JANM Hosts “Common Ground Conversations” Beginning This Week

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.

We hope you’ll join us!

Visiting the Heart of Community

Every week, hundreds of visitors view JANM’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. While the story resonates strongly with Japanese American visitors, who can see their own family histories in it, the importance of community is something that can be felt and understood by visitors from all different backgrounds. The exhibition begins with an introductory panel, which sets the stage for a story of immigrants:

Community is not just where you live.
Community is also about who you are.

Immigration is central not only to the Japanese American experience, but that of all Americans:

We are on common ground with all Americans,
with all people.

Mine Okubo, Dining with friends in Berkeley, California, ca.1939–1941, 1942–44. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Mine Okubo Estate.

The exhibition traces Japanese American history through the struggles of immigrant mothers and fathers, the trauma of World War II and the concentration camps, and the ongoing quest to find a place in this country. Through it all, the importance and fluidity of the concept of community is explored; it is both an ideal to aspire to, and a source of comfort during trying times. Common Ground closes with a look to the future:

Community persists—
in the stories we tell each other,
in the stories we tell others.

As we reinvent America,
from monolithic to multicultural,
to include all of us
in all our magnificent diversity,
we forever re-vision the American experience.

Visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures are invited to explore their own history and appreciate the differences among us while also remembering our similarities. By doing so, we reflect on and create what it really means to be American.

Just announced! JANM presents Common Ground Conversations, a four-week series of themed public conversations inspired by Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Read our press release for complete information.

JANM Free Family Day: Incredible Inks

Come to JANM this Saturday for a taste of Samoa! To celebrate our exhibition, Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, the latest JANM Free Family Day will feature a variety of crafts and cultural activities that celebrate Polynesian culture and the art of tattoos. Included will be performances and workshops spotlighting the traditional dances of Samoa. Guests will have a chance to learn the basic steps of fa’ataupati (slap dance), siva (traditional dance), and the fire knife dance with trained performers. (Note: actual fire and knives will NOT be used.)

To give you a sense of what these dances are like, we’ve assembled a collection of YouTube videos below. Enjoy and see you Saturday!

Kollaboration Seeks to Empower Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Media

Image courtesy of Kollaboration

On Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12, JANM will be hosting the second annual Kollaboration EMPOWER Conference. Launched in 2015 by Kollaboration, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in creative industries, the EMPOWER conference offers a weekend of panel discussions, mentoring sessions, interactive workshops, and networking opportunities aimed at bringing together aspiring young artists and more established professionals. The conference’s goal is to bridge communities, generations, industries, and innovative minds.

To learn more about the conference and its origins, we interviewed Christine Minji Chang, Executive Director of Kollaboration.

JANM: Why the name “Kollaboration”?

Christine Minji Chang: Kollaboration has its roots in the Korean American community—it was founded by standup comedian Paul “PK” Kim in 2000 as a platform for aspiring Korean American artists to share their talents. (Fun fact—Ben Chung of the Kinjaz, formerly the Jabbawockeez, performance group was the one who coined our name.)

Over time, we expanded the organization and the movement to represent the pan-Asian American Pacific Islander community, but the name stuck. It still speaks on a larger level to what we stand for: empowering the AAPI community and improving diversity in media by working together—whether that’s across ethnicity, geographical region, cultural background, or artistic genre.

JANM: How did the EMPOWER Conference come about?

CMC: This conference was a long time coming and a very collective manifestation of ideas that grew over time through conversations between Kollaboration volunteers and artists. I personally started volunteering with Kollaboration San Francisco in 2009, and I remember dreaming out loud with my colleagues about creating an event where we could get advice from entertainment professionals—both for the artists that we supported in our shows and for ourselves as creative leaders who might not want to perform on a stage.

I had long dreamed of pursuing acting, but the whole idea had always been so daunting and obscure. How do I start? What do I prioritize? How do I talk to my family and friends about it? The media industry has always been an unknown universe for most AAPIs—it’s not explored or encouraged as much as medicine, law, or engineering.

