The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”
Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.
Following are the topics for each conversation:
January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity
Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.
Every week, hundreds of visitors view JANM’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. While the story resonates strongly with Japanese American visitors, who can see their own family histories in it, the importance of community is something that can be felt and understood by visitors from all different backgrounds. The exhibition begins with an introductory panel, which sets the stage for a story of immigrants:
Community is not just where you live.
Community is also about who you are.
Immigration is central not only to the Japanese American experience, but that of all Americans:
We are on common ground with all Americans,
with all people.
The exhibition traces Japanese American history through the struggles of immigrant mothers and fathers, the trauma of World War II and the concentration camps, and the ongoing quest to find a place in this country. Through it all, the importance and fluidity of the concept of community is explored; it is both an ideal to aspire to, and a source of comfort during trying times. Common Ground closes with a look to the future:
in the stories we tell each other,
in the stories we tell others.
As we reinvent America,
from monolithic to multicultural,
to include all of us
in all our magnificent diversity,
we forever re-vision the American experience.
Visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures are invited to explore their own history and appreciate the differences among us while also remembering our similarities. By doing so, we reflect on and create what it really means to be American.
Just announced! JANM presents Common Ground Conversations, a four-week series of themed public conversations inspired by Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Read our press release for complete information.
An older Japanese American gentleman stands in front of a museum display case. Behind him is an enlarged photograph of a group of Japanese picture brides (a sort of predecessor to the mail order bride) newly arrived in the United States, looking a little lost and apprehensive. Mr. Hayashi, a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), is explaining how he uses the photograph as a didactic tool during school tours, but he is also talking about its personal significance—his own grandmother was a picture bride.
The brides share a display case with several other objects. One of these, a document in the lower corner of the frame, reads: Keep California White. Mr. Hayashi is commenting that despite his grandmother’s ambiguous fate as the bride in an arranged marriage, the partnership was considered successful and resulted in 36 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mr. Hayashi is, in fact, a testament to his family’s success in the face of a myriad of trials that women like the ones in the picture must have faced so many years ago. He is Nikkei, a descendent of Japanese migrants, and there are 2.6 to 3 million others with stories like his across the globe.
A global storytelling community
Allowing people to discover stories like the one Mr. Hayashi tells in the video described above is what the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hopes to achieve through its Discover Nikkei website, an interactive multimedia website launched in 2005. Discover Nikkei was conceived as a community-building tool on a grand scale that allows users to keep up with activities at the museum, and also permits access to a part of JANM’s collections, through the Nikkei Album feature.
Through the website, Nikkei all over the world are able to communicate, connect, and share, with a particular emphasis on the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, where a large number of Japanese emigrants have settled. Altogether, Discover Nikkei presents three main areas that allow Nikkei and people interested in the Japanese diaspora to build a global network together: Stories, Community, and Resources. This wealth of primary-source material available through the Discover Nikkei website in the form of archival home videos, articles, and video profiles combine to mount a concerted effort to privilege the community’s voice over a classic museum discourse.
In the “Stories” section of Discover Nikkei, the Nikkei Album feature allows users to create collections of images and/or film, much like Flickr or Pintrest type websites. To get an idea of the diversity of voices accessible through the albums, some albums include a Japanese farming and arts community in Brazil, Baptist churches in Japan, and an origami crane-making lesson in Peru. Of the three, the last album is written in Spanish, one of the four languages in which Discover Nikkei is available; the others being English, Japanese, and Portuguese.
The museum as participant is a major premise for the Discover Nikkei website, and manifests itself both in the “low profile” JANM presents on the website, as well as in the importance it places on community members’ involvement and collaboration. Aside from website users, the website gets a large part of its content through international correspondents who range from cultural institutions to individuals who contribute articles in the Journal section of the “Stories” page and post events on the main page. A subtle museum presence displaces focus from the “experts” to the community and allows the website to take on a real, marketplace-type feeling, where stories are related, not dictated by an institution.
Nikkei History in the First Person
The JANM account in the “Nikkei Album” section also gives self-service access to a portion of the museum’s permanent collection, made up of over 80,000 artifacts, objects, photographs, and artworks. The available documents are from the Watase Media Arts Center and include an important collection of home movie footage—more than 330 film clips totaling over six hours—filmed between the 1920s and 1960s, and digitally transferred for online access. Each film clip is described and annotated on the janm.org website in the Collections, Home Movies section.
