A Young JANM Volunteer Shares Her Impressions of the 2017 Pilgrimage to Manzanar

Joy Teruko Ormseth at JANM. Photo by Carol Cheh.

JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.

This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.

JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?

Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.

The JANM contingent poses for a group photo during the Manzanar Pilgrimage.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: What’s your family’s background?

JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.

JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?

JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].

Evelynne Matsumoto (née Watanabe), Joy Ormseth’s grandmother, in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy of Evelynne Matsumoto.

JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?

JTO: Yeah.

JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.

JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].

A replica of one of the barracks that once filled the Manzanar camp site. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.

JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!

JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?

JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.

Interior of the recreated barrack. This structure is much safer and more comfortable than the original barracks were, due to the necessity of accommodating visitors. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.

JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)

JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?

JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.

JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?

JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).

Representatives from the other camps made their presence felt with colorful banners.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?

JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.

JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?

JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!

Taiko drummers helped to kick off the ceremonies at the 2017 Manzanar pilgrimage, which was attended by more than 2,000 people. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?

JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.

JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?

JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.

JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?

JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.

A barren landscape. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?

JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.

JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?

JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.

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.

JANM Appreciates Its Volunteers

Past and current winners of the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award and others gather for a group photo. L to R, standing: Richard Murakami, Teri Tanimura (daughter of the award’s namesake), Bill Shishima, JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs, Irene Nakagawa, Nahan Gluck, Lee Hayashi, Babe Karasawa, Ken Hamamura, Carole Yamakoshi, Janet Maloney, Helen Yasuda, Roy Sakamoto, Hal Keimi, and Mike Okamura. L to R, seated: Bob Moriguchi, Marge Wada, Masako Koga Murakami, Bob Uragami, Ike Hatchimonji, and Julia Murakami. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers are at the heart of the Japanese American National Museum, an institution that was founded through a tireless grassroots volunteer campaign. Today, volunteers continue to play a crucial role in the museum’s operations: leading docent tours and representing the museum to our visitors, staffing the Hirasaki National Resource Center, helping to count and restock inventory for the JANM Store, helping to organize the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, and leading activities for the School Visits program, among numerous other tasks. Some of our volunteers are camp survivors or descendants of camp survivors, providing a critical link to the past.

To recognize the outstanding commitment of our volunteer corps, JANM annually gives out awards to those volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty in helping the museum fulfill its mission. On May 13, 2017, awards for outstanding service in 2016 were announced during our special Volunteer Recognition Event.

JANM Vice President of Operations/Art Director Clement Hanami presents the 2016 Administration Award to photographer Ben Furuta. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

Ben Furuta, who photographs many of our public programs, won the Administration Award, which recognizes outstanding service and achievement in an administrative/operational capacity. Sharlene Takahashi, one of our docents, received the Community Award, which is given for outstanding service and achievement in working with visitors, with the public, and in the community on behalf of the museum. The Program Award was given to Patricia Ishida and Linda Fujioka to recognize their outstanding service and achievement in educating visitors through public and school programs. And finally, the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, named after a passionate volunteer who passed away tragically in 1992, was given to Ken Hamamura, who assists JANM in many different areas, including photo archiving and preparations for the last two National Conferences.

Sharlene Takahashi holds up her 2016 Community Award. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM Director of Education Allyson Nakamoto presents the 2016 Program Award to Patricia Ishida. (Linda Fujioka was also a winner of this award, but could not be present for the event.) Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ken Hamamura, center, holds up his 2016 Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, surrounded by members of his family. On the far left is Teri Tanimura, daughter of Miki, and on the right is JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers also receive pins to recognize the number of years of service they have given to JANM. This year, pins were given out as follows: One Year—Noreene Arase, Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Keiko Miya, Michael Okuda, Sandra Saeki, William Teragawa, and Tomi Yoshikawa; Five Years—Peter Fuster and Kyle Honma; Ten Years—Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita; Fifteen Years—Eiko Masuyama, Fred Murakami, Julia Murakami, Larry Oshima, and Mitsuyo Tanaka; Twenty Years—Marge Wada; Twenty-Five Years—Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda.

