The following guest blog post, announcing the launch of a new podcast exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, is contributed by Eric Muller, a law professor and longtime friend of the museum.
After the election of Donald Trump, many people were asking themselves: “How can I help counter what lies ahead?” I decided to create a podcast called Scapegoat Cities, which is launching today.
The idea is simple. Over the course of two decades of deep research in the National Archives for my books and articles, I’ve gathered many touching but unknown stories of the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II—stories that put a human face on the gross miscarriage of justice. Scapegoat Cities lets me tell a handful of those stories in an accessible and compelling way.
I believe that if we want to ensure that something never happens again, we need to first ensure that we really know what it was that actually happened. That’s what this podcast is for: to help listeners know in detail and also feel how Japanese Americans experienced unwarranted confinement by the US government. My hope is that this will contribute in some small way to resisting the dangerous religious and ethnic profiling that the policies of the Trump administration threaten to enact. It will remind people of the real human costs of these seemingly abstract policies.
The first two episodes, available now, give a good idea of what the podcast will do. “The Desert Was His Home” tells the story of the disappearance and death of Otomatsu Wada, an elderly Issei, from the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. In “The Irrepressible Moe Yonemura,” an extraordinary young man defies all odds and becomes one of the most popular and respected members of his class at UCLA. He brings the same indomitable spirit to his time at the Heart Mountain camp—and then he volunteers for wartime service as part of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both of these stories are based on real events that took place at those two camps. Each of the stories, in its own touching way, reveals something important about the nature and impact of confinement.
It’s surprising how much information survives that helps me tell these stories. I learned the story of the disappearance of the Issei gentleman from the records left behind by Gila River’s “Project Attorney,” the white government lawyer who both helped run the camp and who served as a legal adviser for inmates. The story was also extensively covered in the camp’s newspaper and in Arizona newspapers. I first learned about Moe Yonemura from the pages of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s newspaper, and then discovered the UCLA campus newspaper and yearbooks and the narrative records of his battalion’s service in Italy online.
There are lots of ways to listen to the podcast. The easiest is to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you like to find your podcasts. You can also go to the podcast’s website, which has each episode available for download along with additional background information, including photographs and suggestions for further reading.
I hope people enjoy the podcast, and that those who do will leave a review on iTunes and tell their friends!
Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Muller has for two decades focused his research and scholarship almost exclusively on the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He’s published two monographs and a third edited volume as well as many academic articles. He’s also proud to have led the creation of the main historical exhibit at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, which won museum awards.
My name is Lauren Wong. I am an Ambassador Girl Scout with Troop 881, based at the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, California, and a candidate for the Girl Scout Gold Award. This award is similar to the Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts; it is the highest award a Girl Scout can earn. Applying for it is a seven-step process that begins with identifying a global issue and ends with creating a project that educates, inspires, and promotes awareness of that issue. For my Gold Award application, I have created a special Girl Scout patch program for the Japanese American National Museum.
Since I was little, my grandmother has told me stories of her incarceration at Tule Lake concentration camp, inspiring my passion for learning more about my Japanese American history. Students do not generally get the opportunity to learn about the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as it is often overlooked in history classes. Even today, many of my school friends do not know about the camps. My goal is to educate the general public and inspire them to appreciate the lives they have today and not let history repeat itself.
I have created an educational tool called Experience the Past, available in three separate worksheets geared toward elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students/adults. The worksheets, which can be requested at JANM’s front desk, are designed to accompany a visit to the museum’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. They pose questions and suggest exercises that are designed to help visitors identify with the exhibition, think more deeply about what they’re seeing, connect it with aspects of contemporary life, and converse with others about their experience.
At the end of their visit, participants who complete a worksheet earn a custom patch that I created. Through this program, I hope to spread awareness of the history of Japanese American incarceration, which is important not just to Japanese American history, but to American history as a whole.
Tickets are still available for two upcoming Girl Scout programs at JANM. On January 9 and 16, current Girl Scouts are invited to take a private tour of Giant Robot Biennale 4, followed by a zine-making workshop with exhibiting artist Yumi Sakugawa. For more details and to register, visit janm.org.
