The Great Unknown Captures a Spectrum of Japanese American History

The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches is a collection of biographical portraits of extraordinary figures in Japanese American history—men and women who made remarkable contributions in the arts, literature, law, sports, and other fields.

Recovering and celebrating the stories of noteworthy Issei and Nisei and their supporters, the book highlights the diverse experiences and substantial cultural, political, and intellectual contributions of Japanese Americans throughout the country and over multiple decades. Included in these pages are Ayako Ishigaki, Issei feminist and peace activist; Milton Ozaki, mystery writer; Bill Hosokawa, journalist; Wat Misaka, basketball star; Gyo Fujikawa, children’s book artist and author; and Ina Sugihara, interracial activist, to name just a few examples.

JANM’s Discover Nikkei project recently published a two-part feature on the book and its author. Written by Edward Yoshida, the feature reviews the book at length, as well as the author’s current activities. Robinson is a professor of history at Université du Québec à Montréal. The Great Unknown is a compilation of his columns for Nichi Bei Times and Nichi Bei Weekly, along with selections from other publications.

As Yoshida notes, the collection stands out for the breadth of its content; not only does the author present material from a broad span of Japanese American history, he also manages to draw out little-known nuggets of information about such major figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Alan Cranston, both of whom were allies to Japanese Americans. In addition, the book explores the substantial support offered to the Japanese American community by prominent African American writers and activists, including Paul Robeson, Erna P. Harris, Layle Lane, Loren Miller, and Hugh Macbeth. To read Yoshida’s article, click here.

This Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m., Greg Robinson will appear at JANM for a discussion about his book. The program is free with museum admission; click here to RSVP. Members are also invited to an exclusive meet-and-greet one hour prior to the discussion; email memberevents@janm.org or call 213.830.5646 to RSVP. You may purchase the book at the JANM Store or janmstore.com.

Mikado Hotel Preserves a Slice of Little Tokyo History

Guests mingle at the grand re-opening of the Mikado Hotel in Little Tokyo.

On Wednesday night, the Little Tokyo community was invited to a grand re-opening party for the Mikado Hotel, located on First Street in the historic heart of the neighborhood. This was no ordinary re-opening—the Mikado Hotel is a historic piece of architecture, built in 1914, and it has essentially lain dormant since the end of World War II. Capital Foresight finally purchased the building in 2014, and got to work on a restoration that would be faithful to the building’s history while updating it with contemporary touches. The result is quite remarkable.

The building’s façade has been restored to look the way it did in 1932. Visitors must first walk down a long corridor to reach the stairs and elevator at the back of the building; the corridor is decorated with a collage work and text panels recounting the history of Little Tokyo. The second and third floors are where the guest rooms, now called “micro-suites,” are located. On the second floor is a beautiful new open-air courtyard; the builders created this space by reducing the sizes of the individual rooms. In the past, the rooms were larger, but the space between them was practically nonexistent. The micro-suites continue on the third floor.

A peek inside one of the Mikado Hotel’s new micro-suites.

The suites are indeed microscopic—each one is about the size of a small bedroom. However, care has been taken to furnish them with all the necessary conveniences, including a kitchenette, full private bathroom (the original hotel had shared bathrooms), and storage cupboards. The style is decidedly hip and modern. A total of 42 suites will be available to rent starting in a few weeks, with leases that can run from one day up to one year. The price range is expected to be $1,160 to $1,500 per month.

Also new and hip is a rooftop lounge, featuring two comfortable seating areas. Guests can look down on the courtyard and balconies from here. The original hotel was enclosed, so the open-air effect is a welcome new addition, adding vibrancy to a small space.

The Mikado’s ground-floor corridor features a long collage capturing the history of Little Tokyo.
The collage contains a mix of images from different periods in the neighborhood’s history.

