturing the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail. Many of these photographs, which capture a little-recorded episode of American history, have never before been exhibited.
For an illuminating look at the origins of this exhibition, read our Discover Nikkei interview with curator Morgen Young. A consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon, Young studied the FSA photography program in graduate school. Working on Uprooted has taught her much about Japanese American history, and she believes that the farm labor camps are an important and under-recognized part of that history. In her own words: “These individuals and families volunteered for agricultural labor—they went into new environments, where they didn’t know how they would be received by the local communities. They contributed directly to the war effort and still have not received the recognition they deserve for their efforts.”
Uprooted is a multi-pronged project that includes the traveling physical exhibition, oral history interviews with subjects in the photographs who were identified by viewers, documentary videos, school curricula, and a comprehensive website. A visit to the website is a great idea both before and after your visit to the exhibition; there, you can learn more about the farm labor camps, review copies of official documents, watch excerpts of oral history videos, view photos of the camps taken by people who lived in them, download lesson plans, and more.
Help Identify People in the Photographs
When you come to see Uprooted, pay close attention to the people in the photographs. Do you recognize anyone? Efforts to identify the subjects in Russell Lee’s photographs are still ongoing; according to Young, no one in the Idaho camp images has been identified, and the organizers are hoping that LA visitors will be able to help. A photo identification binder will be made available for visitors to write down possible names and/or details about the subjects’ lives.
James Tanaka, a JANM docent, has already come forward to share his story of living in the Twin Falls camp as a child; information about Tanaka and his family is available here.
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.
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.
While the histories of political activism within the African American and Latino communities are well known, the history of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) activism remains invisible to many. JANM exists partly to correct this underrerepresentation. And a new book, for which JANM hosted a signing and panel discussion on June 18, marks a significant contribution to the existing literature on APIA political history.
Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties traces the history of the Asian American civil rights movement, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, focusing strongly on the pivotal decades of the 1960s and ’70s, and continuing to the present day. Drawing on more than 120 first-person interviews with key players and witnesses, the book aims to be the movement’s definitive history. Serve the People was written by Karen L. Ishizuka, a noted scholar and pioneer in the anthropological study of home movies. Ishizuka was also a longtime JANM staff member and co-founder of what is now the Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center; she was recently honored at JANM’s 2016 Gala Dinner.
On Saturday, Ishizuka led a panel discussion that featured longtime Asian American activists based in Los Angeles. The audience was treated to a series of brief but rousing talks from each panelist. Mike Murase, Director of Service Programs for the Little Tokyo Service Center and co-founder of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center as well as the radical APIA newspaper Gidra, evoked what it was like to be on the ground during the formation of the movement in the sixties.
Qris Yamashita, a graphic designer and artist whose unique graphic style helped to form a visual identity for the APIA movement, gave a slide presentation of her work and explained the sources of her imagery. traci kato-kiriyama, an artist, educator, community organizer, and co-founder of Tuesday Night Project, a free public program dedicated to presenting AAPI artists and community organizations, decided to read from the book as a way of paying respect to her forebears.
Warren T. Furutani, a California State Assembly member who is currently in the running for State Senator, gave perhaps the most spirited talk, as he called for continued radicalism in the face of increasing public bigotry. While he spoke, a photograph was projected overhead that showed Furutani shouting down Assemblyman Don Wagner on the Assembly floor in 2011 for the latter’s offensive remarks against Italian Americans. Please enjoy our exclusive video of Furutani’s panel talk above.