Got Photography Skills? Volunteer with Us!

Do you love capturing the world in unique and creative ways? Do you have a passion and talent for photography? If you have your own equipment and are available on weekends and evenings, we’d love to hear from you!

We’re expanding our crew of volunteer photographers to capture our exhibitions, public programs, and more at JANM. Volunteer photographers work with the Marketing and Communications department to shoot photographs that document and illustrate JANM’s events, initiatives, and mission to promote the understanding and appreciation of America’s diversity through the Japanese American experience.

Volunteers’ photographs are featured on our website and blog; highlighted in institutional reports, presentations, and outreach materials; used across social media; and archived at JANM. Their work conveys the powerful stories of the Museum and its mission to the public on a global stage.

Come join us and be part of an active network of volunteers!

JANM Volunteer Richard Watanabe captures the excitement of mochitsuki at the 2024 Oshogatsu Family Festival. Photo by Doug Mukai.

JANM Volunteer Nobuyuki Okada snaps photographs of visitors stamping the Ireichō. Photo by Doug Mukai.

Volunteer Opportunity: Photography

Reports to: Marketing and Communications

We’re looking for photographers who:

  • Have experience photographing events, exhibitions, people, and/or buildings at a quality level
  • Own photography equipment and a computer
  • Can select, edit, and digitally transfer photographs
  • Can attend at least one on-site event a month, usually on weekends or evenings
  • Are comfortable working in a fast-paced environment with visitors, staff, and volunteers
  • Have keen visual and compositional judgment
  • Are professional and flexible in meeting needs and circumstances of events
  • Can be appropriately dressed for the occasion
  • Can communicate with staff about their schedule in advance

Physical demands include:

  • Standing (10%)
  • Walking, including stairs (80%)
  • Sitting (10%)
  • Lifting (up to 5 pounds)

Sound like you? Submit your volunteer program application! Once we receive your application we will schedule a phone call with you to discuss volunteering at JANM and request a sample of 3–5 photographs.

Giant Robot Biennale 5 Now on View!

On Friday, March 1, 2024, JANM hosted the opening celebration of Giant Robot Biennale 5 with exhibition curator and Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura; artists Sean Chao, Felicia Chiao, Luke Chueh, Giorgiko, James Jean, Taylor Lee, Mike Shinoda, Rain Szeto, and Yoskay Yamamoto; and music with Dan the Automator.

The new exhibition welcomed nearly 1,300 visitors in a few hours, with a line that wound through JANM’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Visitors enjoyed engaging with the art, listening to music, and chowing down on food from Kogi BBQ and MANEATINGPLANT food trucks.

Since 2007, the Museum has partnered with Nakamura to produce the Giant Robot Biennale, a recurring art exhibition that highlights diverse work and celebrates the ethos of Giant Robot—a staple of Asian American alternative pop culture and an influential brand encompassing pop art, skateboard, comic book, graphic arts, and vinyl toy culture.

“These exhibitions champion the spirit of collaboration and welcome you into a unique space with a DIY attitude. They create a vibrant culture for future generations to see themselves and their interests on the national stage. And they continue to fuse the past with the present to create a trailblazing community for you,” said Ann Burroughs, JANM President and CEO.

Nakamura and the artists also contributed to the Giant Robot Biennale 5 audio tour, now available on JANM’s digital guide. Hear directly from the artists anytime, anywhere, and come down to JANM to check out the exhibition. It’s on view through September 1, 2024, and it’s an experience you don’t want to miss!

Photos by Kazz Morohashi.

JANM Debuts Its New Podcast

JANM is excited to release its new podcast, Japanese America, today. Coinciding with the annual Day of Remembrance, the Museum’s new podcast explores unique experiences, challenges, and triumphs of Japanese Americans and illuminates their contributions to the mosaic of American life.

From historical milestones to contemporary perspectives, cohosts Michelle MaliZaki and Koji Sakai will take listeners on an insightful journey through JANM’s collection that showcases a diverse community that shapes the American story in extraordinary ways.

