Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach, has recently authored a new story about Nikkei car culture for JANM’s Discover Nikkei website. Here’s an excerpt:
The history of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles car culture dates back at least as early as the 1910s when Fred Fujioka teamed up with George Kawamoto to found F&K Garage in Little Tokyo. By the late 1930s, a prominent number of Niseis became involved in the local hot rod racing scene, most famously Glendale’s Okamura brothers, lead by champion racer Yam “Oka”. Executive Order 9066 forced most of these drivers into the camps though, in some cases, non-Nikkei friends kept cars and motors safe for them during the course of internment. Racers like Yam Oka picked up where they off and resumed racing after resettlement.
The Nikkei car clubs that arose in the 1950s belonged to what might be described as a “lost” generation of Nisei and Sansei youth born in/around internment. I call them “lost” because most of the existing scholarship tends to either focus on Niseis of their parents’ generation or Sanseis born during the post-war baby boom. The Nikkei youth of the 1950s fall in between these eras: they were children in the camps and during resettlement and entered teen-hood during the 1950s.
Within the Nikkei community, the obvious antecedent to the car clubs were Nisei social clubs, many of which date back to the 1920s. UCLA’s Valerie Matsumoto has done exceptional work in documenting these clubs, especially in her book City Girls, and she notes that these social clubs quickly reformed post-internment by providing a source of “camaraderie and recreation…amid the disruptions of resettlement and the exigencies of finding work.” As such, forming a social club wouldn’t have been unusual for Nikkei teens in the 1950s except now, they were adding cars to the mix.
The general car club phenomenon in the U.S. dates back to the 1920s but it was the postwar era where things revved up. Not only was the American car industry entering into a golden age of production but this was also the birth of modern American consumerism which compelled many families to purchase new cars and that, in turn, created a robust used car market that helped working and middle class teenagers buy their first cars. As John DeWitt writes in his study of car culture of the ’50s, Cool Cars, High Art, “No longer were kids forced to drive old jalopies or the family sedan; they could pick and choose from a wide variety of fairly new used cars that were available for as little as a few hundred dollars. It was important…that these cars were their cars. They were free to do with them as they wished.”
You can read the whole article here on Discover Nikkei. Dr. Wang wants to explore this subject further so be sure to reach out to him if you have stories of Nikkei car clubs to share or suggestions for his research.
Discover Nikkei articles explore everything from family stories to food, language to art, education to…cars. Take a look around—there’s something interesting for everyone.
Naomi Hirahara, the acclaimed author of the Mas Arai mysteries, is coming to the Japanese American National Museum on March 17. She will be discussing and reading from her most recent book, Hiroshima Boy, the last in a series of seven mystery novels featuring the Japanese gardener detective. The following is an excerpt of a new article by Kimiko Medlock about the book and Hirahara on JANM’s Discover Nikkei website.
In this final installment of Mas Arai’s adventures, the sleuth is getting older. His friend Haruo has died, and he travels to Japan to deliver Haruo’s ashes to his family on the small island of Ino near Hiroshima. Mas originally plans to hand his friend’s ashes over to his family, turn around and return immediately to the States—but as so often happens, his best-laid plans go awry when he discovers the body of a young boy floating in the island harbor, and returns to his room to find his friend’s ashes missing. Mas decides to stay on the island to solve the twin mysteries of the murder and the missing ashes.
Critics are praising Hiroshima Boy as “a wonderful finale to a fine mystery series,” and many also continue to ask whether Hirahara will change her mind and bring back the much-beloved Mas Arai down the road. But the author herself spoke with Discover Nikkei, and she is satisfied with the series’ close. Hiroshima Boy, the title a reference to both the murder victim in the story and to the protagonist himself, is a fitting end as it brings Mas back to his roots. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” Hirahara said in our interview. Readers learn in Mas’s very first case, Summer of the Big Bachi, that Mas’s experience growing up in wartime Hiroshima and surviving the atomic bomb form a large part of his identity, so it is appropriate that his last escapade brings him full circle back to the source of those memories.
