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!
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.
Now more than ever, immigration is at the forefront of American dialogue and debate. Join us this Saturday, November 19, as we host the National Conversation on Immigration: Barriers and Access, organized by the National Archives as part of a series of conversations commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. A full day of talks and panel discussions will look at past and present barriers to immigration, the real-life experiences of immigrants, and more. For a complete schedule and to register, click here.
The Bill of Rights is one of three documents considered fundamental to the founding and philosophy of the United States. The first, the Declaration of Independence, states the principles on which the American government is based. The second, the Constitution, served to unite America’s states and lay out the structure of the federal government. And finally, the Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the Constitution, spelling out the rights of individual citizens in relation to their government. Included are the right to free speech, the right to assemble and protest, the right to bear arms, and the right of the accused to a speedy trial with an impartial jury.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation’s nonpartisan record keeper, preserving the important documents and materials that trace our country’s history. Established in 1934 by President Roosevelt, NARA’s holdings number in the millions and include slave ship manifests, the Emancipation Proclamation, journals of polar expeditions, photographs of Dust Bowl farmers, and treaties with Native Americans, among many other items. All are accessible to the public, and many can be viewed on NARA’s website.
The National Conversation on Immigration: Barriers and Access is presented in part by AT&T, Ford Foundation, Seedlings Foundation, Toyota, and the National Archives Foundation.
On Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12, JANM will be hosting the second annual Kollaboration EMPOWER Conference. Launched in 2015 by Kollaboration, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in creative industries, the EMPOWER conference offers a weekend of panel discussions, mentoring sessions, interactive workshops, and networking opportunities aimed at bringing together aspiring young artists and more established professionals. The conference’s goal is to bridge communities, generations, industries, and innovative minds.
To learn more about the conference and its origins, we interviewed Christine Minji Chang, Executive Director of Kollaboration.
JANM: Why the name “Kollaboration”?
Christine Minji Chang: Kollaboration has its roots in the Korean American community—it was founded by standup comedian Paul “PK” Kim in 2000 as a platform for aspiring Korean American artists to share their talents. (Fun fact—Ben Chung of the Kinjaz, formerly the Jabbawockeez, performance group was the one who coined our name.)
Over time, we expanded the organization and the movement to represent the pan-Asian American Pacific Islander community, but the name stuck. It still speaks on a larger level to what we stand for: empowering the AAPI community and improving diversity in media by working together—whether that’s across ethnicity, geographical region, cultural background, or artistic genre.
JANM: How did the EMPOWER Conference come about?
CMC: This conference was a long time coming and a very collective manifestation of ideas that grew over time through conversations between Kollaboration volunteers and artists. I personally started volunteering with Kollaboration San Francisco in 2009, and I remember dreaming out loud with my colleagues about creating an event where we could get advice from entertainment professionals—both for the artists that we supported in our shows and for ourselves as creative leaders who might not want to perform on a stage.
I had long dreamed of pursuing acting, but the whole idea had always been so daunting and obscure. How do I start? What do I prioritize? How do I talk to my family and friends about it? The media industry has always been an unknown universe for most AAPIs—it’s not explored or encouraged as much as medicine, law, or engineering.
So through multiple conversations, brainstorming sessions, and networking, our amazing Kollaboration Los Angeles team took the plunge in 2015 to pilot our first EMPOWER Conference. We got 40 entertainment professionals to volunteer to share their wisdom and insight with a small but passionate audience. I was completely blown away and humbled to see this idea come to life right before my eyes. It was an amazing team effort, and I’m very proud of what we’ve started for the AAPI community.
JANM: Describe the people that you feel should come to this conference.
CMC: I think this conference is accessible for almost all AAPIs who are just starting out and/or curious about working in the entertainment industry. They can get ground-zero insights into various aspects of different industries, and how to best pursue different paths. The conversations will range from how to utilize various programs and resources, to how to navigate emotional and mental journeys in a tough industry that’s just starting to prioritize diverse stories.
EMPOWER is also a place where seasoned professionals can come to network and get up to date on trends and technology in the entertainment and media industries, which are constantly evolving. We want this conference to be a gathering place for ambitious and creative minds to meet, build relationships, and expand their skill sets. We also want folks to be open to learning new things, not just from industry panels but from hands-on workshops that will make them jump out of their comfort zones and build confidence in public speaking, improv comedy, auditioning, and more.