So through multiple conversations, brainstorming sessions, and networking, our amazing Kollaboration Los Angeles team took the plunge in 2015 to pilot our first EMPOWER Conference. We got 40 entertainment professionals to volunteer to share their wisdom and insight with a small but passionate audience. I was completely blown away and humbled to see this idea come to life right before my eyes. It was an amazing team effort, and I’m very proud of what we’ve started for the AAPI community.

JANM: Describe the people that you feel should come to this conference.

CMC: I think this conference is accessible for almost all AAPIs who are just starting out and/or curious about working in the entertainment industry. They can get ground-zero insights into various aspects of different industries, and how to best pursue different paths. The conversations will range from how to utilize various programs and resources, to how to navigate emotional and mental journeys in a tough industry that’s just starting to prioritize diverse stories.

EMPOWER is also a place where seasoned professionals can come to network and get up to date on trends and technology in the entertainment and media industries, which are constantly evolving. We want this conference to be a gathering place for ambitious and creative minds to meet, build relationships, and expand their skill sets. We also want folks to be open to learning new things, not just from industry panels but from hands-on workshops that will make them jump out of their comfort zones and build confidence in public speaking, improv comedy, auditioning, and more.

JANM: Can you give us a few highlights or favorite moments from last year’s inaugural conference?

CMC: One highlight was having Bing Chen as our keynote speaker. He is extremely smart and charismatic and has been a force of nature not only for the AAPI creative community, but for the millennial generation as a whole. He founded the YouTube Partner Program, which revolutionized artistic expression and visibility for AAPI artists. Without that, who knows how long AAPIs would have continued to create art in obscurity or struggled to find outlets for their voices. Bing got up on stage and spoke candidly and passionately, holding nothing back; it was a great moment of inspiration for everyone present.

A favorite moment of mine came from Tamlyn Tomita during our keynote panel. Tamlyn has been navigating Hollywood for decades, and is a hero of mine for being such a talented actress who’s made a name for herself in an industry and society that has been neither kind nor concerned about her representation. She was very vulnerable and fiery, encouraging everyone in the audience to face their personal fears of rejection and challenge definitions of success. She spoke so strongly that she was brought to tears, and so was I. The emotion was palpable in the room, and we felt empowered by her belief in us.

There were so many great moments! Another occurred during our writing panel, which I wasn’t present for the entire time. Mike Golamco, then a writer for NBC, shared with me how a young woman confided in him that after hearing him speak that day, she finally dared to call herself a writer. I could see how much that meant to Mike, and it was very clear to both of us that there was a lot more that we could do with this event. I’m so excited for this second conference and to be honest, I’m already planning our third!

The second annual Kollaboration EMPOWER Conference will take place at JANM Friday–Saturday, November 11–12. For more information and to register, visit empower.kollaboration.org. For more information about the organization, visit kollaboration.org.

A Chilling Night at JANM

Producer Jeff MacIntyre, ABC7 News anchor David Ono, and host Rodney Kageyama share spooky tales of the supernatural.
Producer Jeff MacIntyre, ABC7 News anchor David Ono, and host
Rodney Kageyama share spooky tales of the supernatural.

 

Telling spooky stories around Halloween is starting to become a JANM tradition. Following the successful debut last year of the Members Only event JANM Ghost Stories, actor Rodney Kageyama hosted another evening of frightening tales this past weekend, told in the darkness of the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. His guests this time were ABC7 News anchor David Ono and producer Jeff MacIntyre, who shared three riveting stories that they had produced over the years as human interest segments for ABC7 News. All three segments were screened for the audience, preceded and followed by extensive commentary from Ono and MacIntyre.