Hiroshima was a difficult place to set a mystery tale, however. The author herself is not intimately familiar with the prefecture, nor with how the comparatively less transparent police force operates in Japan. The setting thus presented a sizable challenge to Hirahara’s research and writing process. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” she says, “but I was wary about writing a novel set in a place I have visited, but is not my home.”
To find out how Hirahara solved this challenge, read the full article here.
The author discussion with Naomi Hirahara on March 17 starts at 2 p.m. It is included with JANM admission but RSVPs are recommended.
Hiroshima Boy and other Mas Arai by Naomi Hirahara are available for purchase at janmstore.com.
Naomi Hirahara fans will want to check out Trouble on Temple Street: An Officer Ellie Rush Mystery, available exclusively on Discover Nikkei. LAPD bicycle cop Ellie Rush, first introduced in Murder on Bamboo Lane (Berkley), returns in this special serial. Chapters 1–7 are online now, with new chapters released on the 4th of each month through August.
The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is welldocumented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.
A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.
In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.
Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.
A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.
We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.
When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.
Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.
On Saturday, March 3, artist Mari Inukai will lead a sold-out kokeshi doll workshop in celebration of Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), which takes place that day. It’s no surprise that spots in this workshop went quickly, as the popular artist—whose dreamy paintings and animations often depict and are inspired by the lives of young girls—may be the perfect person to lead a celebration of Girls’ Day.
Born in Nagoya, Japan, Inukai came to the United States in 1995 to study art. After attending Santa Monica Community College, she went on to obtain a BFA in character animation from California Institute of the Arts in 2004. Her short animated film, Blue and Orange (2003), has been an official selection at numerous film festivals, including the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was the Japan Grand Prize winner at the Short Shorts Film Festival EXPO 2005. In addition to her animation practice, Inukai regularly exhibits her paintings and drawings. She also designs clothes, toys, and other fun products. She now lives in Beverly Hills with her daughter Sena, who is often a subject of her artworks.
According to her website, Inukai’s paintings are “an expression of her desires, ambitions, and hopes for the future, starting from where she stands now. Like water flowing, seeking its path, [she] channels her direction naturally, finding her importance as she travels forward.” We caught up with Inukai via email to ask her a few questions.
JANM: What inspired you to create this workshop?
Mari Inukai: March 3 is a special day for girls in Japan. Americans may be familiar with Hinamatsuri, but in Japan, that day is also known as Momo No Sekku (桃の節句), the peach harvest festival. The day marks the changing of the seasons, and peach blossoms are said to ward off evil; they also stand for longevity. I thought we should celebrate!
JANM: Why was it important to you to encourage collaboration among participants?
MI: In the past, young Japanese girls would celebrate Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) together by making dolls, eating sweets, and drinking sweet rice sake. I wanted to recreate that spirit in my workshop, so that we can all inspire and help each other and learn something new together and most of all, have fun!
JANM: What is your own relationship to Hinamatsuri? Was it something you regularly celebrated back in Japan?
MI: I have two sisters, so Hinamatsuri was pretty special when we were small. I remember our mom making chirashizushi (a colorful sushi dish), karaage (fried chicken), or tempura and salad. We would have a cute decorated cake with two dolls on top. There was a lot of laughter. No sake though!
JANM: Looking through your extensive body of work, I see that girls are frequently the subject.
MI: Yes. I paint my daughter Sena most, because she is the most inspiring thing in my life. I paint my friends and their children too. I am really fortunate to have great friends!
JANM: Do you think that Japanese traditions, like Hinamatsuri, have influenced your own artwork?
