An Interview with Transpacific Borderlands Curator Kris Kuramitsu

Ichiro Irie, Impermanence I, 2017. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo features 13 artists and five curators, working in four different countries. It was organized as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a Getty-led initiative exploring Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. To say that the exhibition is a group effort might be a bit of an understatement; it is more like an expansive spider web of interlacing connections, geared toward shedding insight into the histories and experiences of artists who live and work in hybrid cultures.

First and Central has done several blog posts exploring various aspects of Transpacific Borderlands. This week, we present an interview with Kris Kuramitsu, one of the exhibition’s five curators. A longtime art professional based in Los Angeles, Kuramitsu was responsible for selecting the three artists who represent this region. She will be leading a tour of the exhibition on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m.

JANM: How did you come to be involved with Transpacific Borderlands?

Kris Kuramitsu: I’ve worked with and curated work by artists from around the globe, but I’ve been based in Los Angeles for my entire professional career, so I was really excited about the parameters of this very global project. I jumped at the opportunity to work on it when [JANM Vice President of Exhibitions] Clement Hanami invited me. Clement was really the driving force behind the exhibition, and the fact that he’s so invested in and engaged with the cultural dynamics that we’re exploring in the exhibition—not only as a curator but as an artist in his own right—really helped shape the project as a whole.

I was asked to bring to the table artists in Los Angeles whose work defines a Japanese Latino cultural space, and my colleagues in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru did the same for artists from their countries. It was such a complex and fascinating conversation, one that we were lucky enough to develop into the exhibition that’s at JANM today.

JANM: Can you give us some insight into your curatorial process? How did you go about selecting the artists you selected? What was it about their artwork that drew you to it?

KK: The three artists I selected to be in the exhibition are really different from one another, but each of them powerfully represents his or her own cultural position in striking visual terms. Kenzi Shiokava is a longtime Angeleno who is originally from São Paulo. He’s one of the oldest artists in the exhibition, probably by a decade or two, and served as a bit of an anchor for me in thinking about the show. His work is such a rich combination of Japanese and Brazilian influences, in both aesthetics and materials, but it is also so deeply grounded in Los Angeles. He literally gathers his materials from the streets and gardens of LA, so they are assemblages that tell the story of the city as well as that of the artist.

Shizu Saldamando makes exquisite drawings that really can stop you in your tracks. They seem to be simple, beautifully rendered portraits of her friends, but the specific moments and gestures that she captures are so precise. Her compositions masterfully balance ornament and abstraction, positive and negative space. Ichiro Irie has such a strong relationship to his materials—as deep as Kenzi’s, but with an interest in stretching them to their limits. He’s also an incredible connector, gathering communities around him through his work, through the international art and culture magazine Rim that he published in Mexico City, and through the gallery Jaus where he is director and curator, showing artists from LA and around the world. I think of all of this as part of his artistic practice, which is deeply connective and connecting.

Kenzi Shiokava stands in front of a selection of his totems, created over a span of many years, during the opening reception for Transpacific Borderlands. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk.

JANM: Did you confer with the other curators at all during the course of this project? Do you think that the various curators and scholars informed one another’s choices?

KK: Thanks to the support of the Getty, this was a really fantastic process that involved conversations among a broad range of scholars and artists from throughout Latin America and the US over the course of a few years. Because it’s such a wide and complex territory that we’re dealing with in the exhibition, it was really important to come together and talk through ideas about identity and the differences (and similarities) in cultural and social contexts that exist for artists in various geographies and generations. We talked about the ways cultural identities form very differently in all of our different homelands—relationships between self and community, self and national identity, and the differences from one generation to another are quite particular. We made our own choices of artists, but once we brought them to the table, there were so many places that their work and approaches overlapped that the sections of the show emerged from those areas of common approach.

JANM: What are some of the insights or experiences that you hope visitors will take away from this exhibition?

KK: I think the sheer diversity of the work is one of the main points; collectively, I think the show does a great job of confounding notions of strict national or cultural identity at every turn. We tried to create rooms that had loose associations around shared subject matter, treatment of material, or related approaches to history, so I hope people see those connections. But primarily, I hope people want to know more about the artists and seek out more of their work!

