New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.
JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?
Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.
JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?
JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.
JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?
JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.
JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?
JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.
As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!
JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?
JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.
JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?
JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.
Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening ofNew Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.
Over the weekend, JANM opened a new special display, Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Organized by a grassroots group called the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, the display tells the true stories of those targeted as dangerous enemy aliens and imprisoned in the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, located in the Tujunga neighborhood of Los Angeles, by the US Department of Justice during World War II. The detainees included Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants who were considered spiritual, educational, and business leaders in their communities, along with Japanese and other individuals who had previously been forcibly removed from Latin America.
As noted by Hyperallergic magazine, this display is especially relevant right now, in light of some current political rhetoric that favors creating a database of all Muslim Americans in response to terrorist threats. The public hysteria that has led to the targeting of millions of innocent Muslim Americans is eerily similar to the WWII hysteria that quickly led to the incarceration, without due process, of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—most of whom were American citizens, and all of whom were innocent of any crimes.
Thanks to the Japanese American Redress Movement, the US government formally apologized for its actions during WWII, admitting that they were “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” As part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, monetary compensation was awarded to each family that was incarcerated. Because of these official actions, Japanese Americans and others felt that the incident had been sufficiently exposed and denounced in the public arena.
Just this past week, however, a Los Angeles Times article exploring the history lessons offered by various national parks, including the Tule Lake Unit and Manzanar National Historic Site, was met with two letters published in the newspaper’s travel section insisting that the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans was entirely justified. The publication of the letters caused an uproar, particularly among the Japanese American community—this was addressed by the Times via their Readers’ Representative Journal blog. Former JANM staffer Koji Steven Sakai also appeared on KPCC’s Take Two show on December 14, explaining to listeners why the letters were so offensive to his community, and offering some historical context.
The Japanese American National Museum is committed to sharing the history of Japanese Americans in order to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. An important focus of this mission is ensuring that what happened to this group of individuals during WWII never happens again, to any other group of people.
Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations,Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Artpresents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer tetsugendo.com and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.
JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?
Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.
Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.
JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?
MY:Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!
DF:Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!
JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?
DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.
MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.
JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.
MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.
JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?
DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!
The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended.Jidaiwill remain on view through August 30.