JANM: Can you give us a few highlights or favorite moments from last year’s inaugural conference?
CMC: One highlight was having Bing Chen as our keynote speaker. He is extremely smart and charismatic and has been a force of nature not only for the AAPI creative community, but for the millennial generation as a whole. He founded the YouTube Partner Program, which revolutionized artistic expression and visibility for AAPI artists. Without that, who knows how long AAPIs would have continued to create art in obscurity or struggled to find outlets for their voices. Bing got up on stage and spoke candidly and passionately, holding nothing back; it was a great moment of inspiration for everyone present.
A favorite moment of mine came from Tamlyn Tomita during our keynote panel. Tamlyn has been navigating Hollywood for decades, and is a hero of mine for being such a talented actress who’s made a name for herself in an industry and society that has been neither kind nor concerned about her representation. She was very vulnerable and fiery, encouraging everyone in the audience to face their personal fears of rejection and challenge definitions of success. She spoke so strongly that she was brought to tears, and so was I. The emotion was palpable in the room, and we felt empowered by her belief in us.
There were so many great moments! Another occurred during our writing panel, which I wasn’t present for the entire time. Mike Golamco, then a writer for NBC, shared with me how a young woman confided in him that after hearing him speak that day, she finally dared to call herself a writer. I could see how much that meant to Mike, and it was very clear to both of us that there was a lot more that we could do with this event. I’m so excited for this second conference and to be honest, I’m already planning our third!
The second annual Kollaboration EMPOWER Conference will take place at JANM Friday–Saturday, November 11–12. For more information and to register, visit empower.kollaboration.org. For more information about the organization, visit kollaboration.org.
This weekend, JANM will once again host Okaeri, a volunteer-organized conference that focuses on creating visibility and acceptance for the Nikkei LGBTQ community. The inaugural conference was held here in 2014; you can read our introductory blog post here.
“The biggest thing that came out of the last conference was that it inspired other cities such as Sacramento, San Jose, and Seattle to have events for the LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander community,” says Marsha Aizumi, Okaeri’s co-chair. Marsha’s son is transgender, and she is not only an ally of the community but an activist, having gone from being the only APIA mother attending a local PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting to now being the President and Co-Founder of PFLAG-San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander.
Aizumi sees the Asian American community as having a unique cultural challenge around accepting their LGBTQ children, due of lack of communication and the shame associated with coming out. Arriving on the heels of National Coming Out Day, Okaeri provides a safe space for building community and fostering growth and understanding. Workshops and panel discussions will focus on making intergenerational connections, being an ally, dealing with issues around religion, building a movement, gaining access to mental health services, and much more.
Congressman Mike Honda, an ally to the transgender community who has been outspoken about having a transgender granddaughter, will be the keynote speaker. Also new this year is an after party and networking event on Saturday night for attendees who are 21 and over.
Although the event is almost completely at capacity, Aizumi is still encouraging people to register and attend; no one will be turned away. For more details and to register, please visit okaeri-losangeles.org.
This post was researched and written by JANM Executive Assistant Nicole Miyahara. In addition to her duties at JANM, Nicole is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker who is currently working onThe Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.
The Nikkei Genealogical Society (NikkeiGen) promotes, encourages, and shares Nikkei genealogy through education, research, and networking. NikkeiGen’s general meetings are open to anyone who is interested in researching their family trees, learning more about their Japanese roots and heritage, and participating in group discussions and networking.
NikkeiGen was founded in 2013 by Melinda Yamane Crawford and Susanne Mori. Both are genealogy buffs, and Crawford was already a member of the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society. After attending two workshops on Japanese genealogy together—including Chester Hashizume’s “Discovering Your Japanese American Roots,” held twice a year at JANM—the two friends saw a need for a research and networking group specifically devoted to Japanese American family histories.
NikkeiGen meetings occur approximately once a month from January to October, with the location alternating between JANM and the Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS) in Burbank. The meetings tend to be informal and energetic, revolving around a shared enthusiasm for genealogical research. Friendships are quickly formed as participants share stories and exchange ideas and resources. Meetings can also include special presentations, trainings, and focused discussions on topics of interest. In addition to the monthly meetings, NikkeiGen offers workshops and participates in events, such as the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage.