In the first episode, learn how Yuri Kochiyama’s concentration camp experiences transformed her into a civil rights icon. Listen and subscribe at your favorite podcast app!

Norm Mineta’s Legacy

On January 26, 2024, JANM ushered in a new era for its campus by naming its plaza after the late JANM Board of Trustees Chair and Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and hosting the namesake distinguished lecture at the Daniel K. Inouye National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (Democracy Center). On Friday afternoon, guests gathered at the Museum to witness the unveiling of the new sign as the sun began to set behind the buildings of Little Tokyo and downtown LA. The Norman Y. Mineta Democracy Plaza connects the Museum’s Pavilion, Historic Building, and Democracy Center together. It’s a place that creates a sense of transparency and access between all buildings on campus and is a reminder that democracy is shaped through the involvement and engagement of individuals.

“We all feel Norm’s presence here. This is hallowed ground, a place where American families were taken to concentration camps,” said Ann Burroughs, JANM President and CEO. She described how Mineta used his imprisonment experiences at the Santa Anita temporary detention center (about fifteen miles away from the Museum) and the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming to lead the US in Congress and the White House. “Few better understand that this union could be more perfect than Norm and few worked as hard to make it so.”

“Norm lived his life for the democracy of his country,” said Deni Mineta, widow of the late Secretary. “It is important for the community at large to understand these lessons and pass them on. I see memories, love, and compassion, and I am so grateful that you’re here.”

Mayor Karen Bass described her mother’s experience of seeing her classmates’ empty chairs when she was going to school in Los Angeles and emphasized the importance of acknowledging the darker periods of US history to create a more inclusive democracy. “This is our shared history of folks of color,” she said. LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis added, “He’s a beacon of hope for us, and a reminder for why we’ve been fighting for all voices around the world.”

The newly named plaza brings Mineta’s values and vision for democracy to new generations and reflects the evolution of the Japanese American community. His extraordinary legacy, lifelong commitment to democracy, and profound impact on the Museum was also recognized with the inaugural Norman Y. Mineta Distinguished Lecture Friday evening. The lecture is a signature series of the Democracy Center focusing on Mineta’s leadership values and principles, including his commitment to public service, social justice, and strengthening US-Japan relations.

Mitch Landrieu, former senior advisor to the President and former mayor of New Orleans, was the special guest speaker. From 2010–2018 he served as the 61st Mayor while New Orleans was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and in the midst of the BP oil spill. Similar to Mineta, Landrieu’s father, Moon, championed integration while serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives, as mayor of New Orleans, and as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter. Throughout Moon’s time in office, the Landrieus and Minetas became friends. Like them, Landrieu also dedicated his life to public service. His speech and subsequent conversation with Mineta’s son and JANM Board of Governors member David Mineta discussed their fathers’ friendship, the power of the vote, and why it is important to fight for democracy every day.

“Our fight today starts by reclaiming our democracy and continuing to uplift our ideals in this country. We cannot allow our history to be erased. We cannot shrug our shoulders at the past,” said Landrieu. “When so much has pulled us apart, we must work together to answer the question: Who are we? This is a time for us to come together as patriots. Every generation in America has faced a moment where they had to defend democracy. This is ours. Do not close your eyes to what is happening around you. Do not think for a moment that the fight for democracy is over there. It’s happening right here.”

Photos by Mike Palma

3,700 Guests Celebrated the New Year at JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival

On January 7, 2024, JANM welcomed 3,700 guests to ring in the Year of the Dragon at its annual Oshogatsu Family Festival. Families and guests of all ages celebrated 2024 with fun activities, musical performances, a scavenger hunt, and free Museum admission all day to see The Bias Inside Us (through January 28), Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market (now extended through February 11), The Interactive StoryFile of Lawson Iichiro Sakai, and Common Ground: The Heart of Community.