Join Kris Kuramitsu for a tour of the Los Angeles portion of Transpacific Borderlands on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m. Tickets may be purchased here. The exhibition will be on view through February 25.

Spanish-Language Tour of Little Tokyo Opens More Doors of Understanding

Monica Cruz and Sergio Holguin. Photo by Richard Watanabe.

The Little Tokyo Walking Tour is one of many public programs offered by the Japanese American National Museum. In conjunction with JANM’s latest exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, visitors will soon be able to tour the Little Tokyo Historic District with an experienced Spanish-speaking docent. To gain more insight into this new offering, JANM Visitor Services Associate Sergio Holguin sat down with Monica Cruz, the docent who will lead the tour, for a brief discussion.

Author’s note: In this discussion, “Latino” is shorthand for a larger, mixed identity/ies. Both parties use the term to refer to persons of Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin American, and mixed Hispanic descent. The term is not used to describe those who significantly identify with specific indigenous identities or those who represent themselves as “Chicano.” “Latino” is used for the sake of brevity, and should not be misconstrued as a reductive gesture. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below.

Sergio Holguin: Tell me about yourself and the work you do with JANM.

Monica Cruz: I’ve been a member of the museum for about five years, and a volunteer for three. I’ve worked in a variety of capacities: Visitor Services, when they need me; leading the Little Tokyo Walking Tour (I was trained as a docent); and now I’m a part of the group that helps out at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center).

SH: As a Mexican-American, I tend to get a lot of puzzled looks from folks coming in, even after seven years of working here. As a non-Japanese person like me, how did you get involved with the Japanese American community?

MC: To make the story short, my late husband was Japanese American, the first generation in his family to be born in the United States.

SH: So he was Shin-Nisei [a child of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the US after World War II]?

MC: Yes, we were both actually born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to California for work. When he passed, I decided to stay close to the Japanese American community here, in celebration of his memory. I started volunteering with the different temples, and also got involved in Obon season, when they remember the dead—kind of like Día de los Muertos for us Latinos. I became a member of the museum because of all the programs they offer, and I saw the need for volunteers at that point, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.

SH: I like that you brought up Obon, because that’s actually how I was first drawn to visit Little Tokyo years ago. There’s a lot of overlap between cultures—not just Mexican, Latino, and Japanese culture, but other cultures as well. Remembering and honoring the dead, responsibility to family, and public service—those are very universal human traits. It’s important that we celebrate intersections of identity. What are some of your thoughts and hopes for the very first Little Tokyo Walking Tour en Español?

MC: I think that Transpacific Borderlands and this tour both provide opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding overall, with a particular focus on the mix between cultures. We can each say that we have gone through similar changes—moving from a different country to here, learning new cultures, and learning new things as part of joining “the American Dream.” I think that opening doors of understanding for people who may not be comfortable with English, but are still an important part of the community, can help with that.

I would like others to discover and fall in love with Little Tokyo the way I did. I think if we offer the tours in Spanish and other languages as well, we can share our experience with others while growing as a group and bringing new stories and experiences into the museum.

SH: Absolutely, and that’s the museum’s mission: to share Japanese American stories to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and encourage others to share their own stories. If we’re able to talk with one another along those lines, the more rigid lines between communities start to melt away.

MC: I think that’s the part I enjoy the most: when people who begin the tour being quiet or shy actually open up and start sharing their life stories. Because even though this is the Japanese American National Museum, I think that the general idea of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant background is something we share with others.

SH: It’s always fun to hear where people are from—whether it’s France, Osaka, or even El Sereno—and what brought them to Little Tokyo, because that in turn informs and becomes part of your experience.

MC: Yes. The stories that people tell me, I can sometimes include on my Little Tokyo tours. For example, someone once noted that the Brunswig Square building looks a lot like Los Angeles City Hall, so I did some research and found out they were designed by the same architect. Even if you have led the tour many times, the perspective of other people can still open new doors.

SH: Tell us more about what your tour en Español will be like.

MC: It depends on the needs of the group. Sometimes people are here for school, so certain kinds of information are more important for them. But I do want everyone to be familiar with the area so that even after the tour they are able to go and find their own adventure. We only have two hours to condense decades of living in Little Tokyo! As time moves forward, we get different types of people moving into the area. I don’t expect everyone to sit down and read up on all the history, but I do expect them to go and have an adventure!

Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so after lunch, I encourage people to come visit the museum. I feel that JANM is the spine of the whole Little Tokyo experience, not only because it’s the Japanese American National Museum, but because it tells you the story from the beginning, when the Japanese first began migrating to the United States.

Monica Cruz will be leading a tour of Little Tokyo in Spanish on February 10 at 10:15 a.m. You can purchase tickets for the tour here. Visitor Services staff at the front desk are always happy to answer questions about the tour or any of our other public programs.

Sergio Holguin is a Visitor Services Associate at JANM. Formerly a volunteer docent, Holguin strives to share his personal story as a means of encouraging discussions of contemporary identity within a shared American history. You can read about his journey on Discover Nikkei.

An Interview with Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. Her documentary projects focus on immigrant communities, race, gender, and social justice, and have included Calavera Highway, Skate Manzanar, Labor Women, My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha, and the highly influential Who Killed Vincent Chin? Tajima-Peña has been deeply involved in the Asian American independent film community as an activist, writer, and filmmaker. She was the director at Asian Cine-Vision in New York and a founding member of the Center for Asian American Media (formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association).

On January 27, JANM is honored to welcome Tajima-Peña as the curator and host of Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, the program will feature screenings of Kaori Flores Yonekura’s Nikkei (2011) and Ann Kaneko’s Against the Grain (2008), the latter of which includes interviews with exhibiting artist Eduardo Tokeshi. Following the screening, Tajima-Peña will moderate a discussion and audience Q&A with Kaneko and Tokeshi.

Through an email interview, Tajima-Peña shared some thoughts on the program, cultural hybridity, the immigrant experience, Asian diasporas, indie film, and other topics.

A still from Kaori Flores Yonekura’s film, Nikkei.

JANM: How did you come to be involved with this program? I know that your work deals generally with themes of Asian diaspora, but do you also have a particular connection to Peru or Peruvian filmmaking?

Renee Tajima-Peña: The exhibition’s project manager, Claudia Sobral, asked me to put together a program of films in conjunction with JANM’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition. I don’t have a direct connection to Peru itself. But I was raised here in LA, which is so deeply a Latinx city, and my family is mixed race—my husband is Mexican American and my son was raised in both cultures. That’s not just me; cultural hybridity is baked into the Nikkei and the Asian American experience because of immigration patterns and the ways people of color have always lived in close proximity—going to school together, working together, mobilizing together, sharing histories of empire as well as the marker of race. Falling in love. So my work as a filmmaker has always crossed those kinds of borders. I’ve collaborated with Latinx filmmakers to make several documentaries about that experience. The most recent was No Más Bebés, co-produced by Virginia Espino, which is about Mexican American women who were sterilized at LA County-USC Medical Center during the 1970s.

JANM: Could you share some of your thought process in choosing these particular films and filmmakers to feature in Unsettled? How do they complement one another?

RTP: I was really interested in looking at the Japanese diaspora in the Americas. When I first became a filmmaker in the 1980s, I saw the Brazilian director Tizuka Yamasaki’s feature Gaijin, which was inspired by her own immigrant grandmother’s story of landing on a coffee plantation in Brazil. A few years later, I saw Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride, set on a Hawai’i sugar cane plantation. Japanese immigrants shared the same story, the same struggles, the same spirit—only different destinations.

For Transpacific Borderlands, I landed on Peru because of the films themselves. Ann Kaneko and Kaori Flores Yonekura are women directors who take up that search for the Japanese experience and identity in Latin America. I was really interested in the way they both contextualized how Nikkei lives intersected with the politics of Peru, but during different eras. Kaori’s film Nikkei traces her family’s history of migration to Peru and Venezuela from before World War II, while Ann’s Against the Grain brings the story to the Fujimori regime of the 1990s. I was fascinated by the tension and complexity evoked in pairing those two films.

Eduardo Tokeshi, Bandera Uno, 1985, latex on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

JANM: If you have seen Transpacific Borderlands, could you share your impressions of the exhibition? Do any of the works particularly speak to you?

