Ethnic Effects: Revealing the Impact of Immigrant Groups in Shaping the American Experience through Museum Objects

My name is Jose Quirarte and this summer I have had the opportunity to work at the Japanese American National Museum as the Getty Marrow Collections and Curatorial Intern. I recently graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in history. Throughout my undergraduate work I studied the 20th century ethnic American experience, focusing a majority of my research on the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As a result, I wanted to create a capstone project during my internship at JANM that reflected my research interests in the Japanese American experience as well as those of other ethnic communities by exploring the complexity of American identity.

In order to fulfill this capstone project, I invited Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Chinese American Museum, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles to collaborate and create a collections-based project that focused on the ethnic American experience. Specifically, the project invited each intern to highlight items in their museum’s respective collection that reveal lesser known stories and demonstrate how the American experience has been shaped and defined by its rich ethnic history.

Interns selected an artifact or artwork that related to the broad project question: 

How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?

Participants were encouraged to view and interpret this question from different perspectives and were provided a variety of sub-questions to further delve into different facets of the American experience. The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions made it clear that the answer to this specific question would not fully encompass the American experience of immigrants and their descendents. The interns, through the objects that they selected and wrote about, demonstrated the complexity of the immigrant experience in the United States. They underscored obstacles and triumphs, the ingenuity of immigrants, the unique cultural identity that formed, and the notion that “being American” has not historically conformed to one singular definition.

The following Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns participated by shaping their own interpretations of the project question:

Japanese American National Museum: Jose Quirarte, Shelby Ottengheime, and Rino Kodama

Italian American Museum of Los Angeles: Mercedes Solaberrieta

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes: Araceli Ramos

The resulting capstone project has been crafted into a blog series titled Ethnic Effects. I have synthesized and framed the submissions into a series of posts that reveal a different facet of the American experience through an analysis of collection items.

I answered the broad project question, by selecting a drawing from JANM’s Miné Okubo Collection (2007.62). I argue that it reveals the complexity of “American identity” and the ways in which it is shaped by the cultural traditions and experiences of immigrants and their children.

Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum

Miné Okubo, untitled, 1942-1945, Miné Okubo collection. 2007.62.156, Japanese American National Museum. Los Angeles, CA.

In this untitled work, artist Miné Okubo depicts herself seated at a mess hall table while she observes several individuals in the process of pounding mochi at the Topaz concentration camp in Utah during World War II. Miné Okubo was just one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in America’s concentration camps without due process because of racism and war hysteria. Executive Order 9066 laid the foundation for exclusion of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent forced removal. Miné Okubo’s drawings depict the World War II incarceration experience— from removal on the West Coast to daily life at Topaz.

This particular drawing depicts a scene of mochitsuki, a Japanese New Year’s tradition of pounding sweet rice into mochi (rice cakes). Mochi is an important ingredient in a New Year’s soup called ozoni, which is supposed to bring luck. The three men in the background take turns pounding the sweet rice with large wooden mallets while the man kneeling in front turns the mochi and moistens it with water. To the left of Okubo, there are several mochi cakes resting on the counter.

On the surface, this drawing seems to only speak about the mochi-making process in the Topaz concentration camp. However, the drawing, in conjunction with Okubo’s other drawings, helps to reveal the dynamic nature of “American identity” by depicting Japanese Americans actively participating in Japanese traditions. From behind barbed wire fences, Japanese Americans demonstrated that American identity was not homogenous; rather, American identity had always been inherently diverse and multifaceted due to the integration of a variety of immigrant groups and their respective traditions and values. Okubo’s drawing of mochi-making signified the reality that many Japanese Americans held on to traditional Japanese institutions and values. Furthermore, her drawings indicate that Japanese Americans placed an importance on maintaining Japanese traditions, despite attempts by the War Relocation Authority to “Americanize” and “assimilate” them. From within the confines of America’s concentration camps, Japanese traditions and cultures thrived and persisted among the Japanese American community. 

