Camp Pilgrimages Are in Full Swing—And Historic Camp Newspapers Are Now Available Online!

The monument at Manzanar serves as a memorial to those who died there. The inscription reads “Soul Consoling Tower” in Japanese characters. Photo by Carol Cheh.

It’s summer, and to many in the Japanese American community, that means camp pilgrimage season. To honor the experiences of their forebears (and in some cases, their own experiences as children) and to help ensure that they never forget the grave injustices committed against their community during World War II, Japanese Americans and their allies are paying visits to the sites of several American concentration camps where persons of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without due process following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The vast majority were held in ten main camps run by the War Relocation Authority and located in remote, desolate areas throughout the United States: Amache (Colorado), Gila River (Arizona), Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Jerome (Arkansas), Manzanar (California), Minidoka (Idaho), Poston (Arizona), Rohwer (Arkansas), Topaz (Utah), and Tule Lake (California). (Additional camps and detention centers run by the Department of Justice or other government agencies confined special populations or served as holding centers.) As of this date, five of the ten main camps hold formal pilgrimage events. The pilgrimages to Manzanar and Amache have already happened; below are links to complete information about the pilgrimages yet to come.

Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): July 6–9, 2017
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): July 28–29, 2017
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one will happen in 2018.

While the other five sites don’t hold formal events, they are also open to visitors. Topaz, in fact, has just installed permanent exhibits, and will have a ticketed grand opening for their museum on the weekend of July 7–8, 2017. With the exception of Gila River camp, permits are not required.

Not able to make it out to a camp site? Last month, the Library of Congress announced on their blog that newspapers self-published by Japanese Americans while they were imprisoned are now available online. These newspapers are amazing historical artifacts, offering up-close, first-person glimpses into what life was like inside of a camp. You’ll find accounts of daily activities, official camp announcements, editorials about important issues, reports on the exploits of Japanese Americans in the US military, and more. More than 4,600 English- and Japanese-language issues published in 13 camps are available and can be accessed here.

On April 29, a group of JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to attend the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage together. Check this space next week for an exclusive interview with one of JANM’s youngest volunteers, 16-year-old Joy Ormseth, who made the pilgrimage with us.

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.

Mike Saijo Workshop Attracts Artists of All Ages

All photos by Ben Furuta.

This past Saturday, May 20, artist Mike Saijo, who is featured in the exhibition Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066, led a free art workshop titled Reconstructing Memories. The daylong drop-in workshop, held in conjunction with the exhibition, invited all JANM visitors to explore their connections to history and current events.

Saijo took a photograph of each interested participant, which he then printed onto a section of newspaper that the participant chose out of several available stacks. Guests completed the artwork themselves, with Saijo’s assistance, by mounting the print onto a wood panel with glue.

Visitors of all ages stopped by to participate in this simple yet provocative exercise. Each visitor was able to take home his or her own “self-portrait.”

Mike Saijo, a contemporary mixed-media artist based in Los Angeles, was recently profiled for JANM’s Discover Nikkei project. Read the profile here.

Exploring Different Perspectives of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising

April 29, 2017, marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Uprising, also known as the Rodney King riots. Films have been made and essays have been written to commemorate this anniversary, and throughout the city, a variety of talks and panel discussions over the last month have attempted to grapple with the legacy of this major event and examine how far we’ve come since then.

On May 11, JANM was pleased to present, in partnership with Asian American Journalists Association-Los Angeles and PBS SoCal, a film screening and discussion titled K-TOWN ’92 Reporters: Who Gets to Tell the Story? K-TOWN ’92 Reporters is a recently completed short documentary by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee. The film, which can be viewed on the PBS website, captures the reflections of three Los Angeles Times reporters of color who covered the Uprising, with a particular focus on under-reported perspectives in the Korean-American community.

Although the film is only 15 minutes long, it delivers a powerful impact by revealing some of the racial dynamics that were at play not only on the streets of LA, but in its newsrooms as well. Reporter Tammerlin Drummond, who is African American, recalls being stuck at a sleepy bureau in the suburbs of Orange County until the Uprising prompted the Times editors to send all of their reporters of color to South Central LA. Similarly, Hector Tobar remembers feeling excited to work on a major piece about the Uprising, only to be told to focus on Latino looters. John Lee recalls prowling the streets of Koreatown with Drummond after curfew, when chaos ruled and police were nowhere to be found. As a dark-complected Korean American, he feared that he and Drummond might be shot at by Korean store owners.

The screening was preceded by a speech from Angela Oh, a former trial lawyer and a second-generation Korean American. Oh opened with a participatory qigong exercise and did not mince words as she described a dysfunctional judicial system that did not deliver justice and a complex city in which many people, while occupying the same space, lived entirely different inner lives. Following the Uprising, Oh traveled the country for three years giving talks, encountering many frightened Korean Americans and a general public who had no idea who Koreans were. This led her to view the Uprising as Koreans’ “sorrowful introduction to the consciousness of the American mainstream public—the price of initiation into race relations.”

Following the screening, Oliver Wang, Associate Professor of Sociology at CSU Long Beach, moderated a panel discussion with filmmaker Grace Lee; former LA Times reporter John Lee; Victoria Kim, who currently covers Koreatown for the LA Times; Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and activist who just completed an unsuccessful run for California’s 34th Congressional District; and Joanne Griffith, Senior Producer at American Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend.

Wang began by asking Grace Lee what prompted her to make this film, when so many films on the subject are already out there. She responded that after 20 years of watching coverage of the Uprising, she saw the same narratives emerging over and over—narratives that did not include the perspectives she heard from the Korean American community. John Lee later echoed this sentiment, saying that while Koreans and Blacks were portrayed in the media as bitter enemies, the reality was that most of them got along with each other. Kim brought up the example of Young Ok Lee, also known as “Mama,” a beloved Korean shopkeeper whose store at the corner of 8th Street and Western Avenue was left alone throughout the riots because she was like a mother to the entire neighborhood.

As each person on the panel discussed his or her own background and how they were affected by the Uprising, it became clear that there are as many perspectives on the event as there are people. The one thing they all have in common is the deep and lasting impression the event left on each of them.

L to R: Oliver Wang, Grace Lee, John Lee, Victoria Kim, Wendy Carrillo, and Joanne Griffith.

Carrillo was 11 when the Uprising happened. Her parents had fled the civil war in El Salvador, bringing her into the country with them illegally. The family watched coverage of the Uprising together on Spanish-language TV and discussed how much it reminded them of the situation back in their home country. At school, Carrillo’s class wrote get well letters to Reginald Denny. Years later, she would be the last reporter to interview Rodney King, only two days before his death. She said he felt guilty about the riots every day of his life, even though they were obviously not his fault.

As a person of African background who grew up in Britain and moved to LA as an adult, Griffith had trouble figuring out African American identity, which was alternately represented overseas by The Cosby Show and the Rodney King riots. She also recalled a comical incident that happened while she was waiting for a Metro Red Line train in Hollywood—a passerby heard her British accent and asked if she was auditioning for a part.

Kim was seven years old in 1992 and living with her family in South Korea. She recalls having no concept of race relations or what it meant to be an immigrant, since everyone in Korea was Korean. Having no concept of the Korean American experience, people there referred to the Uprising as “the black riots.” Kim had to learn everything after the fact. In 2012, she worked on 20th-anniversary coverage for the LA Times, at which time she chose to profile “Mama.”

(JANM also had a unique and indelible experience with the Uprising. In April 1992, the museum was preparing to open its doors for the first time, with a dedication ceremony scheduled for April 30—the day after the Rodney King verdict. As chaos ensued, grand plans for an outdoor ceremony had to be scrapped. Rather than being disappointed, however, then-Executive Director Irene Hirano Inouye took this confluence of events as a sign and an opportunity for JANM to reconfirm and strengthen its mission. In her dedication speech to 400 guests and media representatives, now crammed inside the museum, Hirano Inouye noted “the need for continued education, multicultural understanding, and stronger linkages between ethnic communities in the United States.” When the museum opened to the public on May 15, representatives from a wide array of LA’s community organizations were invited.)

