Warren Sata Pays Tribute to Japanese American Photographers with Moss on the Mirror

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Portrait), 1928, gelatin silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.
J. T. Sata, Untitled (Portrait), 1928, gelatin
silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.

This Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m., JANM will present a dramatic reading of Moss on the Mirror, a fictional play inspired by the life and work of renowned photographer Toyo Miyatake. Taking place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where Miyatake’s practice flourished before World War II, the play examines the creativity, hope, and optimism, as well as the struggles and challenges, of the Japanese immigrant photographers community.

Although not a literal retelling of actual events, the piece seeks to transport audiences to the feelings and circumstances of those times. Moss on the Mirror was written by Warren Sata, whose paternal grandfather was J.T. Sata (1896–1975), a featured photographer (along with Miyatake) in the current exhibition Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940. To learn more about the play, we conducted a brief interview with Sata via email.

JANM: What does the title Moss on the Mirror refer to?

Warren Sata: The title refers to the notion that we understand ourselves and our communities through reflection, or looking in the mirror. The moss evokes a clouded mirror, alluding to the influence of outside circumstances like poverty and racism.

JANM: What inspired you to write this play?

WS: The story of Los Angeles’ Issei photographers has fascinated me and inspired my imagination since I learned about them from my father some years ago. A conversation with actor/director Chris Tashima, who serves as the play’s director, helped me to recognize the importance of Toyo Miyatake’s journey toward becoming a pillar of the community. I began to understand the value of artistry and responsibility in a different way, which led me to take an interest in sketching the story of Japanese Americans photographers and their interests and practices prior to the WWII incarceration.

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Ice Cream Cones), 1930, gelatin silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.
J. T. Sata, Untitled (Ice Cream Cones), 1930, gelatin silver print.
Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family.
Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.

 

JANM: What is your favorite image by a Japanese American photographer, and why?

WS: I am drawn to an abstract self-portrait created by my grandfather, J.T. Sata, which is currently on display in Making Waves. It utilizes triangles and a photographic image of his face. The interplay between a realistic portrait and an abstract prepared background fascinates me; it seems to suggest a doorway between the real world and subjective experience. This allows for a dialogue between these worlds and gives value to the notion of participating in both. I enjoy this because it pushes me to understand the Issei experience and what that might have felt like.

JANM: What do you hope audiences will get out of the dramatic reading?

WS: I hope that audience members will be motivated to honor the contributions of the Issei photographic pioneers, but also to consider what their experiences were like in the 1920s and ’30s—their creativity, their principles, their aesthetics, and the culture and context of the times.

Moss on the Mirror is free with museum admission, but RSVPs are recommended.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part Five: The Trip to Hawai‘i!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court and the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Court visit Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui at the Hawai‘i State Capitol.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court and the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Court visit Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui at the Hawai‘i State Capitol.

 

As I sit here back at my desk, I’m daydreaming about my week in Hawai‘i with my fellow 2015 Nisei Week Court members, our parents, the Nisei Week Hospitality Committee, the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Court, the 2015 Hawai‘i Cherry Blossom Festival Court, and the Hawai‘i Cherry Blossom Festival Hospitality Committee. It was a week filled with ono (delicious) food, warm beaches, and the nicest people on the island.

Princess Camryn Sugita with her parents at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.
Princess Camryn Sugita with her parents at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.

 

As soon as we landed in Honolulu, we were greeted by the local Cherry Blossom Festival Hospitality Committee, who immediately felt like family. After we checked into the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, we went straight to the beach, in spite of the fact that it was raining. Later that evening, we joined the 2015 Cherry Blossom Courts from Hawai‘i and San Francisco and the Hawai‘i Cherry Blossom Hospitality Committee for dinner.

Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court express their love for the islands.
Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court express their love for the islands.

 

Saturday, March 26 was the big event that we came to town for: the Festival Ball and coronation ceremony, where 15 contestants competed to become the 64th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen and Court. It was the first time I witnessed a coronation (besides our own), and unlike at Nisei Week, only six of the 15 contestants were selected as the Queen and Court.

Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court donned local-style garb for this visit to Japanese-English radio station KZOO Radio.
Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court donned local-style garb
for this visit to Japanese-English radio station KZOO Radio.