RTP: Yes, I went to the opening, and I was astonished by how rich that visual culture is. I guess I should’ve known, but you really have to see it and get lost in it. I’d seen Eduardo Tokeshi’s work and his interviews in Against the Grain, so I was excited to see his work face-to-face. There’s a lot in his story that is familiar to me as a Japanese American—the cultural duality, being marginalized. But being Japanese while Peru was governed by an oppressive dictator who was also Japanese, brings a whole different layer to Tokeshi’s story and his art. I can’t believe our luck that he’s actually going to be at the screening!

JANM: Your work has taken on a range of social issues that involve immigrant and diasporic populations. Are there or have there been any issues involving Asian populations in Latin America that have caught your interest?

RTP: I always remember a story my friend, the filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, told me about an elderly Japanese guy in her hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, who swaggered around town dressed like an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy replete with a saber and medals. What was he doing there? Was he deranged? Was he an apparition? As a filmmaker, those simple questions—What are they doing there? What happened to them?—open up all kinds of possibilities, real or imagined.

Here’s another story. A few years ago, my son was involved with a youth workshop at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on the Japanese American concentration camps. We’d been working with Randall Fujimoto, the educational game designer, on using Minecraft to teach that history. The kids researched Executive Order 9066 and the camps, and then used Minecraft to build their own virtual replicas. It was a very mixed group of kids, and most weren’t Japanese or Asian American.

At the end of the summer the kids presented their projects, and a lot of their families came. I noticed this older Latina woman in tears, standing with her grandson who was one of the workshop students. She told me she grew up in Peru, and her best friend was Japanese. One day during the 1940s, her friend disappeared. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered the family had been incarcerated, I think at Crystal City, Texas. Seventy years later, she still grieved for her friend.

JANM: As a connoisseur of indie film in addition to being a noted filmmaker yourself, do you have any tips for additional Latin American films or filmmakers that we should check out?

RTP: Tizuka Yamasaki continues to make films and television programs in Brazil. One of the artists in Transpacific Borderlands, Shinpei Takeda, makes films about Japanese Mexicans. One of my former students, Elizabeth Cabrera, has been working on a film about the mystery of her great-grandfather, a Japanese immigrant in Baja California who vanished around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.

Transpacific Borderlands Artist Shizu Saldamando Pays Tribute to Camp Survivors in Upcoming Craft Workshop

Shizu Saldamando, Ozzie and Grace, 2014. Colored pencil and spray paint on paper.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.

This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.

JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?

Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.

JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?

SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.

In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.

Shizu Saldamando, Raquel’s Lunchbox, 2017. Graphite and spray paint on wood.

JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?

SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.

I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.

JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?

SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.

Paper flower wreaths from Shizu Saldamando’s workshop at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality, May 2016. Visible behind them are instructions from a Woolworth’s catalog that was found at Manzanar.

JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.

SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.

Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.

Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.

I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.

There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.

Also check out JANM’s short video on Saldamando’s practice, made to accompany the Transpacific Borderlands exhibition.

Jewelry Designer Hisano Shepherd Takes Pearls to the Next Level

The award-winning ruby pendant from Hisano Shepherd’s Grotto Collection.
All photos courtesy of little h jewelry.

Hisano Shepherd has made a name for herself as an innovative designer of contemporary jewelry. Born in Japan but raised in both Tokyo and Los Angeles, Shepherd has had a passion for jewelry since she was a child, leading her to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in metalsmithing and jewelry making. She then worked her way up from the bottom of the jewelry industry, going from polishing and fixing costume jewelry to eventually making a mark with her own designs. Today, her unique and eye-catching work is making waves throughout the fine jewelry market.

On Saturday, November 18, Shepherd’s jewelry will be featured in the JANM Store’s Pre-Holiday Trunk Show. We caught up with the designer via email to ask her a few questions about her practice.

JANM: Your jewelry designs are very unique. Where do you get your inspiration?

Hisano Shepherd: When I launched little h jewelry in 2012, I made it my mission to reinvent the pearl. The pearl jewelry I saw in the market at the time was too classical in style and bored me. I began experimenting with the silhouettes of pearls and also began cutting pearls. My Pearl Geode collection was inspired by the naturally formed geodes that I saw at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. When I cut the pearl in half and cleaned out the interior, I knew that I would be able to encrust gemstones to mimic the appearance of a geode.