L to R, standing: JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; One-Year Service Pin recipients Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Michael Okuda, and Tomi Yoshikawa; JANM Board of Governors member Nikki Kodama. L to R, kneeling: One-Year Service Pin recipients Noreene Arase, Keiko Miya, and William Teragawa. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with Ten-Year Service Pin recipients Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita. Ken Hamamura joins them on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with 15-Year Service Pin recipients Julia Murakami and Larry Oshima. 2016 Tanimura Award winner Ken Hamamura is on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, 20-Year Service Pin recipient Marge Wada, and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Hanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; 25-Year Service Pin recipients Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda; and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Kanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.

As always, the staff at JANM thanks our volunteers from the bottoms of our hearts. Without their efforts, the museum would not be able to organize nearly as many programs or serve nearly as many visitors in its ongoing quest to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

For information about volunteering with JANM, please visit janm.org/volunteer or contact volunteer@janm.org or 213.830.5645.

JANM Volunteer’s Quilt Commemorates Executive Order 9066

JANM’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, happens this Saturday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites. Among the many fantastic items that will be up for auction is the handmade quilt pictured here, a memorial to the World War II incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry created by JANM volunteer June Aoki in collaboration with her mentor, Maria Reza.

The quilt is sizeable, measuring 58 x 54 inches, and includes many wonderful details. A reproduction of a Civilian Exclusion Order, posted to inform Japanese Americans of their impending forced removal and incarceration, sits at its center, surrounded by photographs of all ten of the American concentration camps where they were housed for the duration of the war. A barbed-wire border encloses them. Images of notable persons and moments, as well as the Japanese saying gaman (perseverance or “keep on”), line each side.

In addition to the wonders of photo-printable fabric, the quilt is helped along by a suitcase-patterned fabric that Aoki happened to stumble across in a downtown fabric store. Seeing that the pattern evoked the suitcases carried by those bound for camp, who were limited to “only what you can carry,” Aoki used the fabric to make the quilt’s backing.

A former LAUSD schoolteacher, June Aoki has been volunteering at JANM since her retirement 15 years ago. Although both of her Kibei-Nisei (second generation, educated in Japan) parents were incarcerated at Poston, she herself avoided that fate because she happened to be in Japan at the time, being cared for by her grandparents. Born in California, Aoki went on to finish grade school and junior high school in Japan before rejoining her parents in the States.

Aoki, who has been quilting for as long as she’s been volunteering at JANM, recently joined a quilting group called TELAS (The East Los Angeles Stitchers). The group was largely working on religious imagery inspired by the Catholic backgrounds of many of its members. Since Aoki isn’t Catholic, she wondered what she could work on. Fellow member Maria Reza, who also happened to be Aoki’s former supervisor at LAUSD, suggested that she focus on elements of her own Japanese American history, and offered to help develop an idea.

The two met several times at the museum, and finally settled on “Executive Order 9066” as a central theme. Over the next two months, they worked together on the design and construction of the piece, enlisting several helpers along the way. Fellow TELAS member Gloria Flores did much of the quilting, while Alhambra quilter Sandra Kurosaki did the embroidery. JANM volunteer Henry Yasuda did the calligraphy for the gaman panel, and JANM Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee helped to find and sort through appropriate historical images.

Aoki initially offered to donate the quilt to JANM, but was told there was nowhere to hang it at the moment, and the quilt would wind up in storage. She decided instead to contribute it to the Silent Auction. If you are attending our sold-out dinner event this Saturday, be sure to bid early and often if you want a shot at this beautiful quilt!

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.

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.

Curator Jeff Yang Discusses New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei

This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cover of George Takei’s 2012 book, Oh Myyy!: There Goes the Internet.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.

JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?

Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.

George Takei, student body president, at a student council meeting, Mount Vernon Junior High School. George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?

JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.

JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?

JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.

George Takei carries the Olympic torch through the streets of Los Angeles in the
run up to the 1984 Olympic Games. George & Brad Takei Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?

JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.

As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!

Wedding photo of Brad and George Takei, Toyo Miyatake Studios, 2008.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?

JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.

JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?

JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.

Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening of New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.

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!