Oshogatsu kicked off with dance performances by the Nippon Minyo Kenkyukai, Hoshun Kai, an all-volunteer Japanese folk dance group in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo that preserves the traditions of Japanese folk dance while introducing contemporary interpretations of those same dances. Their performances were dedicated to the late Hashimoto Hoshunbi Sensei and included folk dances about entertainment, fishing, and coal mining. The “Tanko-bushi” or coal miners’ song was especially interesting because the dancers explained that the dance steps symbolize digging for the coal, shoveling it over your shoulder, looking back to check the mine, and pushing the mine cart forward.

Cold Tofu, the nation’s longest-running Asian American improv and sketch comedy group, regaled the crowd with four improvised skits based on the audiences’ suggestions. In Standing, Sitting, Squatting, Leaning, four comics created different scenes with the theme of birthdays while assuming one of the four postures. In Pillars, two young volunteers helped three comics ad-lib a story set at the Parthenon using their suggestions, and in Pop-Up Storybook, four comics improvised a story called “The Velvety Dragon.”

“That book will be available in the JANM lobby at the end of our show,” joked the emcee, Mike Palma.

Longtime volunteer Hal Keimi led a beginner taiko lesson with children and adults of all ages. From children under seven years old to adults in their sixties and seventies, everyone had fun following Keimi’s lead on the drums. Guests also enjoyed Kodama Taiko’s unique mochitsuki demonstrations. The best part? Learning to make freshly made mochi!

Thank you for celebrating the new year with us! We hope that we will see you at our next family festival. Sign up for our email list or follow us on social media to learn about upcoming family festivals.

Photo captions and credits:
Guests explore
Aki’s Market and The Bias Inside Us, watch Cold Tofu and Shan the Candyman, go on a scavenger hunt, and make paper crafts. Photos by Joe Akira, Kazz Morohashi, Doug Mukai, and Richard Watanabe.

Hal Keimi leads a taiko lesson for all ages. Photos by Kazz Morohashi and Mike Palma.

Nippon Minyo Kenkyukai embellish their dances with fans, sashes, and castanets, and lead a Tanko-bushi dance lesson. Photos by Joe Akira, Ben Furuta, and Tsuneo Takasugi.

Kodama Taiko performs their traditional and unique mochitsuki (Japanese rice pounding ritual) for a cheering crowd. Photos by Doug Mukai and Mike Palma.

Ring in the New Year with Us at Oshogatsu!

Celebrate the Year of the Dragon at JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival on Sunday, January 7, 2024 from 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission to the festival and Museum is free all day.

Families and kids of all ages can enjoy cultural performances, crafts, and activities. You’ll get to watch candy sculpture demonstrations, take souvenir photos, make dragon puppets and daruma dolls, shop for some fukubukuro (lucky grab bags), watch Kodama Taiko’s mochitsuki (rice pounding) demonstration, relax with the Los Angeles Public Library’s storytime session, and more!

You can also see all of our exhibitions for free. Don’t miss your chance to see The Bias Inside Us and Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market (before they close on January 28, 2024) as well as The Interactive StoryFile of Lawson Iichiro Sakai, and Common Ground: The Heart of Community.

To ensure swift entry to the festival, we encourage everyone to register for their free tickets at janm.org/oshogatsufest2024. After you register, you will receive a barcode (to print or display on your smartphone or other mobile device) that confirms your spot and provides quick access at the door.

JANM Members will have access to a Members-only entrance for expedited entry and can take advantage of the special perks throughout the festival including priority seating and Members-only giveaways.

You can view the full festival schedule online or on our free digital guide on Bloomberg Connects. Printed schedules will also be available at JANM.

Photos by Daryl Kobayashi, Tracy Kumono, and Doug Mukai.

Map Our New Exhibition with Gordon Yamate

JANM Trustee and attorney Gordon Yamate gives an overview of JANM’s new exhibition and virtual reality experience, Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market. Yamate initially connected the Museum with the artist, Glenn Akira Kaino. Kaino’s grandparents are Akira and Sachiye Shiraishi (Kaino is Akira’s grandson and namesake).