 

It was nerve-wracking to watch these women perform taiko, walk in evening gowns, recite their speeches, walk in kimonos, and answer an impromptu question on stage. It was hard to believe I was in a similar position just seven months ago. All of the women did an amazing job and their months of training paid off. At the end of the night, we congratulated everyone and took photos with the newly crowned Queen and Court. We even met the Governor of Hawai‘i, David Ige! It was an exciting time to say the least.

The newly crowned 2016 Hawai‘i Cherry Blossom Festival Court, with the 2015 Nisei Week Court behind them.
The newly crowned 2016 Hawai‘i Cherry Blossom Festival Court,
with the 2015 Nisei Week Court behind them.

 

The next couple of days were filled with exploring the island of O‘ahu with the San Francisco Court and the Hawai‘i Hospitality Committee. We climbed to the top of Diamond Head, ate Waiola Shave Ice (my favorite), ate loco moco at Rainbow Drive-In, competed against our parents in the Dole Plantation Pineapple Garden Maze (the parents won), enjoyed shrimp scampi at the famous Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, and tried Matsumoto Shave Ice on the North Shore. Our bellies and hearts were constantly full.

A Dole Whip straight from the source, with li hing powder on top!
A Dole Whip straight from the source, with li hing powder on top!

 

On Tuesday we made our official visits to City Hall and the State Capitol. We learned about the history and culture of Hawai‘i and met with Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui and Roy Amemiya, Managing Director of the City and County of Honolulu. We then visited Menehune Mac, a local confectioner, and KoAloha Ukulele, whose proprietors have led several popular ukulele workshops at JANM. At the Menehune Mac factory, we learned how they make their macadamia chocolates and then we made a box of our own! At KoAloha Ukulele, we made a ukulele keychain and listened to some Hawaiian tunes. I gained a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of the islands.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court with Roy Amemiya, Managing Director of the City and County of Honolulu.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court with Roy Amemiya, Managing Director
of the City and County of Honolulu.
The owner of Menehune Mac shows how it's done.
The owner of Menehune Mac shows how it’s done.

 

For some members of the San Francisco and Los Angeles contingents, Wednesday was the last day to enjoy paradise. The rest of us, however, spent a few more days shopping, going to the beach, climbing Koko Head Crater, eating more food, and hitting the town with the Hawai‘i Court before going back home on Sunday. We also managed to make some guest appearances on the Japanese-English radio station KZOO Radio, who interviewed us about our festivals back home.

Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court and the 2015 Hawai'i Cherry Blossom Festival Court savor their beach time in Hawai‘i.
Members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court and the 2015 Hawai’i
Cherry Blossom Festival Court savor their beach time in Hawai‘i.

 

Nine days have never gone by faster than my time in Honolulu for the 64th Cherry Blossom Festival. We created unforgettable memories and lasting friendships with our sister organizations. I am forever indebted to the Hawai‘i Hospitality Committee for planning an incredible week. I can’t wait until they come to LA for this year’s Nisei Week Japanese Festival, when I can reciprocate the spirit of aloha. Mahalo plenty to my new ohana!

Sunrise at Koko Head Crater.
Sunrise at Koko Head Crater.

Roxana Lewis Has a Passion for Adventure

Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.
Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.

 

Since 2011, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis has been leading Edible Adventures, food-themed walking tours of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, for JANM. Recent adventures have included Little Tokyo Sushi Graze; A Noodling Walk through Little Tokyo; and Little Tokyo Markets, Then and Now. Lewis’s tours are always packed, and participants always come away with a happy belly and increased knowledge of our neighborhood and our culture.

We recently sat down with Lewis to find out more about her background and what drives her to lead Edible Adventures.

JANM: Tell us about yourself and your professional background.

Roxana Lewis: I am a Sansei, born in Boyle Heights. My father was born in San Francisco, my mother in Salt Lake City. I am a travel industry veteran, having started as a ticket agent with Western Airlines in 1968. I worked in corporate travel for a Washington, D.C., think tank before starting my own travel agency, Chartwell Travel Services, in 1977. I named it after Winston Churchill’s home in Kent, England; I was in my Anglophile phase, and I also liked the play on words. In 2007, Chartwell merged with Protravel International, Beverly Hills.