MI: Absolutely. Not just Hinamatsuri, but all Japanese traditions. In fact, I have curated a special MOMO/桃の節句 group show for Giant Robot that is also opening on March 3. I gathered several talented figurative artists whom I really admire and asked each of them to create their own “Momo No Sekku world.” I am doing a mural in collaboration with Audrey Kawasaki, and perhaps Amy Sol too. Amy has her own solo show opening on the same day at Thinkspace Gallery, so she will be in town. As for myself, I am making paintings with Gansai Japanese water color pigments, so they will look really different from my oil paintings. Please join us for the party!
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.
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.
On Saturday, February 17, JANM will present the 2018 Day of Remembrance in partnership with Go for Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Nikkei Progressives, OCA-Greater Los Angeles, and Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA). This year’s theme is “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988: The Victory and the Unfinished Business.”
In addition to marking the 76th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, an act that led to the forced evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, this year’s Day of Remembrance also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the legislation that provided a formal apology from the US government and monetary reparations to survivors of the incarceration. Years in the making, this landmark legislation went a long way toward providing vindication and closure for the Japanese American community. Over 82,500 survivors received the President’s apology and the token monetary compensation provided by the CLA.
Today, however, we again find ourselves living in a climate of fear and scapegoating, in which several different immigrant populations have become vulnerable to unfair targeting. At this year’s event, we hope to strengthen our collective voice as we strive to prevent a repeat of what happened to Japanese Americans 76 years ago. Featured speakers will include Alan Nishio, community activist and founding member of National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), who will speak about the importance of the Civil Liberties Act, what it did not accomplish, and its ongoing relevance today. The DOR program will also continue its tradition of paying tribute to the Issei and Nisei generations.
Admission to this event and to the museum are both pay-what-you-wish on this day. Last year’s event drew standing-room-only crowds, so RSVPs for this year’s Day of Remembrance are strongly encouraged. For updates on the day’s program, please visit janm.org or the Facebook event page.
On Saturday, February 10, JANM will host a screening of Resistance at Tule Lake, a new documentary from director/producer Konrad Aderer that tells the long-suppressed story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who dared to resist the US government’s program of mass incarceration during World War II. Branded as “disloyals” and re-imprisoned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, they continued to protest in the face of militarized violence, and thousands renounced their US citizenship. Giving voice to experiences that have been marginalized for over 70 years, the film challenges the nationalist, one-sided ideal of wartime “loyalty.” A panel discussion with the filmmakers will follow the screening.
Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps that were hastily built to house the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Located in Modoc County, California, Tule Lake was the most conflict-ridden of the ten camps. In its first year of operation, it was beset by labor unrest, including strikes over a lack of promised goods and salaries and a mess hall workers’ protest. Then, in 1943, it was designated as Tule Lake Segregation Center and essentially became a prison camp for those perceived as “disloyal” to the United States.
Tule Lake was chosen to be a segregation center partially because of its size and capacity, but also because the infamous “loyalty questionnaire”—an awkwardly worded document circulated by the US Army in all 10 camps in an attempt to determine who among the prisoners were patriotic citizens and who were not—was mishandled by authorities at the camp, leading to more unrest, turmoil among the inmates, acts of civil disobedience, and the largest number of presumed “disloyals” of any of the camps.
Tule Lake Segregation Center soon became a maximum-security prison as “disloyals” from other camps were relocated there. The “disloyals” lived alongside original Tule Lake inmates who had answered the questionnaire with “loyalty,” but did not want to be displaced a second time. Home to a deeply divided and disaffected population and constantly beset with strife, the center was for a time ruled by martial law. The emotional fallout from living under such hostile conditions led some inmates to become disillusioned with America and to plan for a return to Japan after the war.
Come to our screening on February 10 to learn more about this dramatic episode in Japanese American history. JANM members may also attend an exclusive pre-event reception with filmmaker Konrad Aderer. Visit our website for more information and to RSVP.
To learn more about the film, read interviews with Konrad Aderer on Discover Nikkei:
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.
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).
Through an email interview, Tajima-Peña shared some thoughts on the program, cultural hybridity, the immigrant experience, Asian diasporas, indie film, and other topics.
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.
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.
It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.
The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.
Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.
Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.
Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.