16-year-old Senior Girl Scout and Los Angeles resident Elizabeth Keller participated in JANM’s first Hello Kitty Girl Scout Program on November 22, 2014. She graciously agreed to share her thoughts on her experience. Thank you, Elizabeth! The essay is accompanied by photos taken at the most recent Girl Scout workshop, held on February 7.
To me and many other girls, Hello Kitty is the ultimate symbol of femininity. Her lovely, bubbly, adorable little world full of flowers and hair bows is enchanting. And in a world where being “girly” is frowned upon, Hello Kitty reminds us not to be afraid to be our fabulous selves.
I had never considered the other aspects of Hello Kitty, however, until my Girl Scout troop visited the Japanese American National Museum’s Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. The exhibition was educational and heartwarming. I learned that Hello Kitty is five apples tall and that her full name is Kitty White. I found that I could have Hello Kitty on everything that I own—my lunchbox, my roller skates, my rice cooker, and even the braces on my teeth.
After viewing the exhibition, all the Girl Scouts completed a craft. I doodled small pictures of Hello Kitty and watched girls as young as five make beautiful art out of a character that had inspired their creativity.
Looking around at more cute, pink, or otherwise charming household objects than I thought I would ever see—everything from clothes to food to headstones—it dawned on me that Hello Kitty is more than a simple little icon splashed on some toys. She represents the idea that we not only own our femininity, but that we also have the right to display it as we please.
Everything a girl does—from wearing makeup to playing video games—is seen as a call for attention, especially male attention. Hello Kitty recognizes no presence or agency except her own. She doesn’t ask anyone’s permission to be her lovely pink self; she simply is.
During the Hello Kitty Girl Scout Program, I saw little girls—young Scouts who are still learning about what it means to be a girl—exploring concepts presented in the exhibition, like business, foreign relations, and fashion. They learned about these things in the context of their beloved Hello Kitty. They discovered—and I was reminded—that they can do anything with their own power. And if they want to rule the world in a pretty pink dress, well, nothing can stop them.
An older Japanese American gentleman stands in front of a museum display case. Behind him is an enlarged photograph of a group of Japanese picture brides (a sort of predecessor to the mail order bride) newly arrived in the United States, looking a little lost and apprehensive. Mr. Hayashi, a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), is explaining how he uses the photograph as a didactic tool during school tours, but he is also talking about its personal significance—his own grandmother was a picture bride.
The brides share a display case with several other objects. One of these, a document in the lower corner of the frame, reads: Keep California White. Mr. Hayashi is commenting that despite his grandmother’s ambiguous fate as the bride in an arranged marriage, the partnership was considered successful and resulted in 36 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mr. Hayashi is, in fact, a testament to his family’s success in the face of a myriad of trials that women like the ones in the picture must have faced so many years ago. He is Nikkei, a descendent of Japanese migrants, and there are 2.6 to 3 million others with stories like his across the globe.
A global storytelling community
Allowing people to discover stories like the one Mr. Hayashi tells in the video described above is what the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hopes to achieve through its Discover Nikkei website, an interactive multimedia website launched in 2005. Discover Nikkei was conceived as a community-building tool on a grand scale that allows users to keep up with activities at the museum, and also permits access to a part of JANM’s collections, through the Nikkei Album feature.
Through the website, Nikkei all over the world are able to communicate, connect, and share, with a particular emphasis on the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, where a large number of Japanese emigrants have settled. Altogether, Discover Nikkei presents three main areas that allow Nikkei and people interested in the Japanese diaspora to build a global network together: Stories, Community, and Resources. This wealth of primary-source material available through the Discover Nikkei website in the form of archival home videos, articles, and video profiles combine to mount a concerted effort to privilege the community’s voice over a classic museum discourse.
In the “Stories” section of Discover Nikkei, the Nikkei Album feature allows users to create collections of images and/or film, much like Flickr or Pintrest type websites. To get an idea of the diversity of voices accessible through the albums, some albums include a Japanese farming and arts community in Brazil, Baptist churches in Japan, and an origami crane-making lesson in Peru. Of the three, the last album is written in Spanish, one of the four languages in which Discover Nikkei is available; the others being English, Japanese, and Portuguese.