At the sushi bar.
At the sushi bar.

 

My specialties are customized travel arrangements to the backroads of Italy, which I’ve done since 1985, and off-the-beaten-path tours of Japan, which I’ve organized since 1999. I travel annually to keep my knowledge current, exploring different villages and towns, new hotels, unique hiking routes, unusual Zen gardens, special crafts people. I also excel in adventure travel, both soft- and hardcore; I have led some serious mountaineering expeditions, including ascents of Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, Denali, and Mont Blanc. And, I have a major marathon habit; I have run 244 to date, the last three on a round-the-world trip, from which I just returned last week.

JANM: You obviously have a serious, lifelong love of both travel and food. Can you say a little bit about where this passion comes from?

RL: As a veteran travel agent, I am professionally predisposed to “the road.” Food and culture are twins in any country; where there are people, there is food. To embrace the people, you must embrace their food.

A friendly sushi chef.
A friendly sushi chef.

 

JANM: How did you first come into contact with JANM?

RL: I met [former longtime JANM staff member] Nancy Araki at a National Geographic presentation of photographs by Hong Kong explorer and photojournalist How Man Wong. I told her I was looking for a volunteer project. In 1989, when the museum was still in its early formative stages, I began helping out by doing outreach from its warehouse on Fifth Street downtown.

When JANM opened its first public space in the Historic Building in 1992, I served on every committee invented. I spearheaded the first Volunteer Speakers Bureau, served on the President’s Council, and did a lot of work with Community Outreach.

Checking out the offerings at a local market.
Checking out the offerings at a local market.

 

JANM: What inspired you to launch Edible Adventures?

RL: I had been doing a “Graze Little Tokyo” walking tour for the Sierra Club since the 1990s. By the late 2000s, my JANM volunteer time had become occasional, and my guilt forced me to ask [Vice President of Programs] Koji Sakai if I could develop a food-centric series of tours. He said yes and Edible Adventures was born.

JANM: What are the goals you have in mind when you lead a tour?

RL: My primary goal is to introduce a new audience to the museum, using food as my carrot on a stick, so to speak. I also look for ways to create interest in the Little Tokyo community and then naturally, the Japanese American story.

Roxana Lewis gives the group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.
Roxana Lewis gives her group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.

 

JANM: What is your own favorite Asian food?

RL: I have a sweet tooth, so I love any dessert, from Japanese manjū (rice cake with bean paste or other filling) to Filipino halo-halo (shaved ice dessert with milk, jello, fruits, sweet beans, and other ingredients) to Chinese dàn tà (egg custard tart).

You’re in luck—this Saturday, February 20, Roxana Lewis will lead Sweets and Street Art of Little Tokyo. Sample Asian sweets such as dango (rice dumplings), mochi ice cream, imagawayaki (filled pastry), and yokan (jellied dessert) while exploring the street art of Little Tokyo. Tickets are still available!

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part Four: The Trip to Japan!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court pays an official visit to Mitsukoshi department store.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court pays an official visit to Mitsukoshi department store.

It’s hard to believe that a little over a month ago, my fellow 2015 Nisei Week Court members and I (and many of our parents) were exploring Tokyo and Nagoya. It was a trip of a lifetime and unlike any other trip to Japan I’d experienced before. Even though I’d been to Japan a handful of times and studied abroad in Tokyo for one year, we still managed to do things I will probably never have the opportunity to do again.

After checking into the Hotel New Otani Tokyo at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, October 13, we wasted no time exploring the city, visiting the Tokyo Skytree restaurant and observation tower and the Ueno, Asakusa, Harajuku, and Shibuya districts all in one day. Three coffees and nearly 20,000 steps later, I thought my legs were going to fall off. The next day, we went to Tokyo DisneySea, a theme park located in Urayasu, Chiba, just outside the city. I couldn’t tell who was more excited (or who shopped more)—the parents or us. We all had a great time going on rides, shopping, and eating the specialty foods.

Enjoying some custard manju at Tokyo DisneySea.
Enjoying some custard manju at Tokyo DisneySea.

 

By Thursday it was already time to make our way to Nagoya—the main focus of our trip. Nagoya and Los Angeles have been sister cities since 1959—in fact, they are each other’s first sister cities, which makes for a special relationship. Nagoya’s biggest annual event is the Nagoya Matsuri, a festival held to spread Nagoya’s rich history and culture to the world—not unlike our own Nisei Week Japanese Festival back home. As official representatives of Nisei Week, our job was to spread goodwill and maintain strong relationships between the two physically distant communities.

We took the shinkansen (high-speed rail) from Tokyo Station to Nagoya Station and checked in to the Nagoya Creston Hotel. Our welcome dinner that night (which included geisha performances!) was hosted by Pyua O2, a Nagoya-based business association whose members would accompany us for much of the rest of our time there.

Taking in a tea ceremony, courtesy of Pyua 02.
Taking in a tea ceremony, courtesy of Pyua 02.

 

The next day we paid official visits to Matsuzakaya department store, Mitsukoshi department store, and Nagoya City Hall, where we met Mayor Takashi Kawamura and his staff. After these visits, Pyua O2 took us to the unique and world-famous Osu Shopping District, which has a 400-year history and is home to over 1,200 businesses. That evening, we attended the Sister City Reception, where we met representatives from Nagoya’s other sister cities and performed two Elvis songs, “Love Me Tender” and “Hound Dog”—the latter with the help of Mayor Kawamura, who was dressed as Elvis!

The Court sings Elvis tunes for the crowd, and gets a little help from Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura!
The Court sings Elvis tunes for the crowd, and gets a little help
from Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura.

 

Saturday was the start of the Nagoya Matsuri. During a special Sister City event, we had the pleasure of reprising our modern dance number from Coronation at a shopping mall called Oasis 21. That night, we had dinner at a restaurant owned by one of the Pyua O2 members and sang the night away with karaoke.

A fancy shabu shabu dinner with Nagoya city officials.
A fancy shabu shabu dinner with Nagoya city officials.

 

Sunday was our last and possibly most memorable day in Nagoya. We squeezed in a short tour of Nagoya Castle before we had to get ready to be in the parade! I couldn’t believe the number of people in attendance—thousands and thousands. The best part was seeing all the children smile as we waved at them. We finished the night eating wagyu shabu shabu with Nagoya city officials.

A view of Gero Onsen, an idyllic hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture.
A view of Gero Onsen, an idyllic hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture.

 

The next morning we went on an overnight trip to Gero Onsen, a hot spring resort, accompanied by Pyua O2. Along the way we stopped in Takayama and other spots in Gifu Prefecture. On Tuesday morning, we headed back to the Creston Hotel, and then it was time to say goodbye. Even our tour guide was crying! Our time in Nagoya wouldn’t have been nearly the same without the hospitality of Pyua O2 and Nagoya’s city officials.

Camryn and her parents in front of Nagoya Castle.
Camryn and her parents in
front of Nagoya Castle.
For the rest of the trip, everyone in the group went their separate ways. Some went back home to Los Angeles while others extended their stays with excursions to Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. I decided to go back to Tokyo on my own to spend time with friends I didn’t get to see earlier in the trip.

To say we all had a great time would be an understatement. It was such an honor to represent the Nisei Week Foundation and to continue the good relationship between Nagoya and Los Angeles. We had the best food anyone could possibly eat, met the nicest people, and created lasting memories with each other and our families. We’re all looking forward to seeing the members of Pyua O2 and Nagoya city representatives at next year’s Nisei Week Japanese Festival!

Camryn Sugita is blogging about her year as a Nisei Week Princess. If you missed previous entries, you can catch up here on part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 3: The Big Event!

Camryn Sugita, now officially a Princess of the 2015 Nisei Week Court, continues her account of her adventures. If you missed her earlier Princess Diary entries, you can still catch up on Part 1 and Part 2.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After we were officially announced as Nisei Week Queen Candidates, we still had a few more events, trainings, and dance rehearsals to attend before Coronation—our big night and the start of Nisei Week. The dress rehearsal the day before Coronation felt surreal; in less than 24 hours, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s (JACCC) Aratani Theatre would be filled with hundreds of people and only one of us would be crowned as Nisei Week Queen.

The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.
The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

I could barely sleep that night because I was so worried that I might drop my fans during the odori dance, forget a line in my speech, fall down the steps during the modern dance, or choke on my Q&A. Surprisingly, I wasn’t that nervous for our private, one-on-one interviews with the judges, which took place before the public ceremony. Each of us spent five minutes with all of them, during which they could ask us anything. At this time, we also voted for Miss Tomodachi (the Nisei Week equivalent of Miss Congeniality).

At the big event, we were introduced by our Mistress and Master of Ceremonies, Tamlyn Tomita and David Ono. We all walked onto the stage in our kimonos to perform the opening odori dance with folding fans. Hearing the loud cheers helped calm my nerves and I couldn’t help but crack a smile. I am glad to say that I did not drop my fans.

Camryn gives her speech. Photo by John Fujinami.
Camryn gives her speech.
Photo by John Fujinami.
Next it was time for Verbal Communication Skills; each of us had to give a two-minute speech on a topic of our choice. I chose to talk about being adopted as a baby from Toda, Saitama, Japan by a loving Japanese American family and then growing up in Torrance. While I was in college, I studied abroad for a year in Tokyo, where I was able to learn about my roots firsthand. This speech was the first time I openly shared my adoption story, and I couldn’t have been happier to do it on stage in front of my friends, family, and community.

After our speeches were over, we had to change into our modern dance costumes while Kyodo Taiko performed and the judges and visiting dignitaries were introduced. We performed an elaborate choreographed routine to “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge—and that wasn’t all! We were joined on stage by special guests that included 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara, JACCC Director of Marketing and Development Helen Ota, and 2004 Nisei Week Queen Nikki Kodama, to name just a few, and we all closed out the sequence by dancing to Pitbull’s “Celebrate” from Penguins of Madagascar. It was definitely a performance to remember.

"75 Years Strong" production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates. Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong” production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates.
Photo by John Fujinami.
"75 Years Strong." Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong.” Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the intermission, it was time to get down to serious business—the evening gown walk, followed by the question and answer session. Each candidate was interviewed individually while the others were swept away into a soundproof room. David and Tamlyn warmed us up with random funny questions before posing the same serious question to each of us, which I will paraphrase here: “The Nisei generation made its mark in significant ways. In the future, what do you think your generation will be known for?” In my answer, I paid respect to the contributions of the Nisei and then I challenged the audience to join with me in sharing their stories and giving back to the Japanese American community.

The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the 2014 Nisei Week Queen and Court came on stage to bid their final, official farewell, it was time to announce the outcome of the evening’s competition. The first person to be named was our Miss Tomodachi, Karen Mizoguchi. Next was the First Princess, Veronica Ota. And finally, Sara Hutter was named as Queen! Michelle Hanabusa, Kelsey Kwong, Tamara Teragawa, and I were crowned as Princesses. I am so honored to be given the opportunity to represent the community, and proud of myself for taking on this challenge.

Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

But Coronation was just the beginning for us! After such a whirlwind day, we had to be up bright and early the next morning to begin our official visits as a court to establishments in Little Tokyo and elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles. Throughout the week we stayed at the DoubleTree Hotel and paid visits to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors office, Sushi Gen, Southern California Flower Market, Keiro Senior HealthCare, and of course, the Japanese American National Museum, among other places. We also met with community leaders and posed for many photos—every day was jam-packed!

One of my favorite visits was to Little Tokyo Nutrition Services, where we ate lunch with some of the senior citizens who live in Little Tokyo Towers. I love being able to learn more about this community and meet some of the many people who keep its spirit alive.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony.
Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year's parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year’s parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.

 

Stay tuned to First & Central for more Nisei Week Princess adventures in the months to come, including an exciting trip to Japan!

Share Your Nikkei Family Stories on Discover Nikkei

DN Nikkei Family Banner Eng.eps

JANM’s Discover Nikkei project is a major online resource that brings together the voices and experiences of Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) who have created communities throughout the world. The multilingual website—available in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese—documents Nikkei history and culture and provides learning and networking tools for Nikkei around the world. At the same time, it seeks to explore the diverse and ever-changing meaning of the term Nikkei.

Every year, Discover Nikkei’s Nikkei Chronicles project puts out a call for original stories from Nikkei communities around the world. Qualifying submissions are published on the website, where readers can vote for their favorites. The most popular stories are translated into all four of the site’s languages and spotlighted.