The first was a debunking of the popular myth that vampires originated in Romania. In fact, the first documented vampire, Petar Blagojević, is known to be buried in a remote mountain village in Serbia. Ono and MacIntyre traveled to Serbia for this segment, uncovering the village and speaking with its residents with the help of James Lyon, historian, native Serbian speaker, and author of the Balkan vampire novel Kiss of the Butterfly. Through beautifully shot footage, we see them exploring the ancient, overgrown cemetery where the vampire is thought to be buried and examining an abandoned water mill thought to be the home of another legendary vampire, Sava Savanović.

A view of Japan's Suicide Forest (Aokigahara). Photo by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr Creative Commons.
A view of Japan’s Suicide Forest (Aokigahara).
Photo by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

The second video looked at Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, also known as the infamous Suicide Forest, nestled at the base of Mount Fuji. In old Japan, suicide was considered an honorable way to die and avoid bringing shame or being a burden to one’s family; thus, the forest has served as the final refuge for people in dire situations, or old people whose families could no longer care for them. Even today, when suicide is no longer condoned in Japan, the forest continues to attract a substantial number of despondent souls every year. Ono described it as an eerily quiet and tranquil place, with absolutely no wildlife. Tree roots jut out of the ground and curl, unable to penetrate the forest bottom, which is made of volcanic rock.

The last video was the favorite of the two producers: it investigated a house in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where spirits communicate through Polaroid photos. After experiencing an unusual level of paranormal activity (doors opening and closing by themselves, cold spots, etc.), the home’s two owners began taking Polaroids, which seemed to reveal ghostly presences. They began asking questions such as “Are you here?” before taking the Polaroids, which subsequently seemed to bear answers written in ghostly script: “Yes.”

Jeff MacIntyre dons a cape for dramatic effect.
Jeff MacIntyre dons a cape for dramatic effect.

 

Thousands of these pictures, with increasingly clear words visible in them, were produced over a period of more than 20 years, many times with friends present to witness the event. Professionals from Kodak and Polaroid even came with their own equipment to try to debunk the phenomenon, only to find the same writing appearing on their prints.

The spookiest story of all, however, was a personal one told by Ono. It happened to him following another paranormal investigation at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The medium he was working with warned him to tell the spirits not to follow him home from the cemetery. He completely forgot to do so, and… to hear this story, you’ll have to visit JANM’s YouTube channel… if you dare.

Okaeri: A Space for LGBTQ Visibility and Acceptance

okaeri_logo-03This 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.

The Okaeri planning committee welcomes you to Okaeri 2016.
The Okaeri planning committee welcomes you to Okaeri 2016.

 

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 on The Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.

A Blistering Reading of Reservoir Dogs Proves There Is “No Shortage of Asian Talent”

rd-opening

On October 2, JANM hosted a staged reading of Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime drama, Reservoir Dogs. Organized by a group called No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), the reading had a unique twist—all of the parts in the macho, all-male, all-Caucasian drama were read by Asian American actresses. Elaine Kao played Mr. Blond; Jully Lee played Mr. Pink; Rosie Narasaki was Nice Guy Eddie; Sharon Omi was ringleader Joe Cabot; Grace Su portrayed Mr. Orange; Tamlyn Tomita stepped in as Mr. White; and Jolene Kim voiced a variety of smaller roles, including the cop in the iconic ear-slicing scene.

Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond, Jully Lee as Mr. Pink, and Rosie Narasaki as Nice Guy Eddie.
Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond, Jully Lee as Mr. Pink, and Rosie Narasaki as Nice Guy Eddie.

 

According to the organizers, finding a suitable all-female vehicle was difficult, so they decided to choose from the many all-male films in the canon and enact a gender swap. The stripped-down event had each of the actresses reading her part from a script while standing at a lectern. A disembodied narrator’s voice (West Liang, who was also the director) provided the deejay’s lines that open the film, and went on to narrate the action sequences, which, with a few notable exceptions, were not physically acted out by the actresses.

Tamlyn Tomita as Mr. White, with Sharon Omi as Joe Cabot.
Tamlyn Tomita as Mr. White, with Sharon Omi as Joe Cabot.