The panel was asked how far they think the city, and American society in general, has come since the Uprising. Carrillo thinks things are actually worse now—the repetitive 24-hour news cycle still focuses on sensationalistic reporting, which numbs the public. Griffith said that they agonized over what to cover when she worked at KPCC. She stressed that newsrooms must be more diverse and cover communities from the inside out, not from the outside in. Kim speculated that at one time, white men gathered in rooms to set the news agenda; now at least, they are forced to reckon with what’s trending on Twitter. Web analytics reveal which stories get the most views and comments, which has changed the face of journalism.

K-TOWN ’92 Reporters was actually produced as part of ktown92.com, an interactive web archive that explores the 1992 Los Angeles Riots through the lens of greater Koreatown. With a mix of archival news footage, new interviews, and other media, ktown92.com invites users to create their own unique documentary experience and to hear poignant stories that were overlooked by the media coverage of the day. Together with the film, the web archive aims to disrupt the Uprising’s master narrative by empowering people to construct their own.

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.

Bronzeville, Little Tokyo Takes Visitors Back to a Unique Era in Los Angeles History

A slim newspaper has been circulating as part of promotions for Visual Communications’ 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), portions of which will be screened at JANM. Titled Bronzeville News, it mimics some of the humble broadsheets that may have circulated during the Bronzeville years of Little Tokyo, when, in the absence of Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in remote camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, African Americans moved into the neighborhood and made it their own, nicknaming it after a historic black neighborhood in Chicago.

The newspaper evokes another era at the same time that it announces and serves as the program for Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, a free, two-day LAAPFF event that delves into this brief but fascinating period in Little Tokyo’s history. Over the weekend of April 29–30, visitors will be able to take in an interactive media installation, a 360⁰ virtual reality presentation, and a live jazz performance. Presented by FORM follows FUNCTION and Visual Communications, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo will take place at JANM’s own Historic Building and the Union Center for the Arts courtyard, two historic neighborhood sites.

“Wartime housing in Little Tokyo’s Bronzeville, 1943, Los Angeles, California.,” Densho Encyclopedia http://encyclopedia.densho.org/sources/en-denshopd-i227-00007-1/ (accessed Apr 19 2017).

Bronzeville was a nexus in time that brought together several significant strands of Southern California history. Following the evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Japanese enclaves quickly became ghost towns. Since Asians were legally barred from owning property at that time, this meant that a lot of white landlords found themselves without tenants. At the same time, African Americans from the Deep South started flooding into California to work in the war defense industry, which faced a labor shortage. The vacant buildings in places like Little Tokyo made for convenient housing for the laborers. The neighborhood soon became a hotbed for African American business, culture, and night life.

In addition to many intriguing vintage photographs and advertisements, the Bronzeville News contains a thoughtful essay by artist and project researcher/consultant Kathie Foley-Meyer, in which she considers the significance of Bronzeville in forging Los Angeles into the multicultural metropolis that it is today. Her quotation of a 1945 editorial on integration in California is eerily reminiscent of debates taking place today in the wake of new immigration policies from the current administration. Foley-Meyer runs her own creative project at projectbronzeville.com.

For more details on Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, including a schedule of events, click here or here. To read more about the history of Bronzeville, check out this Densho article or this Discover Nikkei piece. There is also a great archival website devoted to Bronzeville.

Take Our Japanese American History Quiz and Win a Prize!

George Takei, right, was appointed by LA Mayor Tom Bradley, left, to what position between 1973 and 1984?
This Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., join us for our latest JANM Free Family Day, held in conjunction with our current exhibitions, Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The event will celebrate Japanese American history with themed craft activities, a spam musubi workshop, story time readings, and more. Admission will be FREE all day for the whole family.

