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.

The Great Unknown Captures a Spectrum of Japanese American History

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 memberevents@janm.org or call 213.830.5646 to RSVP. You may purchase the book at the JANM Store or janmstore.com.

Comedy InvAsian Serves Up Live APIA Talent

Promotional poster for Atsuko Okatsuka’s performance on February 11 at JANM.
Courtesy of Comedy InvAsian.

The 2017 Oscar nominations came out this week, and much was made about how diverse the nominees were. Out of the 20 acting nominees, seven are people of color; six of African descent and one of Indian descent. While this is encouraging, it is clear that much work still needs to be done to promote the visibility of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) talent. As this blog has argued in the past, APIA talent is not in short supply, but opportunities for them often seem to be.

This February, JANM will host live tapings of a new series aimed at providing a platform for exciting APIA comedic talent. Comedy InvAsian presents six APIA actors and comedians doing one-hour standup sets in front of a live audience. Each set will be professionally filmed for later digital television broadcast.

The series will kick off on Friday evening, February 10, at 9 p.m. with a set from Paul “PK” Kim, a regular at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory and founder of the APIA networking group Kollaboration. It will end on Sunday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Amy Hill, a longtime film and television actress known for her roles on 50 First Dates, Seinfeld, All-American Girl, King of the Hill, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Amazon Studio’s Just Add Magic, among many other credits. For a complete schedule, with links to purchase tickets, visit this page.

Comedy InvAsian was founded by writers/directors Quentin Lee and Koji Steven Sakai (the latter was also formerly JANM’s Vice President of Programs). As the two state on their website: “In our filmmaking career, we have met and become friends with so many talented comedians of color, from producing Dwayne Perkins in Take Note to directing Randall Park in The People I’ve Slept With to working with Paul Kim in the Comedy Ninja Film Festival to directing Amy Hill in White Frog and The Unbidden. Comedy InvAsian will celebrate the talent and comedy of a group of select and diverse Asian American comedians which should prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

The two already have a distributor, Viva Pictures, and are vying to get on a popular digital platform like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. The latter recently produced Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, which became an enormous hit for the longtime comedy writer and standup artist. Lee and Sakai hope that Comedy InvAsian will also become a hit, so that they can continue to spotlight the many great APIA comedians that they know. Come support them by attending a live taping at JANM in February!

What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry?

L to R: Hiroshi Motomura, Ali Noorani, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and Ann Burroughs.

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.

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!

Kagami Mochi Brings Good Luck, Health, and Prosperity in the New Year

Simple kagami mochi decorate this altar in Japan.
Photo by Tamaki Sono via Flickr Creative Commons.

A new year is here, and this Sunday, JANM will be celebrating Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) along with the rest of Little Tokyo. Our free Oshogatsu Family Festival will welcome everyone with Year of the Rooster-themed activities, crafts, and performances.

Oshogatsu is widely considered the most important holiday in Japan, and there are many time-honored traditions that go with it. We’ve explored a few of those traditions on this blog: mochitsuki, Daruma dolls, and osechi-ryori. Today, in anticipation of Sunday’s festival, we will look at kagami mochi, a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. Among the many exciting things we have planned is a craft activity in which participants will be able to construct and take home their own replica of a kagami mochi.

Kagami mochi basically consists of a large round rice cake (mochi) topped with another, slightly smaller rice cake, which is then topped with a small bitter orange (daidai). The two rice cakes symbolize the year that just passed along with the year that is to come, while daidai is a homonym for the phrase “generation to generation.” Thus, the arrangement celebrates long life, the bonds of family, and the continuity of generations.

Hisako Hibi, New Year’s Mochi, 1943. Hisako Hibi Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

An additional meaning harkens back to an ancient Japanese myth. The word kagami means mirror, and the round shape of the rice cakes is said to resemble the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to legend, the earth went dark when Amaterasu retreated from the world and hid in a cave. She was eventually drawn out with a mirror, restoring light to the world. Thus, kagami mochi also symbolizes the renewal of light and energy that occurs at the start of a new year.

Each family decorates kagami mochi in their own way; variations include a sheet of kelp to symbolize pleasure and joy. It is recommended that several kagami mochi are placed in locations throughout the house, in order to please the various Shinto gods that are believed to dwell there.

An especially elaborate kagami mochi arrangement, made in Peru. Photo by the Japanese Peruvian Association (APJ) via DiscoverNikkei.org.

Kagami mochi are set out around the end of the year, and remain on display until kagami biraki day (kagami breaking day, or “the opening of the mirror”), which usually takes place on or around January 11. On that day, the kagami mochi are broken into pieces with a hammer—never cut, as that would symbolically sever family ties—and cooked and eaten, often as part of a traditional soup called ozoni. This is considered the first important Shinto ritual of the year.

Come celebrate with us on Sunday, January 8, and increase your good fortune for 2017!

To learn more about kagami mochi and other Japanese New Year traditions, we recommend the following articles on our Discover Nikkei site: “Mochi Making Then and Now”; “Oshogatsu Traditions in the United States”; “Mochi Food of the Kami”; and “Happy New Year! Reminiscing about Oshogatsu with Mochi”.