An art expert who understands the importance of integrating art into the Museum’s storytelling and the role that art plays in creating empathy and teaching valuable lessons, Yamate is involved in numerous charitable, civic, and cultural organizations and serves on boards for a number of cultural organizations such as the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

“A Roadmap to Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market by Gordon Yamate

Now that I have been anointed as an “art expert” by our President and CEO, Ann Burroughs (I’m still pinching myself), I’d like to offer my comments on Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market because I suspect many of our regular visitors to the JANM will be scratching their heads wondering if they missed something when they view the exhibition.

Let me start with some background about Glenn Kaino. He is a conceptual artist. That means his work isn’t necessarily pretty or conventional art on the wall. Glenn is concerned with ideas, concepts and memories—how we perceive things—but he goes a step further here. This isn’t a typical Glenn Kaino exhibition, if a typical one exists. This is an exhibition that is deeply personal to Glenn, much like the stories that we experience at JANM. So, a lot of the works have a tie to Glenn’s life, and we learn a lot more about him than in his other previous exhibitions.

Let’s start with the virtual reality portion of the exhibition first. Yes, the wait in line can be a bit tedious, and even Glenn jokes that he created a zine to give you something to do while you wait. Definitely read the zine. It’s your guide to what you will see and experience, and the context that Glenn provides is essential. There are skateboard decks, a set of three Akira portraits as you enter, and a huge ninja doll. Without the zine, none of this seems connected or makes sense. So, read the zine. It all makes sense.

There are two what I call “infinity” sculptures on the opposite side of the room. Like works from Glenn’s With Drawn Arms exhibition based on Tommy Smith’s raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics, Glenn incorporates an element of illusion in creating these works. In With Drawn Arms he utilized a casting of Smith‘s raised arm to create an image of a suspended arm that replicates into the distance, like Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored infinity rooms that go on forever. Glenn’s use of this technique in “Taken Inventory” goes deeper. In “Taken Inventory (Keep Stock),” the unlabeled Spam cans provide a subtle reminder of the “American” cuisine served to Japanese Americans during their incarceration. Although the arrangement of the cans initially brought to my mind what I imagined an Amazon warehouse would look like, it also conjured up the arrangement of the barracks in the various WRA concentration camps that would extend into the horizon as far as the eye can see—a graphic visualization of the huge number of people that were affected by Executive Order 9066. Even the title “Taken Inventory” alludes to the deprivation and loss of rights, property, and opportunities and how “inventory” dehumanizes individuals when Japanese Americans were issued identification number tags that they wore from the point of departure to the temporary detention centers and ultimately the camps.

In “Taken Inventory (Endless Field),” Glenn laments his grandfather’s loss of attending Occidental College, where he would have gone on a football scholarship, if not for the intervention of Executive Order 9066. Glenn writes that his grandfather was one of the best high school football players in Los Angeles despite his size (weren’t all football players smaller in those days?). Upon closer inspection, Glenn uses what I think is a vintage set of Electric Football figurines propelled on the field by a vibrating table—a rather primitive game that preceded football video games. In this sculpture, the same football game replicates forever—a fitting metaphor for a game that never started nor ended for his grandfather.

We see other snippets of Glenn’s approach to creating art—the use of spontaneous combustion in the aptly titled “Spontaneous Combustion,” where exothermic reactions create the work, leaving an unexpected ghost of an American flag. He invites us into a memory of his grandparents’ grocery store that was created from his interviews with his initially reluctant mother, and stories he remembers being told about the store when he was growing up. Even though Glenn did not meet his grandfather Aki, who passed away before he was born, and never set foot in the store, Glenn saw the importance of the store to his family and the East LA community that it served. What the store lacked in product breadth, it offered in convenience. Where else could you find “Gordon’s” bread loaves of the now defunct LA bakery stocked above cans of flammable liquids (was that kerosene)? The graininess of the video (at least in the virtual reality version that I experienced) adds a nostalgic touch—you feel less a customer in the store but more a special guest in this market of curated goods for the neighborhood. Glenn’s work makes us appreciate what we often take for granted. The lilting voice of his daughter, Stella, responding to his grandmother’s parting farewell and wish to “come back soon” leaves the visitor with memories that will continue to be passed down through generations.