The museum as participant is a major premise for the Discover Nikkei website, and manifests itself both in the “low profile” JANM presents on the website, as well as in the importance it places on community members’ involvement and collaboration. Aside from website users, the website gets a large part of its content through international correspondents who range from cultural institutions to individuals who contribute articles in the Journal section of the “Stories” page and post events on the main page. A subtle museum presence displaces focus from the “experts” to the community and allows the website to take on a real, marketplace-type feeling, where stories are related, not dictated by an institution.
Nikkei History in the First Person
The JANM account in the “Nikkei Album” section also gives self-service access to a portion of the museum’s permanent collection, made up of over 80,000 artifacts, objects, photographs, and artworks. The available documents are from the Watase Media Arts Center and include an important collection of home movie footage—more than 330 film clips totaling over six hours—filmed between the 1920s and 1960s, and digitally transferred for online access. Each film clip is described and annotated on the janm.org website in the Collections, Home Movies section.
The home movies touch on a wide variety of subjects and themes in the lives of American Nikkei, including work, play, home, and family life. Some extraordinary footage is also consultable, dating from the period of internment of Japanese Americans at several camps across the country from 1942 until the end of World War II, including that of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The clips depict daily life at the camps from the point of view of the internees themselves, and are a grim reminder of the extent to which certain communities have had to grapple with a “Keep California White” mentality.
Although the Nikkei experience translates well through images, text is also an important component of the Discover Nikkei website. Through the “Stories” “Journal” rubric, we meet Norm Masaji Ibuki, a Canadian Nikkei struggling to come to terms with his government’s non-action in the face of recent devastating events in Tohoku, Japan, where he once lived. Since the earthquake hit on March 11th, 2011 Norm has been keeping tabs via email and telephone on an old friend, Tomo and his family, stranded not far from the earthquake epicenter. “The Great Tohoku Disaster” series allows readers to listen in on a conversation that is as fascinating as it is terrible, as we progress from not knowing the family’s whereabouts, to learning that they are in Tokyo trying to find a way back to Canada, leaving house, belongings, and friends behind.
The over 100 available videos feature a diverse array of Nikkei living in Japan and abroad, sharing their life experiences and what they have learned from them. Each video is meticulously transcribed, then translated into all four languages available on the website. The library of stories we are privy to through the Interview section provide audiences with first person accounts of the Nikkei experience, much like the images in the home movies from the collection also available through the site.
Tools for empowerment
Issei, Nisei, Sansei… These terms and many others are peppered throughout the Discover Nikkei website. They are words used to denote how far removed a person is from their Japanese heritage by generation, and they provide a kind of reference for those who are initiated to the lingo. At the time this article was first published, the “Nima of the month,” or featured Discover Nikkei member, is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese, born in the U.S. His wife is Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American. The user clearly expresses himself well in English, but does he speak Japanese? Does he even feel it is necessary to speak the language in order to feel a connection to his Japanese heritage? These are the types of identity issues explored in a number of the user-written articles accessible in the “Nima-kai” rubric of the “Community” section. Here users can also post photographs and events, in a way that is similar to Facebook. A “Taiko Groups” rubric has recently been added to the Discover Nikkei website.
A critical step in the preservation of cultural heritage is the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. The “Resources” section of Discover Nikkei attempts to provide users with just enough guidance to encourage participation. This how-to section has detailed instructions for beginning a genealogical research project, including tips on conducting interviews, conservation basics, and even a bit of information on starting a personal collection of artifacts. These could potentially be the tools to inspire a user to create a Nikkei Album with a few of their own home movies, start a blog about Nikkei communities in countries other than the ones already featured, or maybe even dust off those old family kimonos in the attic. Discover Nikkei users participate in a variety of ways, defining and affirming the term Nikkei in an active way with the help of the website interface.