The next NikkeiGen general meeting will take place on Saturday, July 23, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at JANM. Meetings are always free, but RSVP is required. To RSVP or for more information, email email@example.com or visit facebook.com/nikkeigen.
On May 17, the Japanese American National Museum partnered with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to host a National Youth Summit on Japanese American incarceration in World War II. Over 3,600 students and teachers from 36 states and three countries tuned in to the live webcast of the event! In case you missed it, the program is now archived and available to watch online.
In addition to the panel discussion here in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum and its webcast, we also hosted a simultaneous web chat where students enthusiastically checked in and asked some very thoughtful questions. There were so many questions that we were not able to answer all of them during the time allotted. Thanks to this blog, however, we now have a chance to follow up with our curious viewers and answer more of their questions.
JANM’s Curator of History, Dr. Lily Anne Welty Tamai, was on hand to answer questions about the Japanese American World War II incarceration.
Caroline asked: How were Japanese Americans treated differently from Jews during this time?
Dr. Tamai: The World War II experiences of the two groups were very different. Technically, both the Nazi and the American camps were concentration camps, meaning they were used “for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, or political opponents.” However, after the war, the term “concentration camp” became associated most strongly with the Nazis, who used their camps to systematically execute Jews and other minority groups. Although Japanese Americans were imprisoned without due process, the War Relocation Authority camps were NOT death camps—they met the prisoners’ basic needs for food and shelter and allowed them to work, go to school, and live with their families for the most part.
The DC Area asked: What happened to Japanese Americans who resisted incarceration?
Dr. Tamai: There were several acts of resistance against the incarceration, which led to arrests and four subsequent Supreme Court cases (Gordon Hirabayashi 1943, Minoru Yasui 1943, Fred Korematsu 1944, and Mitsuye Endo 1944) that questioned the constitutionality of various aspects of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. In the first three cases, government authorities misled the court by exaggerating the military’s estimates of the security risk posed by Japanese Americans. All convictions were overturned 40 years later thanks to the leadership of the Nisei and Sansei generations, who achieved historic court victories that paved the way for the Redress Movement. This in turn led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted a formal apology and reparations to Japanese Americans.
Caroline asked: Did any other Americans try to stand up for Japanese Americans’ rights?
Dr. Tamai: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American community was perceived to be allied with Japan and thus, it was extremely unpopular to stand up for them. Several notable people did, however.
Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego, wrote many letters to her former students who were incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center. For more information, see Joanne Oppenheim, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006). There was also a Mexican-Irish teenager named Ralph Lazo who decided to show his support of his Japanese American friends by joining them at Manzanar during the war.
Ralph Carr, former governor of Colorado, welcomed Japanese Americans who wished to resettle in Colorado after the war—an unpopular move that cost him his bid for the US Senate. American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) also gave public support to Japanese Americans who were resettling. San Francisco–based civil rights attorney Wayne Collins helped nearly 5,000 Japanese Americans reinstate their US citizenship after they had been coerced into renouncing it. He also served as defense attorney for Fred Korematsu, Mitsuye Endo, and Japanese Latin Americans who had been extradited from Latin America and imprisoned in US Department of Justice camps.
Anonymous asked: Why didn’t they send Japanese Americans back to Japan?
Dr. Tamai: By 1942, nearly two-thirds of the Japanese American community had been born in the US, making them US citizens. Although most had family members who were still in Japan, many had never even been there, and therefore going “back” was not an option. For the first-generation Japanese immigrants who made up one-third of the community, many had already established themselves in the US—they were legal residents; they owned businesses, farms, and homes; and their children were American citizens. The US government was not in a position to deport an entire ethnic community.
During the first part of the program, students heard from JANM volunteer William “Bill” Shishima, who talked about his childhood incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The students responded very positively to his story and asked him a few more questions via the web chat.
NadeShot asked: What was it like saying goodbye to your friends and not knowing when you would be back?
Bill Shishima: It was very short and sweet. Basically, we just said goodbye and we didn’t know where we were going or for how long.
Cate asked: Did the formal US apology help you at all emotionally?
Shishima: Yes, I was shocked that the country said that they were sorry we were incarcerated during the war. It takes a great country to admit a wrong to their citizens. I donated my $20,000 reparation money to the Japanese American National Museum, which exists to tell the Japanese American incarceration story so that it will never happen again!