Now on View
Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market is now on view through January 28, 2024. The Los Angeles Times calls this virtual reality exhibition “a captivating theater of dreams.” Experience it for yourself during your next visit to JANM!

For more information about the exhibition and VR experience availability, visit janm.org/glenn-kaino. An audio tour is available through the website and JANM’s guide in the free Bloomberg Connects app.

Note

This blog post was updated on January 23, 2024.

Little Tokyo Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of JANM’s Historic Building

On September 12, 2023, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS), and other Little Tokyo partners celebrated the upcoming 100th anniversary of JANM’s Historic Building with a new plaque and street signs marking the building’s significance and its City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument designation.

JANM’s Director of Collections Management and Access and Curator, Kristen Hayashi, welcomed the group and introduced Michael Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, who spoke about the LTHS’s efforts to raise the visibility of historic sites throughout Little Tokyo, including the Koyasan Buddhist Temple, the Kame Restaurant, the Finale Club, Sei Fujii and J. Marion Wright Memorial Lantern, Toyo Miyatake Way, Reverend Howard Toriumi Plaza, and the Aoyama Tree.

“You could tell that throughout Little Tokyo these are significant. We honor these legacy people who were before us and it’s very important. When you walk throughout Little Tokyo please take a moment and absorb all these people and the naming sites,” said Okamura.

Rev. William Briones of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple then spoke about how the site played an important role in the spiritual and social life of the community.

“It was a place of spiritual refuge, community, a playground for the children, a place to grieve for their loved ones, and to find joy in the joining of two people. And who could forget the iconic picture that Archie Miyatake took? The backdrop of one of the assembly points from which local Issei and Nisei were sent to the camp. Today we are truly honored for this recognition and even though a lot of people don’t know the history of this, there are so many fond and wonderful memories of this temple. Thank you for this recognition,” said Briones. Afterward, both of them unveiled the new signs on 1st Street that now mark the historic site.

The Historic Building was designed by local architect Edgar Cline and built in 1925 as the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple. In 1985, the newly incorporated JANM signed a fifty-year lease with the City of Los Angeles to renovate the temple and convert it into a museum. The renovation was conceived by a consortium of eight Japanese American architects: Marcia Chiono, David Kikuchi, Shigeru Masumoto, Yoshio Nishimoto, Frank Sata, Takashi Shida, George Shinmo, and Robert Uyeda. In 1986 it was designated as City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument 313. In 1992 JANM opened its doors to the public with 23,800 square feet of space for exhibitions, collections, and public programs.

“JANM’s Historic Building is our oldest and largest artifact on our campus. It is hallowed ground, a site of conscience, and a gathering place for civic engagement and social justice. The plaque and street signs not only commemorate the Historic Building’s history in the Japanese American community but also expands the public’s understanding of its significance to the history of Los Angeles and the US. Commemorating the building’s history ensures that past injustices will never be repeated and that diverse voices will be heard now and into the future,” said Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of JANM.

Principal City Planner and Manager for the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, Ken Bernstein, praised the new plaque and street signs for raising the visibility of the historic site in Little Tokyo.

“Our historic buildings anchor us in an ever changing city. They really provide a meaningful connection to our collective memory—that bridge between past, present, and future. Thanks to you, the historic designation and enhanced visibility through the street sign and the plaque will continue to allow the Little Tokyo community to connect to its rich heritage and really use that rich heritage as a way of continuing to promote the vitality of the Little Tokyo community.”

Actor, activist, JANM Trustee, and Board Chair Emeritus, George Takei, joined Burroughs and Bernstein to unveil the bronze plaque, now installed at the building’s historic entrance.

Hayashi closed the ceremony by noting the significance of the ceremony and the power of place that JANM’s Historic Building has on its own and in relation to JANM’s Pavilion.

“These places matter to us and our community and we want people to know about its significance; that’s why we have this ceremony today. We could’ve just mounted the plaque but instead we really wanted people to know that it’s here. Several people have pointed out that there are several generations of people here today to witness this moment and it’s so fitting because as you turn around and you look towards JANM’s Pavilion, the architects of the Pavilion really wanted us to reflect on our past. Our past is what guides our present and future. It’s symbolic of who’s represented here. We have several generations here to carry on the legacy of those who have come before us in Little Tokyo.”