The building was designed as a hotel by the California architect Alfred F. Priest. It is said to be typical of the commercial architecture that populated American main streets of the early 20th century, with its glazed white brick entrance and buff brick upper stories. Prior to World War II, it was known as the Mikado Hotel. While the Japanese American community was incarcerated, Little Tokyo became an African American enclave known as Bronzeville, and the Mikado morphed into the Shreveport Hotel, featuring a well-known soul food restaurant.

The ribbon cutting ceremony, viewed from the Mikado’s rooftop lounge.

Gentrification is a contentious subject throughout Los Angeles, and Little Tokyo has not been immune to its effects. Critics bemoan the appearance of soulless condominiums, constructed quickly in the interest of profits, with no regard for the area’s history. A project like the Mikado Hotel seems to strike the right balance, respecting the lineage of the property while making it appealing to new audiences.

Visiting the Heart of Community

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.

Mine Okubo, Dining with friends in Berkeley, California, ca.1939–1941, 1942–44. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Mine Okubo Estate.

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:

Community persists—
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.

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.

JANM Loans Enhance Two Exhibitions Now on View

Nunokawa Japanese garden in Occidental Center, Los Angeles, California, April 10, 1965.
Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Japanese American National Museum,
Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.

As the repository of more than 100,000 individual artifacts related to the Japanese American experience, JANM frequently receives requests from other museums and cultural centers to borrow rare and meaningful items for their exhibitions. We can’t accommodate every request but right now, there are two exhibitions currently featuring loaned artifacts from the JANM permanent collection—one in nearby La Cañada Flintridge and the other in Austin, Texas.

Descanso Gardens is located at the far western end of the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County. Among its many botanical treasures is a Japanese Garden, which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year. In honor of the anniversary, the exhibition Sharing Culture | Creating Community charts the creation of the Japanese Garden, how it functions as a work of living art, how it transmits cultural ideas, and how it can act as a catalyst for building community.

Frank Nagata and bonsai class at Alpine Baika Bonsai Nursery, Los Angeles, California, 1964. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Japanese American National Museum,
Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.

On view in the Sturt Haaga Gallery through January 29, 2017, Sharing Culture | Creating Community includes four photographs by Toyo Miyatake from the JANM collection. One depicts Frank Fusaji Nagata at his Alpine Baika Bonsai Nursery in Los Angeles in 1964. Nagata taught bonsai there and was one of the founders of the Southern California Bonsai Club, which became the California Bonsai Society. Another photo, taken in 1968, is from the Third Annual Bonsai Festival at Descanso Gardens. In it, a man examines a bonsai created by the Santa Anita Bonsai Society for the festival, while Mrs. Forrest Kresser “Judge” Smith, founding president of the Descanso Gardens Guild, and Mrs. Khan Komai, wife of the Society president, look on.

Also on loan from JANM is a photo of Eijiro and Eiichi Nunokawa of Garden Arts Landscaping in the Japanese garden they designed at the Occidental Center (now known as the AT&T Center) at 12th and Hill streets in Los Angeles. Eijiro Nonokawa also designed Descanso’s Japanese Garden. Lastly, a 1966 photo reveals the Japanese garden at Chavez Ravine. Located behind Dodger Stadium’s parking lot #6, the garden features a six-foot-tall toro (stone lantern)—a gift from Japanese sportswriter Sotaro Suzuki of the Yomiuri Shimbun of Tokyo.

George Hoshida, 12-5-43 – 7 PM at Amarillo, Texas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of June Hoshida Honma, Sandra Hoshida, and Carole Hoshida Kanada.
At the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, produced by the United States Holocaust Museum, is currently on display. The exhibition emphasizes why the issue of propaganda matters and inspires visitors to search for truth and work together for change. On the Texas Homefront is a companion exhibition curated by the Bullock that explores the effects of Nazi propaganda and events in Germany on Texas and Texans. Five artifacts from the JANM collection are included in On the Texas Homefront, representing first-person experiences in Texas by Japanese Americans who had been forcibly removed from their homes in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Four of these artifacts are drawings made by George Hoshida in 1942 and 1943. Hoshida was an artist and community leader in Hawai‘i when the US entered the war. Within days of the Pearl Harbor bombing he had been removed from his home and incarcerated. He documented camp life through drawings and paintings in notebooks he kept as he spent time in and moved among five different camps during the war.