JANM: Why are you particularly interested in pearls?

HS: My husband and I run a pearl jewelry company. I am the Chief Creative Officer and we travel around the world buying pearls. Because I source the pearls myself, I get to really cherry-pick the color, shape, size, and overtones. The more I learn about pearls the more I’m drawn in. Pearls cannot be created without great partnership between human and nature. I love the organic way they are grown and their variety of organic shapes.

As an artist, I also find it helpful to limit my medium. I challenged myself to only make jewelry with pearls, and I was able to carve out a niche position in the modern jewelry industry.

A pair of green emerald earrings with Tahitian pearls from little h’s
new Spiral Collection, available in spring 2018.

JANM: As a child, you split your time between LA and Tokyo. Do you feel that Japanese culture and aesthetics were a significant influence on you?

HS: Yes, absolutely! The culture is reflected in how I work. I can sit quietly for hours on end and concentrate on setting the stones and designing new collections. I think it came naturally for me. I’ve been taught to work hard and be diligent by my parents and grandparents.

Even though some of my pieces are ornate and colorful, I am drawn to simplicity and clean lines. It’s very aligned with Japanese aesthetics of expressing beauty with a minimalistic view.

JANM: How would you describe your own jewelry style? Tell us about some of your favorite pieces that you like to wear.

HS: I wear pearls every day, whether they are from little h or not. I like to layer them with thin, simple diamond jewelry, but pearls are always the focus.

My favorite little h piece is my ruby Grotto Collection pendant, for which I won an award from the Cultured Pearl Association of America. It was the first Grotto piece I made and I just love the soft bluish white color of the pearl with the contrasting bright red of the rubies.

My favorite pearl is a natural conch pearl. I have a pink conch pearl pendant that my husband gave me when we got married.

JANM: Are there any new projects or pursuits on the horizon that you’d like to tell us about?

HS: I am always pushing the boundaries and constantly experimenting with pearls. My latest collection is the Spiral Collection, which will be available in spring 2018. I was inspired by the circular lines formed by baroque pearls. I carved radially along the grooves of these circles and set small stones all around the indentation. It’s a bit more bold and masculine than my other collections and I love it. Depending on the piece, it reminds me of a halo, an aura, or even a scar. Sometimes the most artistic ideas can come from something grotesque. I take such ideas and make them into beautiful jewelry. I am enjoying the possibilities of expanding this collection.

Check out Hisano Shepherd’s stunning designs in person at the JANM Store’s Pre-Holiday Trunk Show on Saturday, November 18.

“Transpacific Musiclands” Celebrates Japanese/Latinx Cultural Exchange and Collaboration

I have a friend in Tokyo. His name is Shin Miyata. For the past 17 years, Shin has been running an independent music label called Barrio Gold Records. He primarily distributes groups from across Latin America, but his specialty is Chicano music from East Los Angeles. He also brings bands from East LA to Japan to perform live.

Nobody else in Japan is doing this kind of work.

I met Shin back in 2000, when I had the opportunity to go with the band Quetzal to Tokyo to document their tour. I learned that Shin had lived in the East LA neighborhood of City Terrace as a college student in the mid-1980s, doing a study-abroad home stay. He had been deeply inspired by Chicano books, films, and music—specifically 1970s bands like El Chicano and Tierra—and he had come to LA because he wanted to experience the Chicano culture first hand. He even took Chicano Studies classes at East LA College.

Shin Miyata. Photo by Rafael Cardenas.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Shin told me that it was his dream to bring over musicians from Japan so they could perform with musicians from East LA. Specifically, he wanted to bring Japanese musicians that play different types of Latin music. He believed that audiences would appreciate the heart and soul they put into the music, and that it would be amazing to see this sort of collaboration.

Thus, the idea for Transpacific Musiclands was born.

The Japanese American National Museum, located in Little Tokyo just across the bridge from Boyle Heights and East LA, would be the perfect venue. Shin would curate the event, drawing on some of the many Chicano bands he has worked with, and also selecting musicians from Japan to participate. The event would celebrate his work as a cultural ambassador while also encouraging unity and collaboration during a time of great political and ideological division worldwide.