The home movies touch on a wide variety of subjects and themes in the lives of American Nikkei, including work, play, home, and family life. Some extraordinary footage is also consultable, dating from the period of internment of Japanese Americans at several camps across the country from 1942 until the end of World War II, including that of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The clips depict daily life at the camps from the point of view of the internees themselves, and are a grim reminder of the extent to which certain communities have had to grapple with a “Keep California White” mentality.
Although the Nikkei experience translates well through images, text is also an important component of the Discover Nikkei website. Through the “Stories” “Journal” rubric, we meet Norm Masaji Ibuki, a Canadian Nikkei struggling to come to terms with his government’s non-action in the face of recent devastating events in Tohoku, Japan, where he once lived. Since the earthquake hit on March 11th, 2011 Norm has been keeping tabs via email and telephone on an old friend, Tomo and his family, stranded not far from the earthquake epicenter. “The Great Tohoku Disaster” series allows readers to listen in on a conversation that is as fascinating as it is terrible, as we progress from not knowing the family’s whereabouts, to learning that they are in Tokyo trying to find a way back to Canada, leaving house, belongings, and friends behind.
The over 100 available videos feature a diverse array of Nikkei living in Japan and abroad, sharing their life experiences and what they have learned from them. Each video is meticulously transcribed, then translated into all four languages available on the website. The library of stories we are privy to through the Interview section provide audiences with first person accounts of the Nikkei experience, much like the images in the home movies from the collection also available through the site.
Tools for empowerment
Issei, Nisei, Sansei… These terms and many others are peppered throughout the Discover Nikkei website. They are words used to denote how far removed a person is from their Japanese heritage by generation, and they provide a kind of reference for those who are initiated to the lingo. At the time this article was first published, the “Nima of the month,” or featured Discover Nikkei member, is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese, born in the U.S. His wife is Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American. The user clearly expresses himself well in English, but does he speak Japanese? Does he even feel it is necessary to speak the language in order to feel a connection to his Japanese heritage? These are the types of identity issues explored in a number of the user-written articles accessible in the “Nima-kai” rubric of the “Community” section. Here users can also post photographs and events, in a way that is similar to Facebook. A “Taiko Groups” rubric has recently been added to the Discover Nikkei website.
A critical step in the preservation of cultural heritage is the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. The “Resources” section of Discover Nikkei attempts to provide users with just enough guidance to encourage participation. This how-to section has detailed instructions for beginning a genealogical research project, including tips on conducting interviews, conservation basics, and even a bit of information on starting a personal collection of artifacts. These could potentially be the tools to inspire a user to create a Nikkei Album with a few of their own home movies, start a blog about Nikkei communities in countries other than the ones already featured, or maybe even dust off those old family kimonos in the attic. Discover Nikkei users participate in a variety of ways, defining and affirming the term Nikkei in an active way with the help of the website interface.
Apart from inspiring users to affirm their cultural identity, Discover Nikkei is also a remarkable example for museums that may be looking to relate to their audiences in a different, more egalitarian way. JANM’s idea was one that started small and gained momentum as the project advanced stage by stage, allowing for more complexity only after a solid framework had been put into place. JANM staff observed that one of the most important elements of website development was ease of content management. For JANM this meant that in order for content to remain relevant as the website progressed, room had to be made for constant revisions by regular staff members, as opposed to specialized IT staff. Avoiding proprietary software to cut down on costs and compatibility issues has also been a key development issue.
Through the Discover Nikkei website, JANM provides access to a rich collection of documents and artifacts that encourage Nikkei to take pride in their cultural patrimony, and to place a high value in sharing and communicating with others at a local and global level. By focusing on primary source materials and community-generated content, the museum places an emphasis on providing a forum for discussion and discovery rather than contributing expertise via a classic museum discourse. This approach, visible through the Discover Nikkei website, allows for a transfer of authority to take place, positioning in the foreground a community that has much to offer in the way of cultural tradition and values.
With special thanks to John Esaki, Director of the Frank Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum, whose advice and comments during this collaboration were essential.