Also loaned to the Bullock Museum is a postcard from JANM’s Clara Breed Collection. Breed was the children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library from 1929 to 1945. She kept in touch with many of the Japanese American children and teenagers who had frequented the library even as they were forcibly removed to assembly centers and concentration camps.

George Hoshida, Fort Sam Houston Internment Camp, Texas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of June Hoshida Honma, Sandra Hoshida, and Carole Hoshida Kanada.

The postcard on loan to the Bullock was written by Fusa Tsumagari during a train stopover in El Paso, Texas, on the way to the Crystal City Department of Justice camp. “We had a rather restless night due to the occasional jerking of the train. I feel fine but mother is a bit car sick. Pop will be waiting for us when we get there on Sunday, according to our escort,” it says toward the end, referring to being reuniting with her father.

State of Deception and On the Texas Homefront are on view through January 8, 2017.

Descanso Gardens is open every day but December 25. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Should you find yourself with a little time during this holiday season, please consider visiting one of these cultural institutions to which JANM has made loans.

Two New Collection Finding Aids Now Available

Collection of the Japanese American National Museum. Buddhist Churches of America Archives.
Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.
Buddhist Churches of America Archives.

 

JANM is fortunate to have a vast collection of artworks, artifacts, documents, and other historical items pertaining to the Japanese American experience. To help scholars and other researchers navigate its contents, the museum’s Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit is an active contributor to the Online Archive of California (OAC), a web resource that provides free public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections at more than 200 libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums throughout California.

On OAC’s Japanese American National Museum page, you will find a hyperlinked, alphabetical list of collection finding aids. Click on any of the finding aids to access detailed information about that collection, including the scope and nature of its contents; background information and biographies; applicable restrictions; and instructions on how to access the collection. Some of the finding aids feature materials that can be accessed directly, such as digital copies of documents, and all of them offer a downloadable PDF of all the information. The museum regularly adds new finding aids after collections are processed.

A journalistic drawing by Stanley Hayami. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Grace S. Koide.
A journalistic drawing by Stanley Hayami. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Grace S. Koide.

JANM’s archivist recently completed the finding aid for the records of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), a national organization of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha sect and the largest Japanese American Buddhist organization in the country. This collection was transferred to the museum from BCA headquarters and is jointly owned by both organizations. The finding aid represents a significant advance for the study of Japanese American history, since the arrival and growth of the Buddhist religion in America was closely tied to the arrival of the first Issei immigrants.

JANM’s sizable collection of materials dates from 1899, when the BCA was founded, to 2016. It includes correspondence between headquarters in the United States, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji Headquarters in Kyoto, Japan, and individual temples, along with meeting minutes and conference materials, education-related records, publications, financial records, and audiovisual materials in a wide variety of formats. The collection spans three major periods in the evolution of BCA: establishment and early growth, the World War II incarceration era and its impact, and postwar expansion. Panoramic photographs from the collection are available to view on the museum’s website.

Also recently added was the finding aid for the Stanley Hayami Papers. Born in 1925 in Los Angeles, Stanley Hayami was incarcerated with his family at Heart Mountain and attended high school while he was in camp. After graduating, he was inducted into the US Army and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit. In March 1945, during a tour of duty in Italy, Hayami was killed in action while trying to save another soldier. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for his bravery.

A page from Stanley Hayami's diary, dated December 1, 1942. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of the estate of Frank Naoichi and Asano Hayami, parents of Stanley Kunio Hayami.
A page from Stanley Hayami’s diary, dated December 1, 1942. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of the estate of Frank Naoichi and Asano Hayami, parents of Stanley Kunio Hayami.