A huge thank you to everybody who participated in this year’s National Youth Summit! In closing, we’d like to leave you with a link to the rap song we played to kick off the program. It’s called “9066” and it’s by “Kamikaze” Kane Tenorio. You can listen to it here. You can also read about Kane and his family here. Enjoy!
JANM is excited to welcome a new neighbor to its campus. Last fall, following nearly two years of preparation, Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) took up residence in our Historic Building, located across the plaza from the museum’s main building. Founded in 1989, GFBNEC is dedicated to the legacy of World War II American veterans of Japanese ancestry. For the last several months, they have been hard at work fixing up their new offices and installing a new core exhibition, The Defining Courage Experience.
On the eve of their Homecoming Celebration on May 28—an all-day affair that will include family-friendly activities, food, music, and programs—JANM sat down with GFBNEC’s Exhibit Manager, Chris Brusatte, for a brief interview.
JANM: Why is it so critical for future generations to know the story of Japanese American soldiers during World War II?
Chris Brusatte: History repeats itself. This year’s presidential campaign is just the latest example of why we need to remember our history and why we need to prevent our country from giving in to fear, hatred, and prejudice.
The Japanese Americans of World War II—soldiers, their families, those who protested against the government, and others—all acted with courage in the face of bigotry, injustice, and hatred. They stood up for themselves, for their families, for their communities, and for their country—the United States of America. They proved how wrong it was to treat them so horribly.
This must be taught to all future generations, so that we don’t mistreat Arab or Muslim Americans, LGBT Americans, recent immigrants, or any other group that might far too easily be construed as an “other.” The lessons from this history must prevent similar injustices from happening in the present and in the future.
JANM: What is the significance of setting up your new home in JANM’s Historic Building, the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple?
CB: We always tell people that this building is our number one artifact. And that is putting it lightly. The powerful aura that the building holds still takes my breath away. It is an aura tinged with both sadness and remembrance, bittersweet in the way that it symbolizes the history of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles.
As many of your readers might know, the temple was built in 1925 as the first facility in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. Sadly, during World War II, local Japanese Americans were ordered to assemble outside the temple to be bused away to incarceration camps. The temple held many of these families’ belongings during the war years, keeping them safe until they could return. It still gives me goose bumps to think that generations of kids will get to learn about this powerful and important history in such a sacred place, right where it actually occurred.
JANM: Can you explain the concept and design of your new Defining Courage exhibition?
CB:The Defining Courage Experience is a dynamic, engaging, and participatory exhibition that teaches modern audiences to act with courage and character in their own lives. It does this by teaching them the history of the Japanese American World War II experience and how its message can relate to our world today. Through hands-on activities, both high-tech and tactile, visitors learn about the courage, perseverance, sacrifice, and character of the Japanese American soldiers and others during World War II, and they learn how to apply these virtues and personality traits in their own lives today. Our exhibit design team, Quatrefoil Associates out of Maryland, has done a great job building an extraordinary exhibition that includes activities both historic and modern, action-inducing and thought-provoking.
JANM: Please tell us more about how this new exhibition came together.
CB: This exhibition is the creation of literally a thousand people. Our staff traveled to seven cities around the country in the early stages of concept planning, drawing together scores of people in each community. Once back in Southern California, we convened dozens of scholars, dozens of teachers and educators, and scores of high school and college students.
All of these people helped plan our exhibition from the very beginning—the themes, the content, and how we should lay out each activity. This exhibition truly was created by a village. But mostly, I have to thank my coworkers at Go For Broke and the exhibit design firm of Quatrefoil Associates. This core team was incredible, working with passion and intelligence and creativity to bring this unique exhibition into reality.
JANM: What can we expect from the new interpretive center in the coming months and years?
CB: We hope to keep our exhibits up-to-date using modern news pieces, through a collaborative effort with ABC7 Eyewitness News. Each day that you walk into the exhibition, you will experience something new. In the long run, we hope to bring this exhibition to communities around the country, through some sort of traveling exhibit program. We will also be constantly holding public events, such as lectures and veterans’ programs, in our facilities. We are so thankful as well to the staff at the Japanese American National Museum, who have already been so helpful with collaborative programs and events!
