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.

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 Sneak Peek: Erica Kaminishi’s Prunusplastus

The beginning of the installation of Erica Kaminishi’s Prunusplastus.
Photo by Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

It’s a big week here at JANM as we prepare to open Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, a group exhibition that examines the work of 13 artists of Japanese ancestry born, raised, or living in either Latin America or predominantly Latin American neighborhoods of Southern California. The show is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a Getty-led initiative exploring Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

Shipments of artwork have been arriving from all over the world and artists have started to arrive as well, to supervise the installation of their works and to participate in our festive opening weekend activities. One of the first artists to arrive from abroad was Erica Kaminishi, a Brazilian-born Nikkei who now lives in France. One of her featured artworks, titled Prunusplastus (2017), is a large-scale, site-specific installation made up of hundreds of petri dishes filled with synthetic cherry flower petals. The dishes are strung up with nylon threads so that they form a dramatic cascade of decorative plastic flowers.

Kaminishi’s ambitious concept required the assembly by hand of 3,300 petri dishes filled with 60,000 synthetic flowers. Work on this project actually began weeks ago, right here in Los Angeles, and became a massive group effort among JANM interns, volunteers, and staff members. Leighton Okada, JANM’s summer intern in public programs and media arts, was particularly instrumental in this effort, as he enlisted several of his own family members and provided meticulous quality control over the production process, which required hot gluing the flowers into the petri dishes.

Leighton Okada, right, assembling cherry flower petri dishes with members of his family.
Photo courtesy of Leighton Okada.

Last Friday morning, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Kaminishi and project manager Claudia Sobral held a small coffee and pastry event to thank some of the people who volunteered to assist with the project. During an informal Q&A, Kaminishi explained the meaning behind her artwork: “In Japan, the celebration of flowers blooming in the springtime, such as the famous cherry blossoms (sakura), is a major tradition. I wanted to reproduce this atmosphere in a contemporary way, while examining the ways that we appreciate and nurture culture. The work touches on the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which holds that while beauty is very affecting, it is also, like all things, ephemeral. Nothing is eternal.”

One of the volunteers pointed out the irony of putting static plastic flowers in a petri dish, which typically holds living specimens. Kaminishi remarked that while she was doing her PhD studies in Japan, she took classes in biology and chemistry, which influenced her art practice. Indeed, the word Prunusplastus is an alteration of Prunus serrulata, the Latin name for the Japanese cherry flower. The word plastus means “something modeled” in Latin, and the work employs a quasi-scientific framework to isolate the cherry flower as a cultural object/concept in order to contemplate and investigate its nature and origins. Being an artist of mixed cultural background, concepts of shifting identity and blended DNA also figure into Kaminishi’s work.

Erica Kaminishi contemplates the installation of her work, Prunusplastus.
Photo by Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

Although Kaminishi has been thinking about the concept for Prunusplastus since her time in Japan, this is the first time it’s been realized. In addition to this installation, she also has four drawings from her Clouds series in Transpacific Borderlands.

Transpacific Borderlands opens to the public on Sunday, September 17.

George Takei: Mementos from a Remarkable Life

Replicas of Captain Hikaru Sulu’s chair and table from the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. George really loved being a captain in that movie; these items were actually fabricated for the exhibition and are not part of The George & Brad Takei Collection.

New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.

The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.

This abstract sculpture was carved from a Cypress tree knee by George Takei’s father, Takekuma Norman Takei, while the family was incarcerated at Rohwer, located in the swamps of Arkansas. It is one of George’s most beloved objects.

George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.

George’s student ID card from his days at UCLA sits in front of a BDYBA Oratorical Award he won there in 1956.

These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.

If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.

A wedding photo of George and Brad is framed next to Brad’s handwritten vows. In the gallery, this artifact is complimented by several inventive wedding cards sent to them by fans.
This rare Simpsons souvenir jacket, only given out to actors who have recurring roles on the TV series, almost made it into New Frontiers but had to be cut due to lack of space. JANM members were able to get an up-close look at this and other objects, and hear personal stories about George and Brad, at our exclusive Members Only Learning at Lunch event on April 21, 2017.

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

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

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

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

JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?

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

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

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

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

JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only the Oaks Remain is an Especially Relevant Display Right Now

Bunk room at Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Photo courtesy of the Merrill H. Scott Family.

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.

A guard in a control room at Tuna Canyon. Photo courtesy of the Merrill H. Scott Family.

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.

In addition to Only the Oaks Remain, on view through April 9, the museum is currently featuring Uprooted: Japanese American Farm Labor Camps During World War II, on view through January 8, as well as the ongoing exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which traces 130 years of Japanese American history.

Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.
Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

 

Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents 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!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.
Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

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. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.