A Los Angeles native, Cynthia G. Valdez is currently working to complete a Master’s in Art History at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Cynthia has written about art for various publications in France and abroad, including ArtSlant, The Paris Times, The Mag L.A., and Whitehot Magazine for Contemporary Art. When not accumulating stamps in her passport, she enjoys knitting, experimental music and answering emails at yomemoi(at)gmail.com. She microblogs here and here.
Price: $10/person (for each scouts, for each adult, for each sibling)
RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org. In your rsvp, please be sure to include (a) the name of each scout; (b) the age of each scout; (c) the name of each sibling; (d) the name of each adult. Space is limited and advance registration is required.
This is a great chance for Scouts to see the Folding Paper exhibition before it closes on August 26.
Photos by Richard Watanabe and Richard M. Murakami
Visitors to the museum often remark that what made their experience so special was getting to hear and talk to our volunteer docents. They share stories with our visitors that bring the artifacts in our Common Ground: The Heart of Community to life.
An ongoing project at the museum has been for our staff & interns in the Watase Media Arts Center, curatorial, and education units to work with some of our volunteers to develop 30 second (approximately) short videos talking about their favorite artifacts from Common Ground. The project is part of an ongoing effort to examine and re-envision the role the Museum and our volunteers will play in the 21st Century.
This is a wonderful project to record and share the stories especially of some of our older long-time Nisei volunteers while they’re still active at the museum.
We’re now up to 25 volunteer videos online. The most common artifact selected is the Heart Mountain barracks which makes an appearance in 3 videos. Although most are World War II-related, several are about pre-war Issei and Nisei life. While many are very poignant, some are humorous, like Marion Wada’s selection of a Hershey’s chocolate tin which recalls fond memories of childhood prior to WWII.
For those connected with the museum or have gone on tours here, you’ll recognize a lot of very familiar and dear faces. I’ve included a few of the more recent videos here, but you can view all of the videos from our Discover Nikkei website or on YouTube. Which ones are your favorites?
We’d like to thank the participating volunteers for sharing their personal stories: Ike Hatchimonji, Charlene Takahashi, Icy Hasama, Marion Wada, Mary Karatsu, Hitoshi Sameshima, Bill Shishima, Nancee Iketani, Ben Tonooka, Pat Ishida, Bob Uragami, Babe Karasawa, Yae Aihara, Richard Murakami, Yoko Horimoto, Jim Tanaka, Tohru Isobe, Mas Yamashita, Robert Moriguchi, Kathryn Madara, Kent Hori, May Porter, Eileen Sakamoto, Lee Hayashi, and Roy Sakamoto.
Funding for the Nisei Oral History project was provided by grants from the National Park Service and the California State Library through the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.
Support for volunteer programming was generously provided, in part, by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation. The internships were provided through the Summer 2010 Getty Grants Program for Multicultural Undergraduate Internships to Los Angeles Area Museums & Visual Arts Organizations.
When you walk into the museum now, one of the first things you notice as you enter the front doors to the Pavilion is a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. I pass by the car every day on the way to my office, and I always see visitors stopping to admire it.
But why a Corvette in the Japanese American National Museum?
Upstairs in the exhibition galleries, we also have a number of his original drawings and sketches of various other cars he designed like the Mako Shark concept car, and the Boss Mustang. There’s also a bunch of historic photos, trophies, and other memorabilia that were donated to the museum by his family after his passing in 1997.
I have to admit that I don’t know much about cars, but the aerodynamic sporty style is very cool to see, and his personal story is very interesting too. His father died when he was a young child. From early on, he was always interested in cars and in drawing. He and his family were incarcerated at Manzanar during WWII. After the war, he grew up in Southern California where he built and raced cars, leading to his work designing and building cars.
The Watase Media Arts Center created a video about Shinoda for the exhibition with interviews with his sister and a long-time good friend:
By the way…Shinoda didn’t just design cars. He also worked on pretty much anything that moves such as Roger Penske’s race trailers, motor homes, tractors, big rig trucks, and even the Goodyear Blimp logo. And for those who were wondering…no, he’s not related to the other famous Shinoda that we have featured at the museum!
One more bit of trivia…the wedding dress currently on display in our Common Ground exhibition was made by Larry Shinoda’s mother!