A special surprise performance by the children of Nishi Daycare charmed the audience of fifty who gathered in the plaza for the celebration.

2023 Natsumatsuri Family Festival Brought Over 2,500 Visitors to JANM!

On August 12, 2023, JANM welcomed 2,715 visitors to its annual summer celebration featuring free cultural performances, crafts, and activities in downtown Los Angeles.

Our Natsumatsuri Family Festival kicked off with a powerful performance by the award-winning TAIKOPROJECT. Their song, “Omiyage,” conveyed the custom of the same name where a person gives gifts to friends, colleagues, or family when visiting a place. TAIKOPROJECT’s closing performance was all about audience participation with call and response of ichi ni sou rei and oroshi, a series of hits to the drum that slowly speeds up in tempo. Kids and adults alike joined together to play the drums in two different rounds, raising their bachi (drum sticks) to the sky before bringing them down for the first hit and yelling the call (ichi ni) and response (sou rei).

Elaine Fukumoto from the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple led a group bon odori (traditional dance) in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. “We’re dancing fools and we want more dancing fools to join us,” said Fukamoto, encouraging visitors participating in origami and the scavenger hunt to join the dance circle as she led a group lesson with songs like “Sakura” and “Pokemon Ondo.”

Outside on the courtyard, the comedy and improv group Cold Tofu performed skits based on the audience’s suggestions. They played games like English Gibberish where audience members gave two cast members the theme archenemies and they improvised a conversation while switching from English to babble all while staying in character. They also played Pop-Up Storybook where audience members gave all cast members an adjective (smoky) and a noun (sewing machine) to narrate a unique four-part story called “the smoky sewing machine.”

The festivities continued throughout the afternoon with a kendo demonstration by Sho Tokyo Kendo Dojo, a printmaking workshop with artist David Horvitz in collaboration with Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair, and a taiko workshop led by longtime JANM Volunteer Hal Keimi.

Closing out our family festival was a fabulous shamisen jazz and blues performance by Yu Ooka and Kimo Cornwell of the Yu-ki Project. Ooka is a Los Angeles–based shamisen player and guitarist, and Cornwell is a Grammy-nominated keyboardist. They performed original songs such as “Train Home to Osaka,” Working Man,” and “Where the Tree Grows.” They were then joined by Karen Evans, an amazing singer from Inglewood, California who toured the world with Ray Charles. Together, they played James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love,” ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to a grooving audience.

We hope to see you next year for our Oshogatsu Family Festival in January 2024! Check our Events Calendar later this year for more about our next free family festival.

Yu Ooka and Kimo Cornwell of the jazz shamisen band Yu-ki Project and Karen Evans play jazz and blues. Photo by Joe Akira.

Swing Dance and Music in Camp

Don’t Fence Me In: Coming of Age in America’s Concentration Camps. Photo by Paloma Dooley.

What was it like to grow up behind barbed wire? JANM’s exhibition, Don’t Fence Me In: Coming of Age in America’s Concentration Camps, explores the experiences of Japanese American youth confronting the injustice of being imprisoned in World War II concentration camps while embarking on the universal journey of adolescence. Preteens, teenagers, and young adults danced with one another, listened to jazz and big band music, and formed musical groups of their own that performed regularly in camp. 

Swing dance, which developed alongside jazz music, was started by African American dancers  at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York. Musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Webb all performed at the ballroom. The ballroom’s anti-discrimination policy created a unique environment for diversity and creativity. The Savoy Ballroom and swing dancing was also featured at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. From there, swing dance and music spread across the country throughout the 1930s, including in Los Angeles.

Swing dancing was so popular among youth that a group of young dancers interrupted Los Angeles City Hall council members to invite them to a swing dance contest at the Gilmore Stadium on September 11, 1938. The following year, the Palomar Ballroom hosted the Jitterbug Championships and the finalists (from twenty states and six countries) danced for cash prizes to live music from the Artie Shaw and Ken Baker Orchestras in front of thousands of people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as part of the International Jitterbug Championships on June 18, 1939.