JANM’s Stanley Hayami Papers includes letters from Stanley to his sister Sachiko, letters from Sachiko to her family in Heart Mountain, camp newspapers and newsletters, personal items belonging to Stanley (1945 diary, certificate of baptism, application for life insurance, report cards), items of Stanley’s clothing, photographs of soldiers, and drawings by Stanley. This collection captures his time with the 442nd; those interested in his high school years can go to the OAC website and view the Stanley Hayami Diary (1941-1944), which has been digitized and made available online.

Requests to access JANM’s permanent collection can be made by contacting the CMA Unit at 213.830.5615 or collections@janm.org. Appointments must be scheduled in advance and documentation as to the purpose of the research visit is required. Fees may apply.

JANM Opens Two New Photography Exhibitions

Making Waves curator Dennis Reed speaks to a packed house at the Members Only exhibition preview event. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Making Waves curator Dennis Reed speaks to a packed house at the Members Only exhibition preview event. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

 

On the weekend of February 27–28, JANM opened two new exhibitions, Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940 and Two Views: Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank. A Members Only Preview Day, featuring a talk and book signing by Making Waves curator Dennis Reed and a dessert reception, took place on Saturday the 27th, followed by the public opening on Sunday the 28th.

In a special corner of the Making Waves exhibition, guests are invited to play with light and shadow and upload photos of their results to social media with the hashtag #JANMMakingWaves. Photo by JANM.
In a special corner of the Making Waves exhibition, guests are invited to
play with light and shadow and upload photos of their results to social media with the hashtag #JANMMakingWaves. Photo by JANM.

 

The response to these two exhibitions, one of which examines the lost legacy of early 20th-century Japanese American art photographers while the other features documentation of the World War II incarceration of both Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians by iconic photographers, has been very strong. Attendance throughout the weekend was high as both members and non-members excitedly viewed the two new exhibitions.

JANM members enjoy a dessert buffet at the Members Only reception for Making Waves and Two Views. Photo by JANM.
JANM members enjoy a dessert buffet at the Members Only reception for Making Waves and Two Views. Photo by JANM.

On Members Only Preview Day, more than 200 guests crowded into Aratani Central Hall to listen to Dennis Reed’s talk, which explored the lives and work of several of the artists in Making Waves. The families of those artists were present in the audience; earlier in the day, JANM had hosted a private luncheon in their honor.

Los Angeles Times chief art critic Christopher Knight has penned a thoughtful and enthusiastic review of Making Waves, calling it “an absorbing, must-see exhibition” that features “some of the most adventurous avant-garde photographs in the years between the two World Wars.” He raves about the achievements of the photographers in the show, providing a detailed aesthetic analysis, and also recounts the tragic circumstances that cut them short. If you read Christopher Knight regularly, you know that a rave review from him is no small thing!

Dennis Reed (second from left) with Sadao Kimura, Alan Miyatake, and Minnie Takahashi at a special private luncheon held for family members of the photographers featured in Making Waves. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dennis Reed (second from left) with Sadao Kimura, Alan Miyatake, and Minnie Takahashi at a special private luncheon held for family members of the photographers featured in Making Waves. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

 

Many excellent programs are planned in conjunction with these two exhibitions, including gallery tours, panel discussions, and more. A Members Only edition of Learning at Lunch will take place this Friday at 12:15 p.m., featuring guest speaker Frank Sata, son of photographer J.T. Sata, who is featured in Making Waves. A Members Only tour of Making Waves, led by Dennis Reed, will be offered this Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m.; its focus will be on the photographers who worked in Los Angeles. Visit janm.org/events for details. Making Waves will be on view until June 26, while Two Views closes April 24.

Dennis Reed shows the audience an example of a vintage camera. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dennis Reed shows the audience an example of a vintage camera.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

Executive Order 9066 vs. Civilian Exclusion Order

Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco's Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco’s Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

In Japanese American history, Executive Order 9066 and the Civilian Exclusion Orders are often confused with one another; many people mistakenly believe that they are the same thing. In fact, they are two different decrees that acted in concert to legitimize government-sanctioned racism during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This two-page, typewritten order was simply designed, in broad strokes, to give the Secretary of War the power to establish designated military areas from which people could be evacuated as he saw fit:

I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.