To get you geared up for the event, we present below a quiz on Japanese American history. Take the quiz and see how much you know! This Saturday, the first ten people who come to the survey table at JANM and present a printout of this quiz with the correct answers written in the blanks will receive a $10 gift certificate to the JANM Store.* So put on your thinking and research caps and come on down for a day of learning and fun!

1. What public office did George Takei hold between 1973 and 1984?

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2. Which president issued Executive Order 9066?

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3. What year was the Nisei Week Japanese Festival created?

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4. When Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, Little Tokyo became an African American neighborhood. What was its name during that time?

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5. What was the original purpose of JANM’s Historic Building, located across the plaza from our modern facilities?

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6. What was the name of the first Asian American astronaut to successfully fly into space?

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7. The current manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers is of mixed Japanese and African American identity. What is his name?

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8. Who is the Japanese American figure skater who won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics and also won the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars?

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9. What is the Japanese term for the first generation of Japanese immigrants to come to the United States?

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10. Decades after World War II, Japanese Americans successfully lobbied for the United States government to pass a federal law that formally apologized for their wrongful incarceration and granted reparations to surviving camp detainees. What is the official name of this act?

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*No purchase necessary to enter. Limit one entry per family; entry must be presented in person on the day of the event to qualify. Limit one prize per family. Gift certificates have no cash value. Contest ends when all ten prizes have been given away, or at 4 p.m. on April 8, 2017, whichever comes first. Employees and volunteers of the Japanese American National Museum are not eligible.

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.

Hinamatsuri: Celebrating Girls

A HInamatsuri display in a Tokyo hotel lobby. Photo by David Wiley via Flickr.

As we look forward to the advent of spring on March 20, one of Japan’s most beloved holidays helps us get into the spirit. Hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day, occurs on March 3, just as the chilly climes of winter begin to show signs of receding.

Hinamatsuri celebrates and nurtures the promise of young girls. It does this primarily through an elaborate display of dolls dressed as members of the imperial Japanese court. In addition to being a favorite toy of many girls, the display represents the family’s hopes that their little girl will be as beautiful, graceful, and fortunate as the little dolls.

A Hinamatsuri display at home. Photo by nansei via Flickr.

A typical Hinamatsuri arrangement consists of multiple tiers, with the Emperor and Empress perched on the top tier, followed by descending ranks of servants: samurai, ladies in waiting, and children. Also included are accessories for the dolls, such as tea sets, dressers, and even bathtubs. A full Hinamatsuri set can be very elaborate and very expensive, and many have been passed down through generations. Hinamatsuri celebrations also include eating special foods, such as hina arare (sweet rice crackers) and sakuramochi (mochi wrapped in cherry leaves).

For the most part, Hinamatsuri is celebrated privately, as a domestic ritual, although public displays and ceremonies do occur. Each family typically brings out their set a few weeks before the holiday, displaying it in the nicest room of the house until the holiday is over. They must take care to put it away promptly, however, as an old superstition dictates that a girl who tarries too long with the dolls will have difficulty finding a suitable marriage.

A close-up of the Emperor and Empress dolls. Photo by hirotomo t via Flickr.

The word hina means small and lovely object, while matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. Historians trace the origins of Hinamatsuri to the reign of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623-51), when ministers presented a set of hina dolls to the shogun’s eldest daughter on her seventh birthday, thus beginning a practice that became popular among the noblemen of the day. However, the basic idea of a spring festival to nurture new energy and ward off bad luck dates as far back as ancient China.

At JANM, we’ll be celebrating Hinamatsuri with an origami workshop on Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. Longtime museum volunteer and origami enthusiast Ruthie Kitagawa will show you how to make Hinamatsuri-themed cards for your family and friends. The JANM Store also has several Hinamatsuri-related products to help you celebrate; check out, for example, this cute solar-powered Hina doll display, or this beautiful rabbit Hinamatsuri pop-up card.