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.
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.
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:
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.
Over the weekend, JANM opened a new special display, Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Organized by a grassroots group called the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, the display tells the true stories of those targeted as dangerous enemy aliens and imprisoned in the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, located in the Tujunga neighborhood of Los Angeles, by the US Department of Justice during World War II. The detainees included Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants who were considered spiritual, educational, and business leaders in their communities, along with Japanese and other individuals who had previously been forcibly removed from Latin America.
As noted by Hyperallergic magazine, this display is especially relevant right now, in light of some current political rhetoric that favors creating a database of all Muslim Americans in response to terrorist threats. The public hysteria that has led to the targeting of millions of innocent Muslim Americans is eerily similar to the WWII hysteria that quickly led to the incarceration, without due process, of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—most of whom were American citizens, and all of whom were innocent of any crimes.
Thanks to the Japanese American Redress Movement, the US government formally apologized for its actions during WWII, admitting that they were “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” As part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, monetary compensation was awarded to each family that was incarcerated. Because of these official actions, Japanese Americans and others felt that the incident had been sufficiently exposed and denounced in the public arena.
Just this past week, however, a Los Angeles Times article exploring the history lessons offered by various national parks, including the Tule Lake Unit and Manzanar National Historic Site, was met with two letters published in the newspaper’s travel section insisting that the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans was entirely justified. The publication of the letters caused an uproar, particularly among the Japanese American community—this was addressed by the Times via their Readers’ Representative Journal blog. Former JANM staffer Koji Steven Sakai also appeared on KPCC’s Take Two show on December 14, explaining to listeners why the letters were so offensive to his community, and offering some historical context.
The Japanese American National Museum is committed to sharing the history of Japanese Americans in order to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. An important focus of this mission is ensuring that what happened to this group of individuals during WWII never happens again, to any other group of people.
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!
Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans were moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. In the summer of 1942, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee—best known for his series on Pie Town, New Mexico—documented four such camps in Oregon and Idaho, capturing the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail. Many of these photographs, which capture a little-recorded episode of American history, have never before been exhibited.
For an illuminating look at the origins of this exhibition, read our Discover Nikkei interview with curator Morgen Young. A consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon, Young studied the FSA photography program in graduate school. Working on Uprooted has taught her much about Japanese American history, and she believes that the farm labor camps are an important and under-recognized part of that history. In her own words: “These individuals and families volunteered for agricultural labor—they went into new environments, where they didn’t know how they would be received by the local communities. They contributed directly to the war effort and still have not received the recognition they deserve for their efforts.”
Uprooted is a multi-pronged project that includes the traveling physical exhibition, oral history interviews with subjects in the photographs who were identified by viewers, documentary videos, school curricula, and a comprehensive website. A visit to the website is a great idea both before and after your visit to the exhibition; there, you can learn more about the farm labor camps, review copies of official documents, watch excerpts of oral history videos, view photos of the camps taken by people who lived in them, download lesson plans, and more.
Help Identify People in the Photographs
When you come to see Uprooted, pay close attention to the people in the photographs. Do you recognize anyone? Efforts to identify the subjects in Russell Lee’s photographs are still ongoing; according to Young, no one in the Idaho camp images has been identified, and the organizers are hoping that LA visitors will be able to help. A photo identification binder will be made available for visitors to write down possible names and/or details about the subjects’ lives.
James Tanaka, a JANM docent, has already come forward to share his story of living in the Twin Falls camp as a child; information about Tanaka and his family is available here.
On May 29, 2016, JANM received the extraordinary gift of an original paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki, the young Hiroshima-born girl who died in 1955 of complications resulting from radiation poisoning. Before her death, Sasaki folded over 1,000 paper cranes in hopes of recovering from her illness. Because of her efforts, which touched many people, paper cranes have since become a universal symbol of peace, hope, and recovery. The museum is honored to be the only West Coast recipient of one of Sasaki’s cranes, joining such global institutions as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 Tribute Center in New York, and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.
Highlights of the gifting ceremony can be seen in the below video, produced by JANM’s Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center. The moving event included remarks by Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of US President Harry S. Truman, and Masahiro Sasaki, brother of Sadako. Not included in the video were a song sung by Yuji Sasaki, Masahiro’s son, in tribute to his aunt; and a clip from Orizuru 2015, a short film inspired by Sadako’s story, introduced by director Miyuki Sohara.
This Saturday, August 6, is the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Be sure to join us at 1 p.m. that day for a special talk by Above the Fold curator Meher McArthur, who will speak about Sadako Sasaki and how her actions influenced the spread of origami practice. The talk, which will take place in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, is part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Programs series. Above the Fold, which looks at contemporary origami practice, is on view through August 21.
JANM’s newest exhibition,Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, opens to the public on Saturday, July 30. Tatau explores Samoan tattoo practice through photographs that showcase the work of traditional tatau masters alongside more contemporary manifestations of the art form, highlighting the beauty of the Samoan tattoo tradition as well as its key role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture.
Our opening day celebration will begin at noon with a traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony. To help us understand the nature of this ceremony, our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in exhibitions, Alyssa Melville, researched and wrote the following essay.
The ‘ava ceremony is an ancient Samoan ritual that is performed at the beginning of all important services and gatherings. Typically led by the high chief of the hosting village, the ceremony begins with words of welcome as the participants sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle or semicircle. The proceedings include the preparation and consumption of an ‘ava drink, which is usually followed by a feast.
The drink is made by mixing the ‘ava plant, also known as Piper methysticum, with water. This is done in a tānoa (bowl that stands on multiple legs) using a fau (strainer made from the bark of the fau, or Hibiscus tiliaceus, tree) as the stirring tool. The fau strains excess ‘ava from the water; it is then tossed over the right shoulder to a soga‘imiti (a male with a tatau), who shakes out any remaining ‘ava pieces before tossing it back. This continues until no more plant pieces remain in the tānoa. The drink is then served in an ipu tau ‘ava (half of a polished coconut shell) in an order that reflects the social rank of the guests being served.
The power of this ritual comes from its great care and attention to detail. Every move made is very deliberate, from the direction in which the ‘ava is stirred to the shoulder the fau is tossed over. Both the seating and the order of consumption of the ‘ava are dictated by the hosting high chief and are representative of the social hierarchy of Samoan society.
Just as the practice of tatau has migrated and evolved over the years, so has the ‘ava ceremony. Since Samoans rely on oral traditions to preserve their history and culture, small details of the ceremony have changed over time simply due to the retelling of the stories by different generations. As Samoan emigrants have settled around the world, the various diasporic communities have developed their own ceremonies based on different stories and retellings. Some have added a prayer at the end; others have altered the dress code to better suit contemporary society.
The central purpose of the ‘ava ceremony, however, remains the same: promoting unity and respect among groups.
Alyssa Melville majors in sociology/anthropology and business management at University of Redlands.
In just a few short days, JANM will open Above the Fold: New Expressions in Origami, an inventive exhibition in which the traditional Japanese art of origami serves as the inspiration for innovative new sculptures, large-scale installations, and conceptual artworks from around the world. Above the Fold is curated by Meher McArthur and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.
Join us for the public opening on Sunday, May 29, or Members Only Preview Day on Saturday, May 28. In the meantime, enjoy the photographs that follow, which capture intrepid JANM and IA&A staff working hard to unfold and install the complex artworks in the show.
This Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m., JANM will present a dramatic reading of Moss on the Mirror, a fictional play inspired by the life and work of renowned photographer Toyo Miyatake. Taking place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where Miyatake’s practice flourished before World War II, the play examines the creativity, hope, and optimism, as well as the struggles and challenges, of the Japanese immigrant photographers community.
Although not a literal retelling of actual events, the piece seeks to transport audiences to the feelings and circumstances of those times. Moss on the Mirror was written by Warren Sata, whose paternal grandfather was J.T. Sata (1896–1975), a featured photographer (along with Miyatake) in the current exhibition Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940. To learn more about the play, we conducted a brief interview with Sata via email.
JANM: What does the title Moss on the Mirror refer to?
Warren Sata: The title refers to the notion that we understand ourselves and our communities through reflection, or looking in the mirror. The moss evokes a clouded mirror, alluding to the influence of outside circumstances like poverty and racism.
JANM: What inspired you to write this play?
WS: The story of Los Angeles’ Issei photographers has fascinated me and inspired my imagination since I learned about them from my father some years ago. A conversation with actor/director Chris Tashima, who serves as the play’s director, helped me to recognize the importance of Toyo Miyatake’s journey toward becoming a pillar of the community. I began to understand the value of artistry and responsibility in a different way, which led me to take an interest in sketching the story of Japanese Americans photographers and their interests and practices prior to the WWII incarceration.
JANM: What is your favorite image by a Japanese American photographer, and why?
WS: I am drawn to an abstract self-portrait created by my grandfather, J.T. Sata, which is currently on display in Making Waves. It utilizes triangles and a photographic image of his face. The interplay between a realistic portrait and an abstract prepared background fascinates me; it seems to suggest a doorway between the real world and subjective experience. This allows for a dialogue between these worlds and gives value to the notion of participating in both. I enjoy this because it pushes me to understand the Issei experience and what that might have felt like.
JANM: What do you hope audiences will get out of the dramatic reading?
WS: I hope that audience members will be motivated to honor the contributions of the Issei photographic pioneers, but also to consider what their experiences were like in the 1920s and ’30s—their creativity, their principles, their aesthetics, and the culture and context of the times.
One of my favorite Members Only events here at JANM is the collections-based series, Learning at Lunch. Members can bring a brown bag lunch and sit back as our knowledgeable Collections Manager, Maggie Wetherbee, showcases unique and often unseen artifacts from JANM’s collections. One past session explored JANM’s intricate and beautiful bird pin collection, while another looked at paper artifacts—such as letters, photographs, and menus—that revealed how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the camps and by members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The most recent edition of Learning at Lunch took place last Friday. It was extra special, as we were joined by Frank Sata, son of photographer J.T. Sata, who is a featured artist in our current exhibition, Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940. Frank, a well-known architect, also has a unique connection to JANM: he was an instrumental part of the architectural team that renovated the museum’s Historic Building.
Frank began his presentation by sharing family photographs and personal stories about his family’s history and journey. He then shared some of his father’s photographs that are in JANM’s collection but not on view in the exhibition.
During this portion, classical music played in the background as a tribute to his father, who loved classical music; Frank also felt that the lyrical images deserved lyrical accompaniment. These photographs were not only breathtaking but also showcased J.T. Sata’s immense skill and artistic sensibility. Some of my favorites are featured here.
We were also treated to slides of J.T. Sata’s other works, including charcoal drawings of the Santa Anita Assembly Center and vibrant paintings from the family’s time at the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas. Overall, the presentation was truly moving and such a unique opportunity to hear Frank share his personal insights about his father and his father’s work.
Making Waves will be on view through June 26. You can watch a short film about J.T. Sata made by JANM’s Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center here.