During World War II, young Nisei like George Yoshida who enjoyed big band music continued to do so when they were forcibly removed from their homes. According to his book, Reminiscing in Swingtime, incarcerees created big bands such as the Densoneers or D-Elevens, Down Beats, Jive Bombers, Jivesters, Music Makers, Pomonans, Poston Camp #2 Band, Rhythm Kings, Rhythmaires, Savoy Four, Stardusters, and Starlight Serenaders in the temporary detention centers and concentration camps.

Nisei like sisters Yuri Long and Sumiko Hughes were a part of social clubs that would also participate in swing dancing. Long and Hughes, who are both featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour on Bloomberg Connects, talked about how much they enjoyed swing dancing as part of their social club, Just Us Girls (the JUGs), in the Manzanar concentration camp. The JUGs were made up of the youngest girls, followed by the Forget-Me-Nots and the Moderneers.

“They call us wild because at the dances, the JUGs were always very popular,  and the guys would come and ask them to dance. And they jitterbug. They were on the dance floor all the time. And some of the other club girls were sort of off on the side. They didn’t get asked as much. And they didn’t jitterbug. And they used to jitterbug wild. They would throw them under their legs,” recalled Hughes.

Bob Wada, who was also featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour, recalled knowing where all of the dances were at the Poston incarceration camp because the blocks within camp kept a running log.

“A lot of the blocks had their own dances. So we had our own. They weren’t, like, out of control dances, they were good. People didn’t crash dances. Our block had a dance and they invited a few friends that would come. That’s about the only thing we did socially,” he said.

Some incarcerees even had their own musical equipment made in camp. Two Nisei, one of which may have been Sadaichi Tanioka, made a turntable for Henry Nomura so that he could play music for his own enjoyment and for others in the firebreaks and at block dances at the Manzanar concentration camp. 

Handmade dance bids—paper booklets featuring an illustration of the event on the cover—were popular, complete with blank lines for dance partners to sign their name. Many of the dance bids in Don’t Fence Me In were donated by Karen Nagao. Her mother-in-law, Ruth (née Higa) Nagao, was incarcerated in the Pomona temporary detention center and the Heart Mountain concentration camp. While working as a crop picker and nurse’s aide at Heart Mountain, Nagao participated in many events including plays and dances. Her collection of dance bids commemorated block dances and special events like, a New Year’s Eve Dance, a Valentine’s Dance, and a Coronation Ball. 

To celebrate big band music, JANM created a Don’t Fence Me In playlist of popular songs from the 1940s and hosted a two-part public program, From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie, on June 17, 2023.

From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie kicked off with a conversation between dance preservationist Rusty Frank and Rohwer concentration camp survivors, artists, and performers, June Aochi Berk and Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer. Berk and Fischer met at the Rohwer when they were ten years old and have been friends ever since. While incarcerated at Rohwer, they were too young to attend the dances but they were attuned to the fashion of the times and taught themselves how to dance.

Rusty Frank, June Berk, and Takayo Fischer talk about dancing in camp. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum.

“I used to love looking at the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs,” said Fischer.

“I made my mother buy me white majorette boots, a skirt, and a top. And my brother had to have pachuco pants so he could be in style in camp,” recalled Berk. “We would stand around and watch the big kids dance and we’d go home and copy them. That’s how we learned to dance. My brother always wore his pachuco hat all the time and I would look to see who was dancing with him.”

From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie then transitioned to the All Camps Swing Dance with live music from the Fabulous Esquires Big Band and custom dance bids for guests. After Frank led a  beginner swing dance lesson for all ages, the Fabulous Esquires played popular tunes from the 1940s like “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (which Berk sang in Japanese). Together, the conversation and dance offered all generations the opportunity to connect through music, movement, and immersive history.

Don’t Fence Me In is now on view through October 1, 2023. Swing by JANM to see it for yourself this summer and shop the exhibition’s collection at the JANM Store!