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)

Looking Back at the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

August marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. With its passage, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Furthermore, with this formal apology, the law called for monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many, many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community.

To recognize this anniversary, we reimagined the final gallery of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. Opening to the public on August 4, among the artifacts newly on display is the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign the Act, on loan for a year from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Also debuting in the gallery are two original pages of the Act. These include the page bearing President Reagan’s signature, as well as those of Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and, Norman Mineta, who is now Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees. These pages are on loan to us from the National Archives and Records Administration for only a limited time, through September 23.

The anniversary seems a fitting time to share this excerpt from President Reagan’s speech given at the time of signing the bill into law.

The Members of Congress and distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.

Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival, and it’s not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States. Indeed, scores of Japanese-Americans volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation. Yet back at home, the soldiers’ families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.

Congressman Norman Mineta, with us today, was 10 years old when his family was interned. In the Congressman’s words: “My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tar paper barrack.” Like so many tens of thousands of others, the members of the Mineta family lived in those conditions not for a matter of weeks or months but for three long years.

The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.

You can read a full transcript of Reagan’s speech here. Also, here’s a video of the President’s speech and the signing ceremony at which Norman Mineta (and others), were present:

 

 

There are still a few seats available for this Saturday’s conversation with Mineta and Dr. Mitchell T. Maki, President and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center and lead author of Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Achieved Redress. Be sure to RSVP here.

This Summer, See Masumi Hayashi’s Work in Glendale

Now through July 8, 2018, three pieces from the JANM permanent collection by artist Masumi Hayashi are on view at ReflectSpace Gallery at the Downtown Central Library in Glendale. The photocollages, from Hayashi’s “American Concentration Camps” series, are presented as part of the library’s exhibition entitled Accused of No Crime: Japanese Incarceration in America, which weaves a personal narrative through photographs, art, and film to highlight stories of Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II. Hayahsi’s work is presented alongside pieces from Mona Higuchi and Paul Kitaguki as well as archival images from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others. Admission to the library is free. More information about the display can be found here.

Gila River Camp, where Hayashi was born.
Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, 1990, panoramic photo collage. 22″x 56″

Born in the Gila River War Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona, just after the war ended, Hayashi spent her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she worked at her parents’ neighborhood market. She briefly attended UCLA before moving to Florida to be with her husband, who had joined the Navy. Hayashi later enrolled at Florida State University where she earned both her BA and MFA.

In 1982, Hayashi joined the Cleveland State University faculty as Professor of Photography. While at CSU, Hayashi received awards and fellowships from a number of institutions, including the Ohio Arts Council, the Civil Liberties Educational Fund, and Arts Midwest. She worked at the university until her death in 2006.

Hayashi developed a systematic photographic style that involved taking multiple exposures of a single subject and assembling them into large panoramic scenes that could be six feet across or larger. She is probably best known for her series “American Concentration Camps,” which centered on the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

According to the artist’s statement in 1997, preserved on her online museum’s website, “The viewer can instantly see a 360-degree panoramic view which would otherwise circle around her, thus the viewer becomes both prisoner and guard within the photograph’s memory.” Her work is often described as eliciting contradictory sensations. Former JANM curator Karin Higa in 2003 noted that there is a “suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know—what you can’t find out” in her work. The “American Concentration Camps” series is no different, moving viewers to take in both the beauty of the landscape and the memory of what happened there as well as that which can never be known about either. As Hayashi once remarked, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument, 1995, panoramic photo collage, 48″x 80″

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.

Kodomo no Hi Learning at Lunch

In conjunction with Kodomo no Hi—Children’s Day—in Japan, the JANM Collections Unit presented a Members Only Learning at Lunch session on Saturday, May 5. A group of artifacts from the collection, including Boy’s Day Festival in May, was shared with members. The watercolor painting is one of several donated to JANM in 2002 by Charlotte Opler Sagoff. While the other pieces donated at the time are signed and dated by the artist, this painting alone is not, leaving some uncertainty about its origins. It is stylistically similar to a number of the others donated from Sagoff, making its identification as close to positive as our collections team believes to be possible.

Boy’s Day Festival in May, 1945

Sagoff taught high school at the Tule Lake incarceration camp while her husband, Marvin Opler, was stationed there for three years as a government anthropologist, social psychologist, and community analyst. Unlike other anthropologists the government assigned to camps, Opler was critical of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Minoru Kiyota notes in Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei, “Opler regarded the residents of Tule Lake as essentially normal human beings, while [Tule Lake Director Raymond] Best considered them fanatics.” Historian Peter Suzuki holds up Opler as a model for the positive influence anthropologists could have had on the War Relocation Authority.

Opler further criticized the segregation of “loyal” and “disloyal” internees at Tule Lake, and showed a respect for Japanese culture that went against the mores of the time. Sagoff enrolled their son in the Japanese nursery camp at Tule Lake, making him the only white student. Opler’s willingness to think of the Tule Lake prisoners as real, normal people perhaps stemmed from his ability to situate their culture within a wider worldview. He likened the prisoners’ renewed interest in Japanese traditions to when Plains Indians returned to the Ghost Dance religion, calling both reclamations and affirmations of identities too long sublimated to colonizers. Opler had in fact begun his anthropological career observing Native Americans, alongside his brother Morris, in New Mexico. (While Opler was assigned to Tule Lake, Morris was stationed at Manzanar.)

While at Tule Lake, Opler appreciated the artistic work of those imprisoned. According to Sagoff, he hired artist Dick Toshiki Hamaoka to draw representations of life at Tule Lake because they were unable to afford photographers. Boy’s Day Festival in May, with koinobori in the air, barracks housing, and residents going about their daily lives, is plausibly one such work. According to Sagoff, Hamaoka was 17 at the time he was commissioned and was a cartoonist for his high school newspaper. By her account, after the war, Hamaoka repatriated to Japan.

WRA records indicate that there was a Toshiki D. Hamaoka, a kibei Nisei, from Los Angeles at Tule Lake. However, those records show him to be 25 years of age at the time Sagoff would have known him. Moreover, the WRA shows him as being married, with previous military service, and indicate that he was sent first to Santa Anita and then to the Amache camp (also referred to as the Granada camp) in Colorado. A Bulletin from Granada, Colorado, dated October 21, 1942, corroborates all of this: “Alice Misaye Ouye and Richard Toshiki Hamaoka were married at the Lamar courthouse Thursday. The couple, formerly of Santa Anita, were accompanied by Police Chief Stanley Adams. They now reside at 11G-12F.” The couple was moved to Tule Lake in 1943, perhaps because of responses to the loyalty questionnaire. Final Accountability Records show the Hamaokas arriving at there from Granada in September 1943 and leaving for Japan on Christmas Day 1945. Regardless of his age, WRA records list Hamaoka’s qualified occupation as “artist” and “photographer.”

If Boy’s Day Festival in May is indeed by Hamaoka, it may well be one of his final completed piece before repatriating to Japan.

JANM members look at Hamaoka’s watercolor at a Members Only event on May 5th.

Opportunities to view and hear about artifacts from the JANM Collection, like this Members Only Learning at Lunch event, are a great benefit of membership. Join or renew today!

Eaton Collection Display Seeks Answers and Provides Inspiration

One of the postcard-size watercolors on view as part of Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.

On Sunday, JANM opened Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, a special display of art and craft objects created by Japanese Americans during their World War II incarceration in American concentration camps. These are the same artifacts that dedicated Japanese American community leaders and activists saved from a controversial attempt at a public auction in 2015. The collection now resides at JANM for safekeeping, and has been conserved, photographed, and catalogued with key support from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program.

It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.

The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.

Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.

Facsimiles of ink scrolls from the Eaton Collection.

Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.

Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.

New JANM Web Resource Explores America’s Concentration Camps

Photograph. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of George Teruo Esaki.

The Japanese American National Museum recently launched a new web resource, Exploring America’s Concentration Camps. Like our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which provides a key educational experience for 15,000 students and teachers every year, EACC showcases photographs, letters, artwork, oral histories, and moving images from our permanent collection. We selected and digitized artifacts from all 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps and organized them thematically for this new website. Our goal is to share our collection widely with students and teachers around the nation to help them learn more about the Japanese American World War II experience.

The above photo of a group of women making mochi in the Gila River camp in Arizona has a handwritten caption: “New Years a comin’.” At around the same time in Utah’s Topaz camp, artist Hisako Hibi painted two stacked pieces of mochi topped with a small citrus, a symbol of hope for a healthy and prosperous new year. On the back of her painting, Hibi wrote, “Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu. So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.” These artifacts, like many others in JANM’s permanent collection, speak to how important it was for those in camp to find ways to maintain their traditions, despite being incarcerated in harsh environments far from home.

Hisako Hibi, Untitled (New Year’s Mochi), circa 1943, oil on canvas.
Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Ibuki Hibi Lee.

Other artifacts speak to the idea of security. For example, this badge and identification card are from the collection of Norio Mitsuoka, the inmate who would become the fire chief at Idaho’s Minidoka camp. The WRA created and ran camp entities like fire departments to ensure standard protections for the Japanese American prisoners. Such artifacts not only give viewers a deeper understanding of camp life, but they also surface broader questions about security, both physical and psychological.

Badge. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Norio Mitsuoka.

Identification card, 1945. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Norio Mitsuoka.

A handmade chest of drawers, meanwhile, illustrates the dignity with which the Japanese Americans endured the camps. The collection of Frank S. Emi, who is perhaps best known for his leadership in the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, offers us a glimpse at another skill he possessed: furniture making. In an oral history interview for JANM, he shared what the furniture meant to him:

I built this chest of drawers from scrap lumber in the fall of 1942 while incarcerated at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp. The barracks were bare except for a potbelly stove and a single light bulb dangling from the roof. I had also built a vanity with a 36-inch mirror (purchased from a mail order catalog), which was my pride and joy.

Chest of Drawers. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Frank S. Emi.

Photograph. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Frank S. Emi.

Exploring America’s Concentration Camps was produced with major funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program. JANM is currently at work on several other JACS-funded projects, including the digitization of rare home movies; a traveling display of artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, which will premiere at JANM on January 7, 2018; and another website that revolves around one family’s story of being separated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the hardships they endured throughout the war.

A shortened version of this article was published in the fall 2017 issue of Inspire, the magazine for members of JANM.

New Finding Aids Provide Insight Into World War II Japanese American Incarceration

Notes taken during the 1942 Japanese Farm Survey. Japanese American National Museum.

JANM welcomed new Archivist Jamie Henricks to the staff in May. In her first blog post below, Jamie updates us on one of the many projects she’s been working on—completing museum finding aids for the Online Archive of California.

Alhough JANM is fortunate to have a vast collection of materials, only a fraction is on display at any one time. To make more of the collection accessible to the public, the museum’s Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit is an active contributor to the Online Archive of California (OAC), which provides access to descriptions of archival collections held at more than 200 libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies throughout California.

On JANM’s OAC page, there is a list of collection finding aids. Click on any link to read about a collection, including its contents, background information about the people and organizations involved, and other details. Some finding aids link directly to digital copies of materials (such as diaries or photo albums), and others offer the chance to learn more by coming to JANM for a research visit.

Inspection report from the 1940 Japanese Farm Survey. Japanese American National Museum.

Two recently processed collections provide insights that bookend the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience. The Japanese Farm Survey for Defense Records demonstrate how Japanese Americans and other enemy aliens were viewed before and shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, while the E.O. 9066 Inc. Records show the wide range of opinions from Japanese Americans about their treatment and what types of reparations should be made.

The first Japanese Farm Survey was conducted in 1940 by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commission, at the request of the Home Protection Committee of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Most of the 147 properties inspected were Japanese-owned (although other “resident aliens” surveyed included Germans, Italians, Filipinos, and Chinese) and located along major power transmission lines and aqueducts. It appears officials were worried about sabotage or tampering of the nation’s infrastructure by non-citizens. The reports include observations about the individuals and their land holdings, their proximity to power lines, their level of English proficiency, and their personal backgrounds. Inspectors often commented with surprise on how intelligent the interviewees seemed.

Part of a page from the 1942 Japanese Farm Survey. Japanese American National Museum.

After the first report concluded that 80 to 90 percent of farms owned by Japanese individuals were run by non-citizens, a second survey was conducted in January 1942. This survey contains details about each farm owner, including names, ages, genders, citizenship, registration numbers, and ports of entry, and their business, including farm location, workers employed and their citizenship status, number and type of crops, whether they will seek loans to try to buy more land, use of pesticides, marketing and membership in organizations, and whether or not the farm expects any labor shortages or financial troubles. Some of the questions feel ominous in retrospect, considering how many thousands of people of Japanese ancestry would be forced to drop everything and abandon their farms, some within just two months of responding to this survey.

A response to E.O. 9066, Inc.’s survey regarding incarceration and reparations. Japanese American National Museum.
In 1975, E.O. 9066, Inc. was formed as an outcome of a reparations panel sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Chapter and the Pacific Southwest District of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The nonprofit’s goals were to educate the public about the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans, propose legislation to compensate those affected by Executive Order 9066, and ultimately have the Supreme Court review the constitutionality of the order as well as the landmark Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States cases.

After conversations within the Japanese American community, a survey of the LA area was circulated in The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and handed out by the JACL (though responses were tallied from around the United States). It asked for details regarding the respondents’ incarceration experiences and their opinions on what and how reparations should be paid. The results indicated general support for redress efforts, and many responses came in the form of handwritten or typed notes. The comments are extremely wide-ranging and fascinating to read, and even the labels assigned to various groupings (e.g. “cynical”) give a good indication as to common threads of thinking.

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