Held in conjunction with the groundbreaking exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, Transpacific Musiclands will take over the JANM plaza on Saturday, October 14, 5–9:30pm. Featured acts will include Quetzal, El Haru Kuroi, and La Chamba. Conjunto J, a group from Osaka that plays Mexican border music, will join in, along with Tex Nakamura, East LA Taiko, and poets Luis J. Rodriguez and Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara. There will be DJ sets by Gomez Comes Alive and the man himself, Shin Miyata.

Each of the featured artists has benefited from Shin’s work, but they also share a deep affection for him. He has worked to create cultural exchanges and understanding between East LA and Japan for many years, and in doing so, has built a strong network of loyal friends.

Along with all of this incredible music, the Okamoto Kitchen food truck will be there, along with a beer garden by Angel City Brewery. Concertgoers will also be able to check out the exhibitions inside the museum till 8 p.m.

You can get your tickets right HERE.

Transpacific Musiclands is supported by Los Angeles County Arts Commission. It is
held in conjunction with the exhibition
Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, which is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.

My Summer as a JANM Intern

JANM’s 2017 summer interns spending time in Little Tokyo.
L to R: Mia Kato, Karina Kawana, Leighton Okada, and Ridge Hirano.

Mia Kato interned this past summer with JANM’s facility maintenance and rentals department. She offers the following account of her experience.

When I first started interning at the Japanese American National Museum, I thought I would be doing such typical intern tasks as getting coffee, making photocopies, and stapling documents together. Little did I know that my summer was going to be filled with different tasks every day—from designing a website to tasting sushi at a hotel.

I was pretty nervous in the beginning. Learning where everything was and how to use it was very overwhelming at first. Not to mention, remembering everyone’s names was a challenge—thank goodness for name cards! When I was presented with a desk in the facilities office and a building access badge, I felt official. Having sat in classrooms all of my life, the work setting felt a lot different to me. I felt like a real grownup for once and it was great.

Over the last couple of months at JANM I learned a lot. I initially came here because I needed to complete a 400-hour course credit requirement for school. As I put in these hours however, I was exposed to many different aspects of museum operations, including visitor services, public programs, and facility maintenance and rentals. These different departments taught me a lot of things and I am so thankful for the people who took me under their wing.

In visitor services, I experienced what it was like to be the first person to represent the museum. To be able to answer the numerous questions that always came in, I had to expand my knowledge about the museum, Japanese American history, and Little Tokyo. Being in the front of the museum also brought me closer to the visitors that came in, because I got to learn their stories and their personal connections to Japanese American history.

When I worked in public programs, I was amazed to learn how many little details go into each event. I learned to think outside of the box and to look at not only the bigger picture but the smaller details. This department helped me understand a lot more about my hospitality administration major and everything that it takes to organize an event.

Facility maintenance and rentals was the primary department that I was assigned to. At first, I was a little wary about being in this department because I did not know what kind of work it would entail. To my surprise, this was not your average 9-5 job; every day was a different adventure. My supervisors were amazing and always included me in the various activities that went on throughout the day. I was able to go on walkthroughs, join food vendor tastings, and even climbed to the roof of the building at one point.

Together, our department worked on marketing and advertising facility rentals for the museum. We worked on a new website, a brochure, and a rentals packet. They taught me the process of organizing event rentals, which requires a lot of paperwork and attention to detail. I also got to work on my correspondence and communication skills.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience at JANM. I came in very hesitant and nervous, but I am leaving with new skills and experiences that I never in my life thought would happen. Each department taught me something a little different that I will be able to apply to my studies at school and in the future, at work. I appreciate everything that I got to do this summer through JANM and I hope that the next group of interns will have as much fun as I did.

Mia Kato is studying hospitality administration at Boston University.

Scapegoat Cities: New Podcast Explores Japanese American Incarceration

Podcast logo by Kelsea Bauer. The design combines a bonsai tree with the scales of justice.

The following guest blog post, announcing the launch of a new podcast exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, is contributed by Eric Muller, a law professor and longtime friend of the museum.

After the election of Donald Trump, many people were asking themselves: “How can I help counter what lies ahead?” I decided to create a podcast called Scapegoat Cities, which is launching today.

The idea is simple. Over the course of two decades of deep research in the National Archives for my books and articles, I’ve gathered many touching but unknown stories of the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II—stories that put a human face on the gross miscarriage of justice. Scapegoat Cities lets me tell a handful of those stories in an accessible and compelling way.

I believe that if we want to ensure that something never happens again, we need to first ensure that we really know what it was that actually happened. That’s what this podcast is for: to help listeners know in detail and also feel how Japanese Americans experienced unwarranted confinement by the US government. My hope is that this will contribute in some small way to resisting the dangerous religious and ethnic profiling that the policies of the Trump administration threaten to enact. It will remind people of the real human costs of these seemingly abstract policies.

The first two episodes, available now, give a good idea of what the podcast will do. “The Desert Was His Home” tells the story of the disappearance and death of Otomatsu Wada, an elderly Issei, from the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. In “The Irrepressible Moe Yonemura,” an extraordinary young man defies all odds and becomes one of the most popular and respected members of his class at UCLA. He brings the same indomitable spirit to his time at the Heart Mountain camp—and then he volunteers for wartime service as part of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both of these stories are based on real events that took place at those two camps. Each of the stories, in its own touching way, reveals something important about the nature and impact of confinement.

It’s surprising how much information survives that helps me tell these stories. I learned the story of the disappearance of the Issei gentleman from the records left behind by Gila River’s “Project Attorney,” the white government lawyer who both helped run the camp and who served as a legal adviser for inmates. The story was also extensively covered in the camp’s newspaper and in Arizona newspapers. I first learned about Moe Yonemura from the pages of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s newspaper, and then discovered the UCLA campus newspaper and yearbooks and the narrative records of his battalion’s service in Italy online.

There are lots of ways to listen to the podcast. The easiest is to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you like to find your podcasts. You can also go to the podcast’s website, which has each episode available for download along with additional background information, including photographs and suggestions for further reading.

I hope people enjoy the podcast, and that those who do will leave a review on iTunes and tell their friends!

Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Muller has for two decades focused his research and scholarship almost exclusively on the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He’s published two monographs and a third edited volume as well as many academic articles. He’s also proud to have led the creation of the main historical exhibit at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, which won museum awards.

The Wonderful World of Washi

Rolls of washi on display in Kamakura, Japan. Photo by Alex Watson via Flickr.

On Saturday, September 9, JANM will premiere a new jewelry workshop titled The World of Washi. Led by Reiko Nakano, this introductory class will teach participants about washi, a traditional Japanese handmade decorative paper, and how to apply it onto a variety of wooden shapes to create jewelry.

Washi, which literally means “Japanese paper,” dates back to the seventh century, when paper was first brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks. The Japanese quickly developed their own methods for making paper, using fibers from three plants native to Japan: kozo (mulberry), gampi, and mitsumata. The handmade process was passed down from generation to generation, and the quality of the paper, which was stronger and more versatile than its Chinese predecessor, became highly renowned and sought after. By the late 19th century, there were more than 100,000 families in Japan making washi.

As demand for paper grew, machine-made papers from the West grew in popularity, and handmade production of washi declined. By 1983, there were less than 500 papermaking families left in Japan. Washi, however, remains an important and cherished part of traditional Japanese culture; it is still used in religious ceremonies, and can be seen in a variety of applications from fine books and artworks to stationery and crafts.

Mini Hina Rabbits in a Washi Tube — one of several washi-based products available at The JANM Store and janmstore.com.
Reiko Nakano, a lifelong teacher, discovered what she likes to call “the wonderful world of washi” on her trips to Japan. “Being made from three different plant fibers, washi is natural and resilient,” she enthuses. “It is the perfect medium for calligraphers and designers, who decorate it with historical patterns and modern motifs.”

Nakano discovered that washi is also great for making jewelry because it’s so adaptable. “Washi can cover any surface: round wooden beads, cardboard trays, glass pendants, steel plumbing tools, cork coasters,” she says. Her class on September 9 will focus on making a souvenir washi pendant necklace using wooden beads; in the process, participants will learn techniques of looping and wrapping, how to make an adjustable knot, and how to lacquer washi projects. Another class on December 16 will utilize plumbing hardware, like washers.

Washi is acclaimed for having properties like no other paper: it is strong, light, acid-free, translucent, and uniquely textured. It also absorbs inks and dyes well, and resists creasing and tearing. Nakano is excited to share its possibilities. “With a few simple tools, some ‘tricks of the trade,’ and a lot of patience, anyone can enter the wonderful world of washi.”

This workshop is made possible in part by a grant from the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs. For more information and to register, click here for September 9 and here for December 16.

An Interview with Holly Yasui

Never Give Up! – Trailer from Minoru Yasui Film on Vimeo.

Holly Yasui is the youngest daughter of Minoru Yasui, the legendary Japanese American lawyer and civil rights activist. She is currently at work on a documentary film about the life of her father, titled Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM will be hosting the Los Angeles premiere of Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up until the end of World War II. Holly will be present for a Q&A with the audience following the screening.

Below, we present excerpts from an interview with Holly, who graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions via email. The complete interview will be published on Discover Nikkei shortly.

JANM: Your father was an extraordinary man. What was it like to grow up with him?

Holly Yasui: Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an amazing experience to grow up with my dad, to be Min Yasui’s daughter. He was kind, loving, and patient. He taught me how to read before I started school, by reading out loud to me every night in bed before I went to sleep. He bought me books and a special illustrated encyclopedia, and when I showed interest in writing, he gave me my first typewriter and money to buy my first word processor. Though he worked almost all the time—he was a community activist, and like housework, that kind of work never ends—he was always home for dinner and he was always interested to hear from his family about our day. It never occurred to me that it was unusual that he went out to meetings and events nearly every night after dinner. For me and my sisters, that was normal—we thought everyone’s dad did that.

Holly Yasui
JANM: What inspired you to make this documentary?

HY: In 2013, JANM invited me to participate on a panel with Jay Hirabayashi and Karen Korematsu to talk about our fathers and their legacies at the museum’s National Conference in Seattle, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. I met up with Janice Tanaka, who was filming the event for JANM and who had been a classmate at film school in the 1980s. (I dropped out, but Janice made good!) We got to talking, and the idea for a film about my dad was planted in my mind.

After the conference I went to Portland to visit Peggy Nagae, who was my dad’s lead attorney in the reopening of his World War II legal test case. We discussed the conference and my dad’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, and we hatched the idea of a Minoru Yasui Tribute Project. Peggy took on the task of getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom for my father, and I took on the making of the film. Peggy was successful in mobilizing a nationwide campaign to endorse the nomination, which resulted in a posthumous awarding of the medal by President Obama in 2015.

On my father’s 100th birthday, we screened a work-in-progress in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon. On March 28, 2017, we premiered Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up to the end of WWII. March 28 is Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and this past year was the 75th anniversary of the day he deliberately broke a military curfew to initiate his legal test case. I’m still working on completing the film, hopefully in 2018.

JANM: Most documentaries are made by third parties. You are about as close to the subject as you can get. Does this make the process easier or harder?

HY: I think that the best films are made by people who have some kind of personal investment or interest in the subject. Yes, I am very close to the subject of Never Give Up! and that has made the process both easier and harder. Easier because I have access to wonderful materials that our family archivist, my aunt Yuka (Dad’s youngest sister) has saved—mostly photos but also documents. Harder because I idolized my dad in life, but that’s not an effective approach to portraying a complex human being.

JANM: If your father were alive today, what would his take be on the Trump administration and its policies?

HY: I think he would be appalled by the thinly veiled racism and bigotry inherent in many current initiatives such as the Muslim ban and the wall between Mexico and the United States, as well as anti-democratic efforts like supporting charter schools, taking away Medicare from thousands of people, and putting the fox in charge of the henhouse on environmental and civil rights enforcement. I have no doubt that he would vociferously oppose any and all policies rooted in discrimination based on race, religion, and/or national origin. I remember in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Iran hostage crisis sparked xenophobia and hate crimes against Iranian students, legal residents, and persons who “looked like” Iranians, he spoke out and unequivocally condemned such attitudes and actions.

JANM: What kind of advice do you think your father would give to young activists today?

HY: Never give up! Keep on fighting, stand up and speak out! Work for the common good, help to make the world a better place in whatever way you can, according to your own convictions and passions and life experiences.

Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice will be screened at JANM at 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 29. JANM members can also attend an exclusive pre-event meet-and-greet with Holly at 1 p.m.