Apart from inspiring users to affirm their cultural identity, Discover Nikkei is also a remarkable example for museums that may be looking to relate to their audiences in a different, more egalitarian way. JANM’s idea was one that started small and gained momentum as the project advanced stage by stage, allowing for more complexity only after a solid framework had been put into place. JANM staff observed that one of the most important elements of website development was ease of content management. For JANM this meant that in order for content to remain relevant as the website progressed, room had to be made for constant revisions by regular staff members, as opposed to specialized IT staff. Avoiding proprietary software to cut down on costs and compatibility issues has also been a key development issue.
Through the Discover Nikkei website, JANM provides access to a rich collection of documents and artifacts that encourage Nikkei to take pride in their cultural patrimony, and to place a high value in sharing and communicating with others at a local and global level. By focusing on primary source materials and community-generated content, the museum places an emphasis on providing a forum for discussion and discovery rather than contributing expertise via a classic museum discourse. This approach, visible through the Discover Nikkei website, allows for a transfer of authority to take place, positioning in the foreground a community that has much to offer in the way of cultural tradition and values.
With special thanks to John Esaki, Director of the Frank Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum, whose advice and comments during this collaboration were essential.
A Los Angeles native, Cynthia G. Valdez is currently working to complete a Master’s in Art History at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Cynthia has written about art for various publications in France and abroad, including ArtSlant, The Paris Times, The Mag L.A., and Whitehot Magazine for Contemporary Art. When not accumulating stamps in her passport, she enjoys knitting, experimental music and answering emails at yomemoi(at)gmail.com. She microblogs here and here.
The coolest exhibit at JANM is the paper folding. But I call it origami because I love to learn new origami every time I go to the museum. There’s a beautiful white dress and even shoes that are made by folding paper. Wow! There are masks, dinosaurs and other great things to see. I have been going to JANM for 7 years and I am going to be 9 pretty soon.
Sipho Mabona is one of the most accomplished and respected origami artists in the world.
Like many folders of complex origami forms, he starts with square sheets of paper and transforms them into bugs, birds and beasts that are so intricately folded that they often take hours to complete. Without using scissors or glue, he is able to create perfectly proportioned, anatomically correct and artistically exquisite representations of swallows, polar bears, insects and even people. He is not the only artist who does this, as we can see from the other folded figures in the Folding Paper exhibition that is currently at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). Such artists as Robert J. Lang, Brian Chan and Michael G. LaFosse are renowned for their remarkable folded paper depictions of the natural realm.
What makes this Swiss-South African artist different is what he chooses to do and say with his folded paper bugs, birds and beasts. Mabona’s large-scale installations, often comprising many tens of folded creatures arranged in a particular formation, make bold and very timely political and social statements.
His 2010 work Bearly Surviving, which depicts dozens of polar bears crowded together on a shrinking iceberg—all folded individually from squares of white paper—is a poignant sculptural commentary on the damage caused by climate change. Another of his installations depicts a flock of graceful swallows confronted by a glass window; several have hit the glass and have fallen dead on the floor, suggesting a tragic collision of the human and natural realms.
His site-specific installation The Plague, which is currently on view at JANM, contains an even more potent political message. A total 144 locusts take form out of sheets of dollar bills and swarm the gallery, evoking the Biblical plague that was inflicted on humans who had behaved badly.
According to Mabona, the transformation of money into locusts is a reference to the large, multi-national investment corporations that take over smaller companies throughout the world and then discard them for a quick profit. In German-speaking Europe, such corporations, usually foreign, have recently been referred to as Heuschrecken, or locusts, spreading in swarms and greedily devouring local businesses. In 2011, he decided that it was this concept that he wanted to depict in his next installation. Since the US dollar bill has become the global symbol of capitalism, he contacted the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing and ordered sheets of uncut dollar bills for his project. He then flew out to New York to pick them up, as the Bureau won’t send uncut bills overseas.