 

Watching this brutal, expletive-laden drama unfold in the hands of highly capable APIA actresses—who are typically cast by Hollywood as roommates or best friends in romantic comedies, if at all—was a jarring and fascinating experience. The film opens with a casually vulgar chat among the group of criminals, in which they debate the real meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The actresses bit into this semi-sexist dialogue with gusto, spitting out their lines without hesitation or self-consciousness. They then maintained this level of vigor for the entire reading.

Grace Su as Mr. Orange.
Grace Su as Mr. Orange.

 

The quality of the acting was excellent throughout, which made the narrative convincing in spite of the gender incongruity at play. Tomita was clearly channeling Harvey Keitel, who played her character in the film, as she deepened her voice and wore a simple white blazer over black pants to enhance her masculine presence. She and Omi were the elders of the group, and they were well cast as the two older men in the film; as Joe Cabot, Omi did a great job emanating the gravitas of an “old mob boss.” In a nice touch, Omi’s own daughter, Rosie Narasaki, played Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie.

Mr. Blond, left, leans into a cop played by Jolene Kim.
Mr. Blond, left, leans into a cop played by Jolene Kim.

Perhaps the most intriguing bit of acting, and the best physical realization of a scene, belonged to Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond. With a nice smile and a proper air about her, Kao seems to be the polar opposite of the creepy, psychopathic Michael Madsen character in every way. (In fact, she had a bit role as a blushing soon-to-be-bride in Bridesmaids.) Kao used this dichotomy to her advantage, however, managing to conjure a sinister darkness just below the surface of her sunny smile. The infamous scene in which Mr. Blond tortures and ultimately slices the ear off of Jolene Kim’s hapless cop was the most physically articulated in the entire reading, and both of the actresses played it with relish.

Overall, this staged reading was highly entertaining and stimulating. The gender disconnect between the actors and their characters threw the conventions of masculinity and femininity into high relief. At the same time, the excellence of the acting proved that there is, indeed, “no shortage of Asian talent,” and made a strong case for taking more risks in casting APIA actors. Hollywood, are you listening?

The climactic shootout scene.
The climactic shootout scene.

 

This all-APIA reading was the second organized by No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), a group formed to showcase up-and-coming Asian talent and combat Hollywood’s seeming refusal to give major movie roles to APIA actors. Their first project was an all-APIA reading of Glengarry Glen Ross, which took place last year. Look for more all-APIA readings of iconic films, coming soon from this group.

Shop Handmade Arts and Crafts to Benefit JANM’s Education Programs

PrintThis Sunday, October 2, is the Eighth Annual Kokoro Craft Boutique, organized by JANM’s corps of volunteers. The boutique has become a staple of the community over the years, with many considering it the first stop on their holiday shopping journey. Dozens of vendors will be on hand to sell unique jewelry, kimono fabric fashions, Giant Robot merchandise, handbags, ceramics, origami and glass art, dog fashions, and more. A taiko performance by Yuujou Daiko will take place at 1 p.m., and all proceeds will benefit JANM’s education programs.

To learn more about the boutique and its origins, we sat down with Irene Nakagawa, one of the volunteers in charge of organizing the event.

JANM: How did Kokoro Craft Boutique come into being?

Irene Nakagawa: When Ernie Doizaki was Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees, he approached Janet Maloney, who was chair of the Volunteer Leadership Council at the time, and asked, what can the volunteers do to help bring money into the museum? Janet had had experience organizing boutiques at her son’s high school, so she suggested doing a boutique for JANM. And Ernie said, well go for it! So then we asked all the volunteers who are shoppers to go out and visit different boutiques and get ideas and bring back information about the vendors. We also solicited advice from a few friends with experience running boutiques, like Carol Yuki, whose husband Tom is a current member of the Board of Trustees.