Shibori Girl Has a Passion for Handmade Crafts

The fruits of a recent shibori class at JANM. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

As “Shibori Girl,” Glennis Dolce offers several shibori (resist cloth dyeing) workshops a year at JANM. If you’re not familiar with the art of shibori, check out our earlier blog post on the history of the craft. Dolce’s workshops are always very popular; in fact, this weekend’s Indigo Vat Making and Shibori Technique workshop is completely sold out. We decided to sit down with Dolce to learn more about her background and her practice.

JANM: You’ve said that you think of Japan as your first home. Can you explain your connection to that country?

Glennis Dolce: I grew up in Yokohama, Japan, as a result of my father—a naval architect—taking two back-to-back assignments at the Yokohama Naval Shipyard. We lived there from 1965 to 1972. We lived both on and off the base and had the opportunity to take in many wonderful locations, absorbing the enriching culture and beauty of Japan. I went to the two base schools in Yokohama (Richard E. Byrd Elementary and Nile C. Kinnick High School) as well as St. Maur International School. In 1995, I went back to Japan for the first time after moving away and realized that I had come back “home.”

Glennis Dolce leads a shibori class at JANM, flanked by samples of resist cloth dyeing.
Photo by Tokumasa Shoji.

JANM: How did you first encounter shibori? What captivated you about it?

GD: I must have seen and even worn some shibori as a child at summer festivals in Japan, where we dressed in yukata (summer kimono) with obi age (sash), but back then I did not know what it was. During the late 1990s, I was a vendor at the Houston Quilt Festival, and it was there that I started to pick up small bits of Japanese textiles. Later, I realized that most of what I had collected was shibori. I was intrigued by its unique patterning and the texture that was sometimes imparted to the cloth by the process. I wondered to myself, how was it made? And that’s how it all started. I studied the fabrics, read many books, and eventually began practicing on my own. As I learned and practiced more, my love for shibori grew with the understanding that each piece is unique and has limitless possibilities. This in itself is a view of life that I enjoy passing along when I teach.

Glennis gives advice to a workshop participant. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Describe your artistic training.

GD: I was fortunate to attend a new and experimental high school in Virginia that was very progressive and had full-on art studios in painting, sculpture, ceramics, metals, textiles, and printmaking. It was fantastic. I had access to materials and equipment, and I had a passion for working with my hands. Following that, I attended UC Davis and CSU Long Beach as a ceramics major in the late 70s. I chose ceramics because I thought I could make a living with clay and I wanted to work with my hands. I started a porcelain company while I was at CSULB and worked in porcelain for over 30 years until I closed the company around 2002. I consider my primary training to be the ongoing day-to-day operation of my business, my love for materials and process, and the challenge of making a living outside the constraints of being “normal.”

A workshop participant examines his work. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Besides teaching, you also run an online store. Can you tell us more about the store?

GD: Yes, I actually spend more time making and selling my work than teaching; I enjoy both. I have been blogging since 2006 and over time have created a following for my work. I have always enjoyed making and selling things that others can incorporate into their own work—being a craft supplier if you will. My online store often features my unique silk shibori ribbon that people all over the world buy to use in their own creative projects. I also sell indigo and plant-dyed cloth for others to incorporate into their own work.

I believe that making things by hand is valuable and even necessary for people. It can provide stress reduction, increased life satisfaction, and even improved brain function, according to some studies linking motor skills with cognitive processing. I enjoy creating things that make people wonder. As a child, I realized that making arts and crafts made me feel better. It still does. I started teaching as a way to educate people about my own work as well as encourage them to incorporate hand-making into their own lives.

Another happy customer. Photo by Dr. Tsuneo Takasugi.

JANM: Do you have other creative pursuits besides shibori?

GD: I do like to share my interest in Japan and silk textiles with others in the form of my Silk Study Tour to Japan, which I offer every other year. It is a tour devoted to seeing Japan through the eyes of a silkworm; understanding the industrialization of Japan and its connection to the silk trade as well as the many textile, craft, and cultural traditions there. I get lots of enjoyment from sharing the beauty and grace of Japan with others through this tour.

I have many creative interests—gardening, cooking, writing, marketing, sewing, watercolor painting, calligraphy, and more. I believe that we can inject creativity into almost anything we do!

The next available Shibori Girl workshop at JANM will be Shibori Mandalas, taking place Saturday–Sunday, February 4–5, 2017. Be sure to reserve your spot early!