The theme for this year’s Nikkei Chronicles is Family Stories. How has your family influenced who you are? What are the special traditions in your family? Do you live in a multi-generational/multicultural household? Does your family maintain any connections to Japan? Are there any famous, or infamous, people in your family? The possibilities are endless, and stories can be nonfiction or fiction. Submissions will be accepted through September 30. Many stories have already been published; you can read them here. Be sure to vote for your favorites! For complete details on how to submit your own story, visit this page.

This year also happens to mark Discover Nikkei’s tenth anniversary. A special page has been created to celebrate the occasion, inviting the site’s international readership to answer questions about themselves and their communities. The page is envisioned as an opportunity for a global network of Nikkei to “meet” one another and compare experiences. Visit 5dn.org/10th every month through March 2016 to see new questions.

The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos

Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010. Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010.
Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
When Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryukyu monarchy, Uchinanchu (Okinawan) women wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands. These tattoos functioned as symbols of the transition from adolescence to womanhood and also as indicators of social status.

In tattoos of the lower classes, commonly used icons included arrowheads, circles, and squares. According to historians, the arrowhead represented daughters never coming back to their families once they married into another house, just as arrowheads never return to their origin. The circle represented winding thread and the square represented a sewing box; these two items were important because back then, a girl could not marry if she didn’t know how to sew.

Uchinanchu women who came from higher-class families had more intricate, ornate tattoos that sometimes went all the way up their arms. Little is known about these upper-class tattoos, as documentation in English is scant. No matter their status, all Uchinanchu women were said to value their hajichi over their wealth, their husbands, and life itself, as the tattoos were thought to ward off evil, ensure safety, and bring happiness.

When Japan took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the late 19th century, the practice of tattooing was banned. The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses. According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki—the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.

Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.
Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.
Some Uchinanchu women continued to practice hajichi even after the ban, but the practice slowly dwindled over the years. During the period when many Okinawans emigrated to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, Uchinanchu women who bore hajichi were ridiculed and ostracized by their fellow Japanese field workers. Eventually, the hajichi became a symbol of shame; in some photos of Uchinanchu women, their hands are held palms up or tucked into their sleeves in order to hide the hajichi on the backs of their hands.

Today, attitudes have changed. The contemporary generation in Okinawa is becoming more aware of ancient indigenous traditions, and a resurgence in the lost art of Uchinanchu tattoos can be seen among some younger Okinawan women. As a Yonsei Japanese-Okinawan American, I consider it my responsibility to share my culture with the world, just as the mission of the Japanese American National Museum is “to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity.”

JANM’s current exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i, on view through September 6, honors ethnic and cultural diversity from Uchinanchu points of view.

This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawai‘i. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Minyo Station’s Uniquely Japanese American Music

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station

 

Established in 2008, the band Minyo Station blends traditional Japanese folk music with contemporary genres to create a unique sound. Minyo Station is one of the featured performers at JANM’s upcoming Natsumatsuri Family Festival. JANM production intern Amy Matsushita-Beal helped to conduct the following email interview with band leader Yu Ooka to learn more about the group.

JANM: Can you explain what minyo is and what it sounds like, for people who don’t know?

Yu Ooka: For people who have never heard it before, it might be easiest to describe minyo as “the blues of Japan.” Many centuries ago, people sang songs while farming or fishing; doing so made the time pass and encouraged the workers to keep going until the job was done. There is a famous minyo song called “Tanko Bushi” that is played during bon odori dances, which honor ancestors as part of Japan’s annual Obon festivities. The song was originally sung by coal miners; tanko means coal mine and bushi means melody or tune. At some point, musical instruments like taiko drums and shamisen (traditional Japanese three-stringed lute) were added to the mix.

JANM: What does “contemporary Japanese folk music” mean to you? What other genres do you incorporate into your act besides minyo?

YO: Unfortunately, minyo sometimes has a reputation for being “old music” that’s “not for young people.” We decided to mix minyo with different Western genres like R&B, pop, rock, funk, and jazz to make it more listener-friendly and more appealing to younger generations—in other words, more contemporary. Our band uses guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion in addition to vocals and shamisen. Some of LA’s finest musicians, who have worked for major artists like Aretha Franklin and Al Jarreau, contribute on the Western side, while the Eastern side has classically trained minyo artists. At its heart though, our music is still very much minyo music—it just might have some jazz chords or rock rhythms in it.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station

 

JANM: You wear traditional Japanese garments in your performances. Is this important to you, and why?

YO: Minyo Station’s mission is to keep this beautiful traditional music alive and pass it on to the next generation. We represent Japanese tradition, which we must never forget. That is why we wear kimonos instead of fancy leather jackets!

JANM: Yu, you have a background as a jazz guitarist. How did you get involved with minyo? Are the two styles complementary?

YO: Yes, I was a guitarist first. I knew about minyo, but I never played it while I was living in Japan. After I moved to the U.S., I came across many Japanese cultural activities, including minyo, which was introduced to me by a friend. I started learning how to play the shamisen, and it became a great honor for me to work with this kind of music.

Minyo and jazz do share some similarities. For instance, when you play jazz, you have to “swing” in order to make a rhythm; this means not following the metronome precisely but rather, listening to and responding to the musicians around you. It’s the same with minyo—you have to communicate with the other musicians through your music.

JANM: Your band plays at a variety of venues, including museums and festivals. What are your favorite places to perform, and why?

YO: Every place where we perform is special for us. We play from the bottom of our hearts and we sincerely enjoy sharing minyo with every audience we encounter. We believe people can feel the spirit of the music even if they can’t understand the words. We look forward to performing at JANM and hope people enjoy it.

Minyo Station will perform at 3 p.m. this Saturday, August 15; they will also provide the music for our community bon odori dance at 12:30. Both events take place in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. For a complete schedule of Natsumari Family Festival activities, click here.

Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.
Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

 

Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer tetsugendo.com and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.

JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?

Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.

Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.

JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?

MY: Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!

DF: Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.
Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?

DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.

MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.

JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.

MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.

JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?

DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!

The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 2: The Making of a Princess

One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, was selected as a queen candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Japanese Festival, representing the Gardena Evening Optimist (GEO) club. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court process and what it means for the princesses and the community at large. Read her first entry here.

Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).
Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).

 

A couple of days after I submitted my application, I received an email confirming my interview. The interview only lasted 30 minutes with a panel of six interviewers. I was told I would hear back the next day about whether or not I was selected.

After what seemed like the longest day of my life, I finally received an email at 4 p.m. The first two lines read, “Thank you so much for taking the time to apply and interview for the Miss GEO candidate position. It was very nice interviewing you and getting to know you.” I immediately thought I hadn’t been selected.

Then in the second paragraph it stated, “You were selected as the 2015 Miss GEO!” My jaw dropped and I screamed, which probably wasn’t a good idea since I was working at JANM’s front desk at the time. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, friends, and co-workers, who had all encouraged me throughout the interview process. A week later, I had my crowning at Cherrystones restaurant in Gardena, where I was able to meet members of GEO and give my first, very rough, speech. It was a night to remember!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa's crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa’s crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.

 

At the end of April, I attended the Nisei Week Queen Candidate orientation with my parents, where I met the other girls and our advisors, the Queen and Court Program Committee. Less than a week later, we had our first training session: kimono rehearsal, in which we learned how to properly put on, walk in, and fold a yukata (casual summer kimono). Some of us had a hard time at first, but now we can all put them on with ease.

Since June, we’ve been meeting at least three times a week for various classes and trainings. The sessions are three to four hours long and have included odori (Japanese dance) rehearsals, modern dance classes, etiquette training, professional development, and a variety of cultural lessons. Many hours are devoted to practicing our introductions and learning to walk properly in heels. My favorites, however, are the cultural lessons. The first one was in basic karate—by the end of the lesson, we were each able to break a board in half!

All of these classes prepared us well for our first big event—the Nisei Week Japanese Festival Opening Ceremony on July 19. At this official kickoff, we all gave our introductions and were presented as candidates for Nisei Week Queen. But the fun doesn’t stop there! We still have lots of trainings to go before Nisei Week.

Nisei Week takes place August 15–23. The new Nisei Week Queen will be selected at the coronation ceremony on August 15. Who will be crowned? Visit niseiweek.org for more information, and stay tuned to this blog for more diary entries!