So that’s how we got started and over the last eight years, it has just grown. As of this year we have 55 vendors and a waiting list! Word spreads—friends have friends who can do arts and crafts. We also have people that are second generation now, as mothers have turned duties over to their daughters. The first year, we were mainly in Aratani Central Hall. This year we’re filling up Central Hall, Nerio Education Center, the Kagawa Lobby, the Weingart Foundation Garden Foyer, and the Inahara Gallery Foyer on the second floor.

Jewelry by Daliano Designs, on display at the 2015 Kokoro Craft Boutique. Daliano will be returning to this year's event.
Jewelry by Daliano Designs, on display at the 2015 Kokoro Craft Boutique.
Daliano will be returning to this year’s event.

 

JANM: How do you select the vendors?

IN: We want to get as many vendors as we can, just to showcase all the different arts and crafts that are out there, but everything has to be hand-made. It can’t be anything you can buy commercially.

JANM: Why did you choose to benefit JANM’s education program?

IN: Well, we’re all volunteers and we figured that was our goal—to educate the public. Every year at the Gala Dinner, JANM does a Bid for Education, started by the late Senator Daniel Inouye, a great friend to the museum. We thought, this is a way to supplement that effort, and give more schoolchildren a chance to come to the museum. To date, I think we’ve raised about $85,000 total for the museum. Every year the number goes up!

Happy Shirts display at the 2015 boutique. They will also be participating in this year's event.
Happy Shirts display at the 2015 boutique.
They will also be participating in this year’s event.

 

JANM: What is the arrangement with the vendors?

IN: After they rent their table spaces, they give 15% of their sales proceeds to the museum, plus they have to donate one item for the raffle, which brings in even more funding.

JANM: Can you give us some highlights of the cool items that will be available for purchase this year?

IN: Oh, everything is cool! But as far as highlights—this year we have Janis Kato, a younger fashion designer who is popular among the Sansei; Michele Yamaguma, who does unique Asian collages; Kathy Yoshihara, who does interesting pottery pieces that incorporate gourds; Adrienne Lee, a former JANM staffer, who makes purses; Jamie Totsubo, who makes dog collars and dog sweaters; Cynthia Ishii, who makes handbags out of beautiful Asian fabrics; and some excellent jewelry makers. These are just a few examples that I’m pulling off the top of my head.

We will also have great food vendors, like Marimix, who makes delicious cookies and rice cracker snack mixes; and Sheri Miyamoto, who will donate 100% of the proceeds from her baked goods in honor of her parents, who were major donors to JANM. Our food truck this year is Slammin’ Sliders, who is coming out from San Gabriel Valley.

We will also have Yuujou Daiko performing taiko on the plaza—one of their members is also a volunteer here.

Kokoro Craft Boutique, 2014
Kokoro Craft Boutique, 2014

 

JANM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

IN: Be sure to tell everyone we have air conditioning! And that by coming out to support us, you support the museum.

Kokoro Craft Boutique takes place this Sunday, October 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the boutique is free; admission to JANM is “Pay What You Wish.” Make a boutique purchase of $10 or more and receive a 10% discount at participating Little Tokyo restaurants. For more information, email kokorocraft@gmail.com. Presented by Friends of the Museum.

Uprooted Presents a Rarely Seen Slice of Japanese American History; Can You Help Identify Subjects in the Photos?

Laborers in sugar beet fields outside of Shelley, Idaho. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073809-E.
Laborers in sugar beet fields outside of Shelley, Idaho. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073809-E.

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.

On September 27, JANM will open Uprooted: Japanese American Farm Labor Camps During World War II, which showcases a selection of Lee’s images accompanied by his original captions. Curated by Morgen Young in collaboration with the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission (OCHC), the exhibition seeks to contextualize the photographer’s work within the history of the FSA as well as Japanese American camp life in the two states. Uprooted will be on view through January 8, 2017.

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.

The Twin Falls, Idaho labor camp operated year-round two miles south of the city. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073759-D.
The Twin Falls, Idaho labor camp operated year-round two miles south of the city. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073759-D.

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.

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.