If the meaning of what it means to be an “American” is confined to the restrictive ideas of the “melting pot” and a European American standard, then it would allow no room for the preservation of outside cultures and traditions. Yet, Okubo and many other Japanese individuals, within the confines of concentration camps, maintained their cultural traditions and redefined the contemporary definition of American identity. Okubo’s drawings counter the restrictive narrative of the “melting pot” and highlight that Japanese immigrants and their children valued Japanese culture and were intent on keeping their traditions alive. More importantly, Okubo’s drawings reveal a bigger picture: “American identity” is inherently complex and diverse and it is shaped by the values and experiences of immigrant populations and their children.


This series, entitled: “Ethnic Effects,” will reveal commonalities and shared experiences in the American experience through material culture artifacts from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. The title of this series underscores the overall goal of the project: to highlight personal effects residing at cultural and ethnic museums, and use their historical significance to demonstrate the effect immigrant populations have had on shaping the American experience. Each of the posts in this series analyzes the complexity of “American identity” and demonstrates that the American experience is multifaceted. Through the Getty interns’ analysis of their respective museum items, several throughlines are apparent within the American immigrant experience. In coming to America, immigrant groups and their children have often had to adapt and reinvent themselves, face immense systemic oppression based on racial prejudice, and persevere in any way they can in order to survive. Each of the following posts reveals stories of American immigrants that exemplify the notion that the immigrant experience is not just a minor chapter in America’s history, but is instead an integral part in understanding the complex story of the American experience:

Ingenuity – Araceli Ramos & Rino Kodama

Vulnerability & Discrimination – Mercedes Solaberrieta & Jose Quirarte

Perseverance & Resilience – Shelby Ottengheime & Jose Quirarte

Acknowledgements

This project has been a wonderful opportunity for several of us Getty MUI interns to meet and collaborate on a project outside of our immediate internships. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing museum personnel to work from home, a majority of the interns have only had a digital experience working with their institution. Regardless of the unfavorable transition, our supervisors have adapted and have provided the Getty interns with a valuable experience working in the museum field. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the supervisors for their support of this project and their ingenuity in adapting their Getty programs to accommodate work from home. 

Thank you to Kristen Hayashi, Clement Hanami, and Akira Boch of JANM; Marianna Gatto of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles; Gina Alicia Lopez Ramos, Erika Garcia, and Liz Gama of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes; Rachelle Shumard and Ashley Lee of the Chinese American Museum.

Without your support, this project would have not been possible.

Inside JANM’s Permanent Collection

A Brief History

At the heart of Japanese American National Museum is its permanent collection. With over 100,000 artifacts stored within two-floors totaling 7,200 square feet, JANM houses the largest collection of Japanese American material culture in the world. From renowned artwork and artifacts of some of the most notable Japanese Americans, it also contains seemingly mundane objects of ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell. The collection is full of family treasures that anchor narratives of hardship and success, loss and triumph, as well as challenge and resilience.

Located in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, the heart of the Japanese American community since the 1880s, JANM’s founders and early supporters wanted to create an institution that would tell a lesser-known chapter of American history to help ensure that the violations of civil liberties that resulted in the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II would never happened again.

After incorporating as a private, non-profit institution in 1985, artifacts and archival items began to populate the Museum’s permanent collection. With in-depth documentation from the immigration of the Issei generation to unique crafts made in America’s concentration camps, the burgeoning archive was unlike any other of its time. While JANM quickly became a renowned national museum, it was also a community archive—a repository for numerous families’ treasures. On January 23, 1999, the Japanese American National Museum expanded to its current location on the corner of Central Avenue and First Street, constructing at its center two floors for collections storage, as seen in the video Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection (see below).

While the permanent collection is encyclopedic, covering a myriad of topics that reflect the Japanese American experience from early immigration to the United States to the present, the majority of the collection conveys the varying experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. This encompasses the forced removal and subsequent confinement of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two thirds of whom were US citizens—in temporary detention centers and later in America’s concentration camps as well as the military experiences of men and women who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Infantry Battalion, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Artworks in a variety of mediums, photographs, personal letters, and government documents help to illustrate the experience of the former incarcerees and military personnel.

All of JANM’s collections are significant historical resources for scholars and researchers who study United States history and politics, Japanese American history, trans-Pacific migrations, and other similar topics. Yet, they are also incredibly important to the families that have donated them to the museum. Those who come to research the collections at JANM are not always scholars. Instead, many are descendants of family members who donated historical documents and artifacts to the museum. They visit JANM to learn more about where they come from and the uniqueness of their family history. This is what makes the holdings within the Japanese American National Museum’s permanent collection especially significant and incredibly valuable.

To bring your family’s artifacts into JANM’s permanent collection please email collections@janm.org. Or to help maintain and preserve JANM’s Collection with a donation please click here.

Behind the Scenes

In Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection the following artifacts can be seen:

  • Antique Kodak camera owned and used by Frank Kamiyama of Fresno, CA, Gift in Memory of Frank U. Kamiyama, 2000.335.2
  • Shell pins from Topaz concentration camp, Gift of Ryo Maruoka and Aiko Yoshida, 93.122.2
  • Harold Landon’s correspondence with Sohei Hohri, Gift of Harold Landon Family in Memory of Sohei Hohri, 2019.13.9
  • Suitcases taken to Manzanar concentration camp, Gift of Grace Shinoda Nakamura, 2001.61
  • The Heart Mountain mystery stones, Gift of Leslie and Nora Bovee, 94.158.1
  • Suit of Harry Miyagawa, Gift of the Uragami Family, 91.92.3
  • Citizen USA, Gift of Lois Ferguson in Memory of Charles K. Ferguson, 2002.174.2
  • Sculpture: The Portal by Ako Castuera, loan

Photos from JANM’s Collection

JANM’s collection storage, first floor
JANM’s collection storage, second floor
General Collection (3D artifacts), second floor, aisles 97 & 98. Frank Kamiyama’s antique Kodak camera [left], Gift in Memory of Frank U. Kamiyama, 2000.335.2
Archives (original photographs; papers and correspondence; diaries and journals; rare books; and ephemera), first floor, aisles 23 & 24. Norman Y. Mineta Papers (45 linear feet) [left], Gift of Norman Y. Mineta, 96.370
Archives (continued), first floor, aisle 23, shelves B-D. Professor Masakazu Iwata Papers [center], Gift of Masakazu Iwata, 94.58
Fine Arts Collection (paintings, drawings, and prints from Japanese American artists), second floor, painting racks 63-75, includes artwork by Henry Sugimoto [center], Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum, 92.97


Video credit: Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection by Shawn Iwaoka

Queen of Denson

On May 27, 1943, Kiku Nakamichi was crowned Queen of Denson at a coronation ball, which was part of a weekend carnival at the Jerome concentration camp.

Kiku was presented with a wooden, heart-shaped plaque painted red, green, and gold. It had been crafted by staff at the wood shop where she worked as a secretary. Four months later, when Kiku and her husband departed Jerome, wood shop staff and friends added signatures and farewell messages to the back of the plaque.

Captured in a photograph from the night of the coronation, Kiku is flanked by her two attendants Mary Ikeguchi and Bessie Nakashima, where she is seeing holding the plaque. According to the camp newspaper, Denson Tribune, “William O. Melton, assistant Project director, who crowned the queen had the first dance with Queen Kiku following the coronation.”

Although events throughout all of the camps were common, including coronations and carnivals, each one offered a unique opportunity for incarcerated Japanese Americans to participate in activities seemingly at dramatic odds with their forced surroundings.

The plaque was passed on to Kiku’s daughter, Cindi Ishigaki, who donated it to JANM’s permanent collection this past January.

Views from Poston

Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1942. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.1)

Every three months, staff at the Japanese American National Museum meet to discuss donation offers of artifacts for the museum’s permanent collection. One collection that arrived at the museum recently was from the family of Larry Akira Ogino.

Kathy Bishop and her siblings recently offered to JANM a collection of watercolor paintings created by their father, Larry Akira Ogino, during his time at the WRA concentration camp at Poston. The five vibrant watercolors accepted into JANM’s permanent collection capture life and scenery at Poston, with some of the works evoking the style of other watercolor artists in Poston and other camps, such as Gene Sogioka.

Larry was born in 1919 in San Francisco, California. During his youth, the family owned and operated a fruit and vegetable farm in the Los Gatos and Campbell neighborhoods adjacent to San Jose. Prior to incarceration, Larry was an art student at San Jose State College. Larry, his mother, and three brothers were sent directly to Poston. Their father joined them after a year at the Santa Fe Department of Justice camp. Larry left camp in June 1943 for employment in Chicago, and later volunteered to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He served as a medic in Europe during his tour of duty.

Once out of the service, Larry was sponsored by a family friend and was able to continue his studies at the Studio School of Art in Chicago. During this time, he painted landscapes in watercolor, but also experimented with oils and acrylics. He was hired as a technical illustrator and worked for several different companies in the Midwest before finally returning to San Jose, where he was employed at FMC Corporation until his retirement. Until his death in 2000, Larry continued to paint—some animals (including cougars, foxes, dogs, cats, and birds), but mostly landscapes.

With over 100,000 artifacts, JANM’s Collections Management and Access staff work to preserve and document the experiences of Japanese Americans like Larry Akira Ogino. If you are interested in donating, making an appointment to view your family’s past donations, or learning more about objects in JANM’s permanent collection, please email  collections@janm.org.

Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.2)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.3)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.4)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.5)

A Behind the Scenes Look at “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World”

National Museum Collections and Exhibitions Staff are busy preparing for the opening of the upcoming exhibition Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World which opens this weekend on March 8!

Here is a peek behind the covered doors.

As the photographs are hung
As the photographs are hung

A Dragon lurks behind the photographs
A Dragon lurks behind the photographs

The wall art was painted by hand
The wall art was painted by hand

Hanging the photographs
Hanging the photographs

Join us this Saturday for the opening day. Many of the artists will be here to present live tattooing, lectures, and a book signing of the exhibition catalogue.

For information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/perseverance

Estelle Ishigo Drawing from JANM Collection Featured in National Constitution Center Exhibition

Ishigo-500px
Estelle Ishigo’s drawing All In One Room, as it was prepared by Collections Staff for travel to the National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is currently featuring the drawing All In One Room by Estelle Ishigo in their permanent exhibition The Story of We, the People.  The drawing will be on display through November of 2014.

Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) is most well known as an artist who chronicled the experience at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.

Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 to parents of English, Dutch, French ancestry.  Her family moved to Los Angeles and Estelle attended the Otis Art Institute, where she met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny.  As anti-miscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed in 1928. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher.  Shunned by her family, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.

Estelle Ishigo (Gift of Mary Ruth Blackburn, Japanese American National Museum [2000.103.12])
Gift of Mary Ruth Blackburn, Japanese American National Museum [2000.103.12].
With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to be removed while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband, first to the Pomona Assembly Center in California, and then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched, and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. “Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life,” she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained at Heart Mountain in order to record the last days of the camp until it was officially closed. The Ishigos were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. “I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe,” she remembered later.

In 1990, filmmaker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of Estelle Ishigo’s life titled Days of Waiting. Estelle passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

Estelle Ishigo’s story and drawings comprise an important aspect of the permanent collection at the National Museum. The Estelle Ishigo Collection can be seen on the Museum’s website at:  janm.org/collections/estelle-ishigo-collection

Learn more about Estelle Ishigo on our Discover Nikkei website >>

Submitted by Margaret Zachow Wetherbee, Collections Manager

A Behind the Scenes Look at Marvels & Monsters

What happens when a Museum changes exhibitions?  Why is the area cordoned off so we can’t see what is going on inside? Common questions posed by National Museum visitors when they meet the Collections Management team and realize we are part of the select group that is behind the blacked out door during exhibition changes.

Here are a few images to help you glimpse behind the door!

(click to see the full images)

 

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986
October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014
Through a selection of images from comic books representing four turbulent decades, Marvels & Monsters illustrates how evolving racial and cultural archetypes defined America’s perceptions of Asians.
For more information >>

The Comics Have Arrived!

Fales Comics
Comics from the William Wu Collection at the Fales Library at NYU. Collections staff are preparing them for display.

In preparation for the opening of Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, Collections staff received 38 special collections comic books from the Fales Library at NYU.  The comics have arrived!

Comics featured include a Green Hornet from 1944, Yellow Claw from 1956, Wonder Woman from 1956, Justice League of America from 1967, Iron Man from 1969, Captain America from 1970, Batman from 1972, and many, many more!

US Art soft pack
The comics were carried by Art Handlers from New York to Los Angeles.

Don’t miss out on the exhibition opening on Thursday, October 10th at 6 p.m. or the FREE fun-filled Target FREE Family Saturdays event on Saturday, October 12th from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

For more info about the exhibition and upcoming events, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters

 

 

 

From Mine Okubo to Li’l Neebo: JANM Collections to Augment Marvels & Monsters Exhibition

Shazam
Comic from the Tulean Dispatch. This First Person Narrative of Americas Concentration Camps is highlighted in Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986

As the incoming Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum, I am amazed by the sheer depth of artifacts and artworks that comprise the Japanese American experience. Having admired the institution’s mission and values from an outside perspective, I am happy to become part of the thriving community that is “behind the house” in the collections at JANM.

It is the goal of the Collections Management and Access Unit (CMA) to preserve the collections for future generations and to utilize them to their fullest potential as ambassadors and storytellers for the Museum—for the collections are the cornerstone of the Museum. One wonderful way to achieve this potential is to use our temporary exhibitions as an entryway into exploring our own collections.

We are excited to have the opportunity to share some of JANM’s collection alongside the traveling exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, which comes to us from the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections. CMA and Education Staff realized the potential of pairing our collection of historical artifacts to enhance the exhibition in an unexpected way.

Superman
Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo (Little Nisei Boy) reading a Superman comic inside his book. Ishii, who once was an artist for Disney, started Li’l Neebo while at the Santa Anita Pacemaker newspaper, and continued at the Granada Pioneer. His first person narratives provide a glimpse into America’s Concentration Camps.

It is interesting to contemplate the idea that artist Chris Ishii never imagined Li’l Neebo sharing gallery space with Wonder Woman! A Miss Breed letter and Mine Okubo drawing in conversation with each other about the shared theme of comic books… who would’ve guessed?

Marvels & Monsters illustrates Asians and Asian Americans through racial and cultural archetypes and when paired with first person Japanese American narratives of concentration camp life told through comics, a differing perspective is shared. Through the cartoons of artist Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo and George Akimoto’s Lil Dan’l, artwork by Mine Okubo, and letters from young inmates to librarian Clara Breed, Museum visitors will glimpse how comics were used to express emotion and to retain a sense of normalcy in a less than ideal situation. These images, juxtaposed with the stereotypical Asian themes in U.S. comics, provide a place for reflection on the impact and power of storytelling through comics and the way in which this popular medium has shaped perceptions of history.

It is through collaborations such as these that the importance of the collections at JANM, through the stories and first person experiences of the Issei and Nisei generation, are linked to contemporary society.

* * * * *

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum from October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014. For more information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters

Margaret Zachow Wetherbee is the new Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum.

Introducing the Miné Okubo Collection

Miné Okubo, Untitled, 1942-1944, Gift of Miné Okubo Estate (2007.62.82)

 

Artist.  Writer.  Activist.

Miné Okubo (1912-2001) was all those things and more.  We also venture to call her a documentarian and anthropologist for the way she captured life while incarcerated in the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, CA and Topaz, UT camp during World War II.  Along with over 120,000 other Japanese and Japanese Americans, Okubo was confined behind barbed wire simply because of the way she looked.  She took the opportunity to observe and record her experiences as shared in her seminal book Citizen 13660:  “…I had the opportunity to study the human race from the cradle to the grave, and to see what happens to people when reduced to one status and condition.”

Due to a generous grant awarded to the National Museum by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we spent two years conserving, mounting, scanning and cataloging all of Okubo’s original drawings from Citizen 13660 in order to share her insight and talents with a larger audience.

You can browse this amazing collection on our Museum Collections webpage!:  http://www.janm.org/collections/mine-okubo-collection/

Oh!  And don’t forget her brother Benji Okubo (a pretty amazing artist in his own right):  http://www.janm.org/collections/benji-okubo-collection/