Go For Broke’s Homecoming Celebration takes place this Saturday, May 28, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Event admission is free and no RSVP is necessary. Admission to JANM will be “pay what you wish.” For more information, visit goforbroke.org.
Although today’s cultural landscape is much more diverse than it was 20 or 30 years ago, with a broader array of viewpoints represented in popular media and fine art, artists and writers of color still find themselves struggling to achieve as much visibility as their mainstream white counterparts. Recent events such as the celebrated launch of Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American network sitcom in over 20 years, and the lively dialogues that took place around the #OscarsSoWhite controversy reveal that cultural diversity is still an evolving and hotly debated topic in this country.
In 2015, the #LITinCOLOR initiative was launched as a way to spotlight the works of writers of color, particularly those of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. Three small, well-respected publishers based in Los Angeles—Kaya Press, Tia Chucha Press, and Writ Large Press—came together to “bring attention to vital voices of color and social engagement in literature.”
After years of publishing innovative works by a diverse spectrum of authors, the #LITinCOLOR initiative gave them a distinctive way to branch out and reach new audiences by hosting readings and other events in a variety of locations. The founders credited recent grassroots movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks for inspiration.
This coming Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m., join us for a special #LITinCOLOR event, held to coincide with the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, taking place this year in Los Angeles. An evening of readings by poets and novelists from various communities and generations will celebrate the invention and imagination of writers of color who seek to represent realities that lie outside of the mainstream imagination.
Featured writers will include April Naoko Heck, author of the poetry collection A Nuclear Family; Naomi Hirahara, author of the forthcoming mystery novel Sayonara Slam; traci kato-kiriyama, founder of Tuesday Night Project; Leza Lowitz, poet, author, and translator of Ayukawa Nobuo’s America and Other Poems; Japanese-New Zealander singer-songwriter Kat McDowell; David Mura, poet and author of The Last Incantations and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei; and Gene Oishi, the renowned Nisei journalist who published his first novel, Fox Drum Bebop, when he was in his eighties. Fox Drum Bebop is the winner of the 2016 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Creative Writing in Prose.
Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of participating on the planning committee for the 2016 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance program. I joined representatives from the Japanese American Citizens League (Pacific Southwest District), the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, and others at JANM to organize the annual event which gathers members of the community to reflect on the enduring legacy of Executive Order 9066. That directive, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the forced removal and incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.
The program was held last Saturday before a standing room only crowd at JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. Entitled Is It 1942 Again? Overcoming Our Fears and Upholding Constitutional Rights for All, the program honored the courage and perseverance of the women, men, and children who were incarcerated during World War II, while challenging the audience to apply the lessons of Japanese American history in today’s context. Following recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, American Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arab Americans, and refugees attempting to enter the United States have been the target of hateful acts and caustic rhetoric—a chilling echo of the Japanese American experience during World War II.
A distinguished set of speakers eloquently addressed this year’s theme. They included: event emcees Bruce Embrey (Manzanar Committee) and traci ishigo (Japanese American Citizens League); JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami; Anthony Marsh of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that courageously opposed the World War II incarceration; and Maytha Alhassen, a Syrian Muslim American Provost PhD Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Congresswoman Judy Chu warned the audience, “Because of the Japanese American camps, we know just how far the country can go if we let hysteria and scapegoating get their way.” She continued, “Let us make sure that what happened to Japanese Americans never happens to anyone again in this country.”
But no voice was more essential to the program than that of longtime JANM docent and Heart Mountain camp survivor Bill Shishima. Bill recalled his early childhood years spent near Olvera Street in downtown LA, and the grocery store and hotel his father operated there before being forced to leave them behind during World War II. Bill’s vivid description of the years that followed transported the audience to the foul-smelling horse stables of Santa Anita Race Track, where Bill’s grandparents stayed, and to the incessant dust storms of Bill’s eventual home, Heart Mountain camp. One by one, Bill recounted the traumas and indignities of everyday camp life—the degrading lack of privacy, the barbed wire fences and armed guards, the confusing and ominous loyalty questionnaire, and the promising student body president who volunteered for military service to prove his patriotism and was then killed in Europe.
Bill concluded his remarks by reminding the audience of the “fragility of civil liberties in a time of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.” He received a well-deserved standing ovation.