Executive Order 9066 is what opened the door for the exclusion and removal of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and into World War II American concentration camps. This was then put into action by a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders.

Posted on signs in large, bold lettering, the orders appeared first in Bainbridge Island, Washington, on March 24, 1942 and were subsequently posted all along the West Coast of the United States. This series of sequential orders issued by the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration informed people of Japanese ancestry that they were required to pack up, leave their homes, and report to designated locations.

National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

 

Following is a key excerpt from one of the orders:

Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 9, 1942.

Note the highly strategic use of language in this paragraph. The persons to be rounded up are both “alien and non-alien”—these words are used instead of the designations “citizen and non-citizen.” Imagine the reaction these orders might have generated among the general populace, had they in fact made plain that that the government’s intention was to incarcerate persons who were citizens of the United States.

By the same token, the order states that all persons of Japanese ancestry are to be “evacuated”—a word commonly used during natural disasters, when citizens are evacuated from an area for their own safety. History has made it clear that it was in fact the safety of non-Japanese Americans that prompted these extreme actions from the U.S. government.

These egregious instances of legalized racism have since been widely recognized and officially apologized for by the government. February 19, 1942—the date President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—is now annually commemorated as a “Day of Remembrance” by Japanese Americans and all people interested in the protection of civil liberties.

Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

ChinaDollsCover.final Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.

Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.

One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.

Hideo Date Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Hideo Date.
Hideo Date, Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Hideo Date.

 

See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Chisato Okubo.
Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of Chisato Okubo.

The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)

This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.

China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.

Historic Wintersburg is a Window onto a Forgotten Time

Founded in 1934, this Japanese Presbyterian Church, now boarded up, is the oldest of its in the state. Photo: Carol Cheh.
Founded in 1934, this Japanese Presbyterian Church, now boarded up, is the oldest
of its kind in the state. All photos by Carol Cheh.

 

Warner Avenue (formerly Wintersburg Avenue) in Huntington Beach is a busy street. Six lanes of cars roar by at all times, passing a dense parade of apartment complexes, single-family dwellings, schools, strip malls, chain restaurants, and big-box stores.

Amidst all this modern-day development, the last remaining structures of Historic Wintersburg Village—a farming community settled by European and Japanese pioneers in the mid-1800s—sit quietly at the southeast corner of Warner and Nichols Lane, barely noticed by passersby. Consisting of a cluster of homesteads, a community church, a mission, and a tiny patch of farmland all dating to the turn of the century, this property is a fascinating window onto a bygone era.

The history of the church can be seen in this photo. It began its life in 1934 as the Japanese Presbyterian Church, as inscribed in the building's cornerstone, before being taken over by other congregations.
The history of the church can be seen in this photo. It began its life in 1934 as the Japanese Presbyterian Church, as inscribed in the building’s cornerstone, before being taken over by other congregations.
The modest five-acre parcel was purchased by Charles Mitsuji Furuta in 1912, less than a year before California passed the Alien Land Law forbidding Asian immigrants from owning agricultural land. It managed to survive the World War II incarceration era and stay in the Furuta family until 2004, when it was sold to a waste management company.

The church on the corner, founded in 1934 by Orange County’s Japanese immigrant community, is the oldest Japanese Presbyterian Church in the state. The red house near the edge of the property, now falling apart with age, was once a spanking-new, ultra-modern home, built by Furuta for his new bride, Yukiko, whom he brought over from Japan.

Sadly, the parcel is currently threatened with development. A preservation task force, spearheaded by historian and author Mary Adams Urashima, is working to prevent that from happening. Earlier this year, they were helped in their efforts by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which designated Historic Wintersburg one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places of 2014.

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This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM is pleased to host Mary Adams Urashima, who will discuss the fascinating history of Wintersburg Village, detailed in her highly informative and readable new book, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach (available for purchase in the JANM Store). Come hear some amazing stories of early pioneer life in Orange County and learn how you can help save a vital piece of its history.