In October 2011, he began folding his locusts out of squares measuring 7 by 3 bills each. Each locust took approximately 5 hours to fold, and is cleverly designed so that George Washington’s head appears on the wings and upper back, and the phrase “In God We Trust” runs across their foreheads. Mabona was careful to study not only the anatomy of these voracious insects but also their swarming formation; they all fly in the same direction at once. A week before the exhibition opened at JANM, Mabona began installing the piece, attaching each locust to a plastic thread that stretches up to the 35-foot high ceiling and then down to the floor. The effect is quite menacing. It is easy to forget that these creatures are folded out of paper.
Mabona is fascinated by the transformational aspect of origami, the potential to fold a flat square of paper into any form. The concept of transformation plays a large part in The Plague; dollar bills are morphed into a sinister plague of destructive insects. “Although a locust swarm is scary,” says Mabona, “where there is the ability to transform, there is hope. In origami, paper is folded into forms like these locusts, but the forms can be unfolded again. The creases will remain, but the paper can be folded again into something else—perhaps butterflies.”
Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami is on display through August 26, 2012. Visit the exhibition site for more details, related programs, and origami resources: janm.org/exhibits/foldingpaper
By Meher McArthur
Curator of Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami
Today, March 14, 2012 the internet search engine Google is celebrating the life and work of Japanese origami Master Akira Yoshizawa by spelling out its banner logo in origami letters.
Google Origami Logo designed by Robert J. Lang
Such a move is a testament to Yoshizawa’s contribution to the worldwide phenomenon that origami has become. It’s timing is also wonderful as we celebrate the opening this week of the exhibition Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami at the Japanese American National Museum.
Had Yoshizawa lived another seven years—he was born on March 14, 1911 and died in 2005—today would have been Yoshizawa’s 101st birthday. Yoshizawa was the world’s first full-time origami artist. In his twenties, he gave up his job in a factory to devote his life to origami. Over the course of his long life, he created numerous new origami designed, including rabbits, gorillas, pandas, and the pelican featured in the Folding Paper exhibition at JANM.
Akira Yoshizawa, photo courtesy of Mrs. Kiyo Yoshizawa
Yoshizawa also invented a new folding technique called wet folding, which enables folders to smooth down points and angles to create more naturalistic figures. This technique revolutionized origami, transforming it into a medium that is now used by artists all over the world to create exquisitely modeled folded paper sculptures.
In addition, he developed a system of notation for origami designs made up of arrows and lines to indicate the types and directions of folds. A version of this system, which helps people who don’t read Japanese to understand origami instructions, has essentially become the written language of origami instruction. In acknowledgement of his contributions to the evolution and spread of origami worldwide, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun in 1983
Now, back to Google’s logo. It might be surprising to some that the playful origami letters were not generated by a computer. They were folded by renowned American origami artist Robert J. Lang. Lang, a laser physicist with a Ph.D. from CalTech, like Yoshizawa, left his job at JPL in Pasadena to become a full-time origami artist, and he now designs a wide range of origami forms, writes and lectures all around the world about origami (watch Robert Lang’s TED talk >>).
Lang’s approach to origami is highly mathematical, as can be seen in his super-complex insects and animals like the Emperor Scorpion on view in the Folding Paper exhibition. He is also regularly asked to apply his profound understanding of the mathematical origami to projects in the realms of space exploration, medicine, car air bag design, television commercials and now search engine logo design.
Scorpion HP, opus 593 by Robert J. Lang, 2011, folded from one uncut square of Hanji paper
Lang was my advisor for the exhibition since its conception in early 2010. I had thought I couldn’t be more impressed by Robert than I already was. He epitomizes the spirit of contemporary origami in his brilliance, artistry and generosity of spirit. Today he told me that when he was hired by Google to design its origami logo, he was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He had to keep the project a secret. Now he’s being hired to do top secret origami assignments! Can he get any more awesome?!
Come and celebrate Akira Yoshizawa, Robert J. Lang and other outstanding origami artists at JANM! If you need to find the museum’s address, just google it!
Robert J. Lang will give a lecture at JANM entitled From Flapping Birds to Space Telescopes: The Modern Science of Origami
on Saturday May 26 at 2pm.
Posted by Meher McArthur, Curator of Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami