JANM examined Japanese American history through the lens of Little Tokyo by exploring how this historic cultural, residential, and business hub for the Southern California Japanese American community transformed over the course of its history. The workshop explored how historical events, legislation, and the community impact this landmark site and the people who are a part of it.
Teachers learned about immigration to the area and the establishment of Japanese stores, restaurants, religious, and cultural institutions in the early half of the 20th century, through the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, a period in which the neighborhood was known as Bronzeville and was home to African Americans from the Deep South who had arrived in Los Angeles seeking wartime employment. Post-war issues around resettlement, eminent domain, redress and reparations, and gentrification; and the present-day challenges and triumphs involved in preserving the history and culture of the area while moving the community forward were also examined.
This was great! The first person testimonies in particular will be something I [will] never forget, and I feel lucky that I get to bring those narratives to my students in the coming year.
In addition to showcasing the history of this neighborhood and the Japanese American community through JANM’s collection and exhibitions, we are grateful for the many perspectives contributed by scholars, community members, artists, activists, and educators.
The teachers heard from speakers representing organizations including Little Tokyo Community Council, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Visual Communications, and Facing History and Ourselves; artists Dan Kwong, Cog•nate Collective, and TT Takemoto; JANM scholars, educators, and visiting scholars, Dr. Hillary Jenks, and Dr. Mitchell Maki; and many JANM volunteers and community members who shared very impactful first-person experiences and reflections.
My knowledge of the Japanese American experience has grown tremendously and I feel more confident using language, accessing resources, and teaching about the incarceration as well as the resilience of the community then and now.
There are many threads that make up the very strong fabric of Little Tokyo and we learned so much from all the voices who offered their expertise and shared their experiences.
Little Tokyo: How History Shapes a Community Across Generations was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this workshop do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In observance of the anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, JANM will be closed Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
This legislation reflects the Museum’s commitment to empower history for social justice. The Civil Liberties Act was signed into law on that day by President Ronald Reagan, issuing a formal Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000 of restitution to persons of Japanese ancestry (two-thirds were US citizens) forcibly removed from the West Coast.
The World War II incarceration of 120,000 people at remote concentration camps by the U.S. government was without due process, or evidence of wrongdoing. For more than a century, Asians were considered “outsiders” in the U.S. The Civil Liberties Act acknowledged this dark chapter of history was driven “largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
To learn more about the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, here are a few resources:
This summer, Getty Marrow undergraduate interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles collaborated to create a collections-based project tasked with answering the question:
How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?
The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions suggested that the answer to this specific question would not fully encapsulate the American experience of immigrants and their descendants. As a result, each intern approached this question from a different perspective and highlighted an artifact that touched upon different facets of the American experience and identity. In this post, Shelby Ottengheime and Jose Quirarte explore the complexity of “American identity” through ways that Japanese Americans preserved traditional Japanese values and institutions during World War II.
More specifically, Shelby and Jose selected items that demonstrate the ways in which Japanese Americans persevered while they were incarcerated during World War II by channeling the spirit of gaman—“persevering with dignity and fortitude.” Shelby highlighted a variety of craft items from JANM’s Eaton Collection and argued that the items reveal that gaman is integral to the Japanese American experience and that it manifested itself through various facets of their American experience. Jose highlighted a butsudan (Buddhist altar) made in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming between 1942-1945, and argued that it symbolized that Japanese immigrants and their children preserved their cultural values despite American oppression.
Assortment of Pendants and Rings
Contributed by: Shelby Ottengheime, Japanese American National Museum
When reflecting on Japanese American history, a single word encapsulates generations of experiences, and that word is “gaman.” Though a seemingly simple expression, to the Japanese American community, it is a defining aspect. Gaman is translated as “to persevere with dignity and fortitude.” This cultural value is not only what enabled the Japanese American community to persevere through their injustices, but it has come to define what it means to be an American for them as well. In fact, it is so integral to Japanese American life that it even manifests itself in their actions, mottos, and art.
The Japanese American way of life has been historically characterized by hardship and adversity. As immigrants and laborers in the early 20th century, the Japanese came to the US in pursuit of the infamous American dream. However, discriminatory laws and social prejudice made it difficult for Issei’s (first generations Japanese Americans) to establish a home. Regardless of such hardships, like the fact that Issei were not legally allowed to own land, they persevered and built what they could with what they had.
The struggles that affected Japanese immigrants and subsequent generations are uniquely different from those experienced by any other immigrant community in US history and have ultimately shaped the Japanese American experience. This is referring to Executive Order 9066, which forcibly incarcerated all individuals living on the West Coast who were as little as 1/16th Japanese. Despite having done nothing wrong—there was “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or treasonable activity by any American of Japanese descent”—over 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps (Stone 1096). Fueled exclusively by prejudiced fear, E.O. 9066 was reasoned to protect Americans, however, those who were interned were US Citizens, and were effectively denied their rights simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.
With only a week’s notice, these Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and sent to desolate, barren concentration camps. Scared to be even more vilified and viewed as Japanese sympathizers, Japanese Americans complied with the US government and went to camp. Though they did not protest, that does not mean they went willingly, instead, they chose to gaman and persevere through the injustices that faced them. Each incarceree was allowed to bring a minimal amount of belongings, but they had no idea where they would be going or for how long they would be gone. As a result, Japanese Americans abandoned most of their possessions or left them in the care of neighbors. When they arrived at the concentration camps they were confronted with barbed wire, armed guards, a barren climate, poorly built living facilities, and an astounding lack of privacy. Even the food resembled nothing of home, offering no comfort to the incarcerees. However, one of the ways in which Japanese Americans were able to cope with their degrading and humiliating situation, was to create art. This artwork embodied their strength and their ability to persevere in an existence where they no longer had autonomy.
These visual representations of gaman reflect the indomitable resilience of Japanese Americans, and a large variety of the artwork was collected by Allen H. Eaton during World War II. Some of the pieces within the collection were mentioned in his book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, which highlighted the art production by Japanese Americans while also pointing out that their constitutional rights were violated through their forced removal from the West Coast. However, years after Eaton died, in April of 2015, a family friend of Eaton’s tried to sell the collection at auction. This caused serious outrage across the Japanese American community, and through activism efforts, the insensitive sale of the “Eaton Collection” was stopped and alternatively transferred to the Japanese American National Museum.
The pieces within the Eaton Collection were not created by professional artists. The artwork produced by untrained incarcerees reflected the life and sentiments of the average Japanese American. It also showcased their artistic ingenuity and how “gaman” expressed itself within their art. Though art supplies were limited, Japanese Americans made do. They utilized their surroundings, finding colorful stones to set into rings and jewelry; onion strings to weave into patterns on cigarette cases; and excess wood from the hastily built barracks, which were shaped into complex carvings, depicting beautiful sakura trees with handsome cranes. These works not only helped the Japanese endure through their incarceration experience, but the artwork themselves directly mirror the Japanese American way of life and can be seen as a metaphor for the Japanese themselves. Both the Japanese and the wood plank were dismissed and seen as having no worth. However, with gaman, an object that has been discarded can transform and be seen as something beautiful and of value to society. This very aspect has come to define the Japanese American experience.
Not only was gaman apparent in their artwork, but that resilience continued to shape all aspects of Japanese American life and define what it meant for them to be an American. During World War II, many of the young men in camp enlisted in the US Army, choosing to fight overseas while their family members were still incarcerated. Their hope was to prove their “Americanness” and loyalty by fighting for their country: the United States of America. These Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, an almost entirely Japanese American battalion. Their motto “Go for Broke” was an extension of the Japanese gaman-mentality. The unit’s fortitude and success reflected this value of perseverance, and against all odds, the 442nd became the most decorated combat unit in the history of the US military. The cultural value of perseverance and honorable endurance has defined the Japanese American life since their initial immigration to the US. Facing hardship, prejudice, and blatant governmental acts of racism, Japanese Americans have continually used gaman to persevere. Gaman has become so instilled in the Japanese American identity that it expresses itself in multiple aspects of their culture; in their art, their mottos, and it even continues to mold their lives and values today. Ultimately, gaman has come to define the Japanese American experience and shaped what it means for them to be an American.
Contributed by: Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum
The butsudan is a Buddhist altar often found in temples and homes. Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura handrafted this particular butsudan during World War II at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. It is composed of the gokuden (“Palace Hall”), shumiden (“Sumeru Throne”), and the naijin, or inner area. The gokuden is the large wooden cabinet that houses the gohonzon, or “principle object of reverence,” and includes the two wooden doors that fold center outward and back. The shumiden is the large wooden pedestal that the gokuden sits on, and the naijin includes three altars: the center altar which houses the gohonzon, and the altars on the left and right which house scrolls depicting significant Buddhist figures.
Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura were two carpenters from San Jose, California who were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Before the war, the Nishiura brothers were responsible for constructing many buildings for the Japanese American community in San Jose, and the greater Santa Clara area. The Nishiura brothers continued their contributions to the Japanese American community in camp by working in the Heart Mountain cabinet shop. In 1943, with the blessing of Reverend Chikaro Aso, the Nishiura brothers installed their handcrafted butsudan in the Block-8 Buddhist Church of Heart Mountain. Through the efforts of Reverend Aso, the butsudan found its way to the Gilroy Buddhist Church in Gilroy, CA, and was eventually donated to JANM by the Gilroy Buddhist Community Hall in 2001.
The creation and use of this butsudan in one of America’s concentration camps is a prime example symbol of the perseverance of the Japanese American spirit during their years of incarceration. On one hand, The practice of Buddhism provided a sense of normalcy for some Japanese Americans through the chaos surrounding their removal and incarceration. On the other, the creation of this butsudan in camp signified the importance of Japanese values and the way Japanese Americans preserved them. Due to Japanese Americans only being allowed to bring to camp what they could carry, many of them only brought the necessities. In order to continue to practice their faith, the Nishiura brothers showed their ingenuity by creating their own religious items out of the materials they had at their disposal. As a result, the artistry from within the barbed wire fences of camp are a symbol in and of themselves of Japanese American resilience during World War II.
These examples demonstrate that the craft items made in camp are themselves symbolic of the American experience, and the resilience and resistance of immigrants against systematic discrimination and oppression. As Shelby mentioned, most of the crafts made in camp were not made by professional artists. The craft items that Shelby highlighted in the Eaton Collection, were mostly made of material that the prisoners could find and turn either into a useful tool or art. Not only are the crafts representative of the Japanese value of gaman, but the creation of crafts, tools, and religious items in an environment of immense discrimination and oppression reveals a symbolic theme of the American immigrant experience: that immigrants often have to survive the harsh conditions of America by using whatever is at their disposal.
The fact that this butsudan was made in one of America’s concentration camps demonstrated that Japanese Americans held onto traditional institutions and values, and were intent on preserving them. The elegant looking materials that were used to craft the butsudan made it clear that the butsudan was a significant religious relic. Furthermore, in contrast to the crafts in the Eaton Collection, the butsudan was crafted by highly trained professionals who had a history of preserving Japanese institutions and contributing to the Japanese community in Santa Clara County. The butsudan itself speaks to the larger American immigrant experience as immigrant populations attempted to integrate their own culture into their lives in America. Rather than assimilating or converting to Christianity, practicing Buddhists, within the walls of a concentration camp that “otherized” them and implied they were dangerous, maintained their religious values and actively crafted a traditional altar.
The fact that Japanese Americans were able to preserve their traditions and institutions despite being imprisoned in America’s concentration camps reveals the complexity of the “American identity.” Shelby’s application of how the Japanese value of gaman was reflected in Japanese American craftsmanship made in camp, and Jose’s example of the butsudan demonstrate that Japanese values and cultural touchstones were essential to the identity of Japanese American prisoners. As a result, Japanese American identity was a blend of both their traditional culture and the values of American society. Japanese Americans did not totally assimilate or abandon their culture in America’s “melting pot.” Instead, they preserved their values and institutions in a new amalgamated and complex “American identity.”
Food Fancies, by Evelyn Kimura, was a column in the Topaz Saturday Times about all things food. In the wake of forced incarceration, Japanese Americans used what little resources they had to make some of their favorite meals. According to Kimura, the key to at-home cooking was simplicity. (And don’t use up all the coal for everyone in the barracks.)
Camp cooking is a legacy that has been passed down to many of us through the generations. Growing up, I knew that shoyu hotdogs and rice meant that Mom was tired. While we spend our current hours social-distancing and rationing food, we can call upon the lessons from those who came before us.
Homemade noodles, courtesy of Mrs. J Yanagizawa of 14-1-A
Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups of flour 1 egg Fresh vegetables of your choice 1 can bouillon or broth
Mix flour and egg (or you can substitute water). Let stand all day until hard.
Roll flat and cut into strips.
Then begin soup mixture by boiling fresh vegetables of your choice.
Add 1 can of bouillon (broth) to vegetables and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
Boil soup and noodles for another 15 minutes.
If ready made noodles are being used, boil them before adding to the soup.
We plan to share more camp recipes, so check back for more. We hope you try out this recipe. And please let us know if you do!
Thanks to Emily Anderson who came across this recipe while searching through the World War II camp newspapers on the Densho Digital Repository as part of her research for an upcoming JANM exhibition. The full issue can be found here (Densho, Courtesy of the family of Itaru and Shizuko Ina).
Despite passing away in 1971 at just 47 years old, John Okada’s brief life carries a lasting impact on American literature to this day. Acclaimed as a pioneering Japanese American novelist, Okada’s only novel, No-No Boy, gives an unflinching look into the cruel treatment and aftermath that individuals of Japanese descent in America experienced following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II. The first of its kind, Okada’s book broke the veil of silence that fell over most of those incarcerated during the war; this master work of fiction pushed back the shadow cast over Japanese Americans during and after WWII.
in 1923, Okada was a student at the University of Washington when Japan bombed
Pearl Harbor in 1941. His studies were put on hold when he and his family were incarcerated
at the Minidoka concentration camp in 1942, along with thousands of other
American citizens. After completing a loyalty questionnaire, Okada was released
from camp to join the United States Air Force as a translator for intercepted
Boy, Ichiro, the protagonist, is also faced with a loyalty questionnaire. For
question 27, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States
on combat duty, wherever ordered?,” and question 28, “Will you swear
unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend
the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and
forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any
other foreign government, power, or organization?,” Ichiro answers “no,” dooming
himself to two years in an American concentration camp and two more years in
The story follows Ichiro through his attempts to regain a somewhat normal life after his release. The reader meets other Japanese American characters who were impacted in various ways by the incarceration camps and vicious treatment endured during the war. Ichiro’s friend Freddie, coping with his unjust incarceration, turns to a life of partying. In contrast, a man Ichiro befriends named Kenji, who lost most of his leg while fighting in the war after passing the loyalty questionnaire, held no ill feelings towards the military, America, or those who chose not to serve. Others in the book express different feelings about the war and its outcome, including Ichiro’s own mother, who is in deep denial for most of the book. Things take a dramatic turn when she realizes that Japan lost the war and she can never return to her home country or be accepted in America. Despite these troubled characters, the story retains a message of hope with the idea that Ichiro does not have to succumb to his deep-rooted pain and instead can take life into his own hands and transcend the demons that haunt him.
John Okada created a window of understanding into a group of people that suffered due to the actions of others. His work lives on as a warning of what can come from blaming our own citizens for the actions of those we are in conflict with. that misplaced blame can harm generations and breed deep divisions in our country, damaging our social fabric from the inside out. The painfully truthful work that is No-No Boy lives on as both a beautifully written and tragic piece that gave a voice to a generation while also opening doors to similiar works.
On Saturday, February 2, join us for the Los Angeles launch of the book John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy. Frank Abe, a journalist and producer of the PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution, and Greg Robinson, professor of history at Université du Québec a Montréal, who edited John Okada (with Floyd Cheung) will be on hand to discuss the first full-length examination of Okada’s development as a writer. Moderating the discussion will be Brian Niiya, Content Director of Densho.org, an organization whose mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. Book signing to follow.
In 1884, a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Shigeta jumped ship in San Diego and eventually made his way to downtown Los Angeles, where he opened an American-style cafe. The opening of Kame Restaurant—the first known Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles, signaled the beginning of what is now known as Little Tokyo. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was thriving and grew to be the largest Japanese community in the United States. This area is steeped in history and every month JANM docents lead walking tours of the neighborhood to explore both popular and lesser-known gems of this bustling neighborhood.
One of the stops on the tour is the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, at 119 North Central Avenue. Built in 1925 by Japanese immigrants, and originally named the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the building was the first structure in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. In 1942, the building was used as a gathering place for people of Japanese ancestry to board buses as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps during World War II. Reverend Julius Goldwater, one of the first non-Japanese Buddhist ministers in America, did not face removal and allowed people in the community to store their belongings in the building while they were incarcerated.
With no congregation, the temple closed down. However, in 1944 the Providence Missionary Baptist Association converted part of the building into a Christian center and began offering sermons. The Association’s stay was only temporary, though. When the war ended in 1945 Goldwater notified the Baptist Association that their lease could not be renewed as he expected many of his congregation members to return home. The temple then reopened and served as a hostel for many of those returning from the camps who found that their homes had been lost. The building eventually fell into disrepair after the temple moved to a new location in 1969 and it was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1973. Destined to be torn down for new development, the building was spared when the City of Los Angeles supported its use as a museum site. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened in the renovated historic building.
The architecture of the ornate building draws inspiration from a temple in Kyoto, Japan, and combines Japanese and Middle Eastern motifs in its striking façade. The Middle Eastern influence stems from the architectural movement called Egyptian Revival. This style of architecture first came to prominence in the late 18th century. But after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian influences saw a renewed wave of popularity around the world. Also, Egyptian themes had become an essential part of the Art Deco movement in the 1920s.
This building’s entrance is on the plaza across from the Japanese American National Museum’s Pavilion building. The cement canopy (karahafu) over the entrance replicates the imperial gateway of the associated Mother Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The characteristic shape is the undulating curve at the top of the entrance. This design is common in traditional Japanese architecture, including castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Kara means “noble” or “elegant” and this architectural element is often added to places that are considered important or grand.
The original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple is only one of several stops on the JANM docent-led walking tours of Little Tokyo that engage visitors beyond the walls of the museum and introduce them to a unique and diverse community. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong Los Angeles resident, you’ll learn surprising details about the people, historic architecture, and community spirit of this colorful neighborhood. Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so be sure to see JANM’s current exhibitions afterward.
Tours take place on the last Saturday of every month, weather permitting. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended. To sign up for our next walking tour please visit janm.org
Is it uncivilized to use soy sauce? Should extra wasabi be added? Recently, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis led a “sushi graze” edition of our Edible Adventures walking tour series in Little Tokyo, this time starting with a “Sushi 101 class.” Lewis explained that adding wasabi or soy sauce depends on the restaurant and the chef. However, she stressed that when using soy sauce, one should lightly dip only the fish to avoid having the rice ball fall apart. Attendees also learned some surprising sushi history. Enthusiasts may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice. However, beginning in the fourth century in many parts of Asia, salted raw fish was wrapped in rice and held in storage for months. When the rice fermented, it acted as a preservative but was discarded before the fish was eaten.
Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century. It became popular as Buddhism spread throughout the country; the Buddhist practice of refraining from eating meat meant that many Japanese began eating fish as a dietary staple. Vinegar was eventually used as a preservative instead of rice and this change led to the uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is eaten today. A rice ball and a small portion of raw fish (known as nigiri sushi) need very little preparation, so by the 1800s, it was a popular choice with roadside vendors and a big hit with busy workers who didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.
After the short history lesson, attendees enjoyed a small feast at the restaurant Sushi Go 55. The sushi served at this restaurant reflects the same style that emerged as a favorite fast-food option in nineteenth century Japan. Made to order piece by piece, attendees watched as the chef’s hands moved in perfect rhythm as he assembled balls of rice and affixed fish to them with the exact amount of wasabi. In the past few centuries, not much has changed in the making of this style of food. While enjoying sushi at this restaurant, one could close their eyes and feel a direct connection to Japan and the past.
While sushi is a pillar of Japanese cuisine, the history of the delicacy in the United States is an ever-evolving one. When first introduced, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that raw fish could be something tasty. The creation of the California roll in the late 1960s helped change American perceptions. First created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles (according to some), the California roll features crab, avocado, and cucumber, making it more suitable to the American palate. It’s often then rolled “inside out,” meaning the rice is on the outside. The next stop on the tour exemplified this American take on sushi. At the Ebisu Tavern, “caterpillar” and “spider” rolls which featured ingredients like battered soft-shell crab and spicy mayonnaise were served to showcase the evolution of westernized sushi.
The Edible Adventure offered more than just learning about sushi. Between stops Lewis recounted tidbits touching on the history of Little Tokyo. She pointed out Buddhist temples and explained their architecture, showed participants the former sites of trailblazing restaurants now gone and noted how the area has changed through the generations. The tour ended back at JANM. Museum admission was included with the tour and attendees then spent time taking in the current exhibitions. Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure—you can stay up to date on all of JANM’s events by visiting janm.org/events. You can also sign up to receive our monthly Exhibitions & Events email with all the latest information.
On display only until September 23, time is running out to see two original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan! Currently on view as part of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, these pages will soon return to the National Archives in Washington DC.
This past August marked the 30th anniversary of the Act. JANM commemorated this anniversary by reimagining the final gallery of Common Ground to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. With the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and paid monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came about after many years of activism by the Japanese American community.
Seeing a historic document like this in person moves us in a way that even the best-written article or book cannot. The document is a direct connection to the past and seeing it, one can almost feel the emotions, values, and hard work that culminated in the passing of this legislation. Moreover, the Act reminds us that we must remain vigilant in pushing back against a social and political atmosphere that seeks to marginalize people.
Seeing the document and learning about how this legislation was achieved pushes us to recognize that elements of today’s political landscape harken back to the dangerous and racist thinking of the 1940s that allowed for the creation of America’s concentration camps. If allowed to continue unanswered, then over time, the hard-fought battles of 30 years ago erode, and our democracy may be diminished.
If you are in Los Angeles, we hope you’ll find time to visit us while the original pages are still here. For information about all of our current exhibitions, please visit janm.org
Japanese American journalist James “Jimmie” Matasumoto Omura was one of the most outspoken dissidents against the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In brash and biting newspaper articles, Omura often criticized leaders in the Nikkei community for what he thought was their complicity concerning the actions of the United States government. While very strident in his criticism of forced incarceration, Omura also often wrote about his ire towards the US government’s decision to draft imprisoned Nisei into military service without addressing the violation of their human rights. As well, Omura was one of the first Japanese Americans to seek government redress for violations of civil liberties after World War II.
In his vividly written memoir scheduled for release on August 28, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura, he talks about being one of the most vocal Japanese American activists during and after World War II and how his critiques in Japanese American newspapers often meant being shunned by the Nikkei community. The main impetus for writing the memoir, Omura said, was to correct the ”cockeyed history to which Japanese America has been exposed.” He also writes about his early years on Bainbridge Island in Washington, the summers he spent working in the salmon canneries of Alaska, how hard it was to find work during the Great Depression, as well as how his early journalism career took him to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Edited and with an introduction by historian Art Hansen, and with contributions from Asian American activists and writers Frank Chin, Yosh Kuromiya, and Frank Abe, Nisei Naysayer provides an essential, firsthand account of Japanese American wartime resistance.
Omura passed away in 1994, but Hansen, who is also professor emeritus of History and Asian American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, will be at JANM on August 25 at 2 p.m. to discuss the book and Omura’s life and work. Here we share a brief excerpt from a recently published Discover Nikkei article that goes more into detail about Omura.
Jimmie Omura was born in Washington in 1912, and later moved to Los Angeles. As a young man, he chose to pursue a career as a journalist. His star rose quickly in the journalism scene of the early 1930s while editing a variety of Nikkei publications. In these early days, he was not afraid to speak his mind. His publication the New World Daily gained critical acclaim for its elegant writing, but he also incited the ire of Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) supporters by criticizing its leadership. The JACL was already a powerful political influence on the West Coast at the time, and even in this pre-war period, its stature was not to be taken lightly.
When Omura continued to speak his mind into the 1940s, criticism of him began to escalate. The war was raging, and the JACL was no longer an organization that sought to promote the people and culture of varying regions within Japan. The JACL now had the responsibility to represent the entire Japanese American population. Because of this, the JACL became a force that had the ear of the national government. However, the JACL was divided in condemning the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans and did not fully use its voice to help prevent this atrocity.
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: